Africa is regarded as the most homophobic continent on the planet with same-sex relations illegal in 38 of 54 countries. Some have framed the issue as historical: that LGBTQi identities were a colonial construct and to accept them is to accept the master-slave principle. Others put it down to sin and the devil’s influence. But what is the root of Africa’s homophobia, how extensive is it and what can be done?

African homophobia: A colonial import?

Ugandan State Minister of Ethics & Integrity, Reverend Simon Lokodo, has previously argued that “[homosexuality] is a social style of life that is acquired. They chose to be homosexual and are trying to recruit others.” He continues, “if they were doing it in their own rooms we wouldn’t mind, but when they go for children, that’s not fair. They are beasts of the forest.” He has also suggested that heterosexual rape is preferable to homosexual intercourse. This is just one example of extreme prejudice openly expressed by African leaders. But what is the root cause?

Tellingly, President Robert Mugabe recently stood up in the United Nations and proclaimed “We are not gays!” in protest against Western enforcement of human rights laws in Zimbabwe. This gives a hint at the underlying issue.

Throughout history there have been documented accounts of African homosexuality that date back to precolonial rule. The Azande of the Northern Congo, renowned for their prowess on the battlefield, routinely married younger men. Warriors would choose a boy between the ages of twelve and twenty and bride wealth was paid with spears to the boy’s parents as a fee for the exchange. Once married, the warrior would refer to the boy’s parents as gbiore andnegbiore (father-in-law and mother-in-law) and the newlyweds would address each other asdiare “my wife” and kumbami “my husband”. The boy would look after the household with tasks such as building the fire and gathering leaves for the bed. Sex would consist of the warrior climaxing between the boy’s thighs. When the boy came of age, the warrior would give him a spear and then train him to become a warrior himself. Once the boy became a warrior, the cycle repeated itself. This practice was not restricted to the warriors: Nobles engaged in homosexual activity too. This is well documented in E.E Evans-Prichard’s paper entitled “sexual inversion among the Azande”.

Other examples of homosexuality have been documented in staunch homophobic regions of today — such as Uganda, Gabon, Nigeria, Angola, Tanzania and the DRC. The argument that homosexuality is alien to Africa and that its criminalisation will protect African tradition is baseless. The truth of homophobia in Africa is more complex though.

Homophobia in Africa seems to have stemmed from colonial rule. The British colonial administration implemented measures to counter what they saw as dangerous sexual tendencies in African cultures and enforced a prohibition on same-sex relations, whilst missionaries pushed their ideological views and moral agenda on growing congregations.

Even African literature was not absolved of its role in changing perceptions about homosexual practices in Africa. In academic and writer Wazha Lopang’s paper “No place for Gays: Colonialism and the African Homosexual in African Literature” he documents how influential West African writers, such as Chinua Achebe, depicted homosexuality as an aberration, as evil or ignored it altogether because of their own inherited position on the matter.

The resurgence of homophobic legislation

Just this month, Malawi became the most recent country in Africa where homophobia was entangled in legislation. In the high court of Mzuzu, the nation’s third-largest city, Judge Dingiswayo Madise overturned a moratorium issued by President Joyce Banda in 2012 that prohibited the arrest of citizens participating in same-sex relations. Madise said arrests should continue until there is a judicial review of government’s decision to stop prosecutions of gay people in Malawi. The moratorium was reviewed by the judge based on submission from three pastors who argued that the country should forbid same sex relations and that parliament had not yet reviewed the laws the forbid homosexual acts.

Uganda and Nigeria have previously passed similar legal acts that either forbid homosexuality or do not recognise the rights of LGBTQi citizens. Uganda’s laws from the notorious “Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014” (dubbed the “Kill the Gays” bill in the media for its penalty of capital punishment for same-sex relations) have actually been around since British colonial rule, but were passed through parliament in 2009 by MP David Bahati, who claimed that the law would “protect the traditional family” and “protect the cherished culture of the people of Uganda”. When signing the Ugandan bill into law, the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, said that it would stop the “social imperialism” of the West, which he believes is responsible for promoting homosexuality in Africa.

The perception that the LGBTi community in Ugandan recruit children, uproot traditional families and disturb its culture is widespread. This was exacerbated when, in August 2010, 22-year-old student Giles Muhame began publishing Rolling Stone, a tabloid newspaper unaffiliated to the US music publication, which called for the outing and killing of homosexuals. The paper alleged that homosexuals aimed to “recruit” Ugandan children and implied links between gays and Somali terror group al-Shabaab (“Homo Generals Plotted Kampala Terror Attacks”), citing that gay men were involved in the Kampala suicide bombings of 2010, which left 74 dead and 70 injured. Allegedly, the outing of Uganda Sexual Minorities Group advocacy officer David Kato in Rolling Stone was the catalyst for his murder.

The reckless and prejudicial claims from Rolling Stone tabloid caused uproar from the international community and received widespread criticism from organisations such as Amnesty International, No Peace Without Justice and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. However, it remained popular. Rolling Stone (USA) attempted legal action, but as the established rock ’n’ roll magazine did not have copyright to the title in Uganda, they had little legal basis for intervention. Eventually, distribution of Rolling Stone (Uganda) was shut down in November 2010 by the high court on the basis that the paper called for infringements on the rights of individuals.

In 2014, Gambia passed a similar law to Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act. Gambian president Yahya Jammeh reportedly declared that Gambia “Will fight these vermins [sic] called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively.” In Nigeria, where rights for LGBTi individuals simply aren’t recognised, a law was passed the same year banning same-sex marriage, gay rights groups and displays of same-sex affection in public.

Even in South Africa, widely regarded as the most progressive African country in terms of LGBTi rights, which are protected by the constitution, there is still extreme backlash within township communities where a practice known as “corrective rape” is used to treat or cure lesbians, often perpetrated in the form of gang rape. Police also often overlook criminal claims for hate crimes against the LGBTi community.

In a recent report published by the Academy of Science South Africa, which is mandated to provide evidence-based science advice to government and other stakeholders on matters of critical national importance, a panel drew on medicine, anthropology, psychology and philosophy to counter arguments used to justify the criminalisation of homosexuality, and concluding that it is not unnatural, but rather there is evidence for a strong biological role in sexual orientation. The report also rubbished the notion that homosexuality is “socially contagious”, promotes the spread of HIV or encourages paedophilia. The report concludes by warning that criminalising homosexuality is the real threat to public health.

Being a homophobe is actually anti-African

What can be gleaned from this is that homophobia, rather than homosexuality is a colonial legacy. Formalised religion, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism are all imports to Africa, and all take a hard line when it comes to same-sex relations, the type of which were once practiced in various African communities. You could say that homophobia in Africa is, like racism, an internalisation of a deeply damaging colonial legacy. This does not mean that African nations and homophobes are absolved from guilt. There is a dire need to challenge these indoctrinated belief systems to ensure that citizens of African countries can take an active part in redressing colonial wrongs and rewriting their countries’ histories. The refusal to recognise that same-sex relations are not only natural, but part of African history, is as much anti-African as it is anti-gay.

This article was originally published on Dont Party

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