Homosexual minorities in Africa not unique

Okot Nyormoi
Okot Nyormoi is is a peace activist and is Professor of Biology at North Carolina Central University



In many African countries, homosexuals are demonized by such words as unnatural, sinful, unproductive, sexual deviants, sexual mercenaries, sex-starved people, prostitutes, un-African, etc. In Nigeria and Uganda, such words were carefully crafted to prepare the public for the passing of laws to criminalize homosexual acts. While most Africans cheered the signing of such laws, many Western countries were appalled by these laws which they consider to be draconian. Thus their response was furious and accompanied by threats or actual withholding of or more accurately shifting of aid from direct support of government to non-governmental organizations.

Western response to the anti-gay legislations stands in stark contrast to convenient tolerance of violent government repression of minority political opposition parties. So long as such governments are willing to serve their interests, they will turn a blind eye to the government's use of intimidation, election rigging and corruption. Such glaring contradiction has led many people to ask what is so unique about the violation of the rights of the homosexual minority in Africa.

The anti-homosexuality laws are based on three main considerations. First, proponents of the laws claim that homosexuality is foreign to African cultures. A careful examination shows that this argument is flawed, smacks of over generalization and ignorance of the diversity of African cultures. In contemporary Africa, at least one African country, South Africa, not only recognizes the existence of homosexuality but also recognizes same sex marriage. Anthropological and ethnographic studies have documented as many as fifty different ethnic groups in traditional Africa which practice diverse forms of homosexual relationship including woman-woman marriage, boy-wife marriage and cross-gender identity or roles.

Historical evidence also shows that homosexuality existed in certain African countries long before colonialism. Otherwise, one has to explain why the colonialists enacted anti-sodomy laws. Even more telling, if it did not exist, why do many African societies prohibit it? It does not make sense to prohibit what does not exist.

Nevertheless, there is a valid rationale for Africans who claim that homosexuality is foreign to African cultures. People who live in very small communities with low frequency of homosexuality or those who value heterosexuality due to high infant mortality and short life span may not know about homosexuality. Besides, in communities where they are strictly forbidden, homosexuals would be forced to adapt to a life of pretense and hide in the proverbial closet. Consequently, many Africans who live under these conditions may be right in claiming that homosexuality is foreign to Africa because of their own limited knowledge about the wide diversity of African cultures. Once they become aware of the phenomenon, they have to go through a period of denial and an eventual acceptance that while homosexuality may be foreign to their own cultures, it exists in others.

The idea of criminalizing homosexuality because it is supposedly foreign also fails to acknowledge that foreignness per se is not enough reason for rejecting something. There are countless aspects of foreign cultures which Africans have adopted including clothing, language, educational system, food, music, religion, etc., typical of what happens when two or more cultures interact. All cultural practices regardless of their origin must be rejected if they infringe on people’s rights, especially those who are most vulnerable.

Furthermore, Africans who reject homosexuality allegedly for being foreign are hypocritical because they have no problem accepting foreign money and religious ideas from their American evangelist collaborators. Similarly, government officials who accuse Western countries of interference in their internal affairs have no problem accepting military, financial, intelligence, logistic and much other foreign assistance, often using it for the purpose of repressing the very Africans who are to be protected by the anti-gay laws. Furthermore, it is disingenuous for some African leaders to accuse Western countries of giving aid with strings attached when they could simply turn down such aid if they do not like the strings attached. Unfortunately, to do so would hurt those who need help and not those who don’t.

From a religious point of view, no matter how homosexuals come to be, they are just as much children of God as crippled, insane or normal persons are. In the eyes of God, they are created equal. Besides, many religious beliefs dictate that the faithful must love their neighbors as they love themselves. In this instance, homosexuals are figuratively or in fact neighbors of heterosexuals. Thus, they should have equal right to live under equal protection of the law. It is hypocritical for God fearing people to reject or even think of killing homosexuals in mob action just because they do not like them.

If homosexuality has been there long before colonialism, why is it that it is just in recent times that it has come to be such a hot topic in countries like Uganda and Nigeria? To make sense, one has to first acknowledge that this is the struggle for freedom and acceptance regardless of whether we like homosexuals or not. Then the question has to be approached from a historical perspective. As humans, homosexuals are not unique compared to other humans except that they are attracted to people of the same gender. They are also not different from other minorities who struggled in the past against slavery, colonialism, racism, women’s oppression, female genital mutilation, etc., each of which emerged under unique circumstances. Similarly, the struggle against homophobia in developed countries in the last 40 years followed the success of the civil rights campaign in the preceding period, particularly in the United States. With the exception of South Africa, this issue is just now catching up with the rest of Africa.

What makes homosexuality a hot topic in Africa and elsewhere in the world is a convergence of three forces. The anti-homosexuality force is financed and driven by wealthy conservative evangelists, mainly from the USA. Just like missionaries of old, they feel that developing countries still regard sex as nothing but an exclusive tool for reproduction unlike developed countries where there are other options for having children including surrogate pregnancy, adoption, artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. It is for the same reason of protecting reproduction that many Africans oppose birth control practices. Ironically, the same Africans who rail against foreign cultures have no problem embracing the anti-gay message espoused by foreign evangelists. In fact it was the old missionaries working together with colonial governments who enacted the anti-sodomy laws in many of the African countries.

The second force is represented by the international Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) organization whose mission is to win their freedom and acceptance. Like the evangelists, members of the LGBT organization passionately support their own in countries where they are persecuted. The threat to boycott the last winter Olympics in Russia because of the Russian anti-gay law is an example of that.

Contrary to the mistaken notion that homosexuals are unproductive, they are a rising power in various sectors of society including education, finance, entertainment, fashion, technology, politics, communication, the military etc. Building on their growing success in winning acceptance in the developed countries, they passionately leverage their political, technological and financial power to pressure their governments to oppose such draconian laws.

Finally, the third force is represented by political leaders who opportunistically take advantage of national anti-homosexual sentiment to consolidate their political power. They hype up the gay issue for two reasons. They use it to divert people’s attention from more pressing problems people face daily. Additionally, they use it to endear themselves to the people who may be politically alienated by government’s failure to serve the people’s needs.

Collectively, the evidence of homosexuality in many traditional Africa societies is not only consistent with the biology of sex, gender and gender identity determination, but also with the various forms of human gender relationships observed in many parts of the world. Therefore, the claim that the anti-homosexuality laws recently enacted in Africa are rooted in the uniqueness of the biology or the culture of Africans is simply false. Such false claim is nothing but a poor attempt to make gender bigotry respectable when it is not.