On the 20th December 2015, The New York Times ran the article “U.S. Support of Gay Rights in Africa May Have Done More Harm Than Good,” by Norimitsu Onishi. I strongly disagree with his piece as it is ill informed and I believe it can do more harm than good to the LGBT rights movement.
My first disagreement with Onishi is over his suggestion that U.S. foreign policy has significantly influenced the LGBT rights movement in Africa. The reality is, this movement has been organic, built and led by Africans.
I was born in Nigeria, though I currently live in London, and I had the privilege to be part of the pioneering LGBT movement in Nigeria. I went to my first underground gay party in Lagos in the early 1990s, when I was 18 and was just leaving secondary school. At that age, I was still struggling with who I was.
A few years later in 2001 I joined the LGBT struggle in Nigeria. I had just been arraigned before a disciplinary committee at the University of Lagos after I was accused of being gay. That was my only sin. At the same time, my best friend was dying of AIDS. In search of support and answers, I came across Alliance Rights Nigeria. I later worked for Alliance Rights from 2002 until 2004.
The decade of the 2000s saw a fast growing LGBT movement in Nigeria. There were three major events that helped propel the movement forward, none of which the U.S. was involved in. First was the South African progressive constitution post-apartheid, which promoted equality for everyone. Second was the rancor within the Anglican Communion over the ordination of Reverend Gene Robinson, and one, which Nigeria, under Olusegun Obasanjo spoke strongly against. This led to his famous comment of there being “no homosexuals in Nigeria”, which led to my coming out. Which is the third event. In 2004 at age 29, I was the first person to come out publicly as gay on a Nigerian television show. This made the issue a topic of conversation for everyone in Nigeria and across the continent.
Was there a period in the movement when solidarity was built across continents, globally? Yes of course, as is true of other social justice issues, like women’s rights, girls’ education, polio, HIV and efforts to end apartheid in South Africa. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that the LGBT movement was informed by and led by us, Africans.
A second point where I disagree with Onishi is his suggestion that the U.S. government has been an “unwavering supporter” of LGBT rights in Africa, causing problems across the continent.
The truth is, LGBT issues only became part of American foreign policy under President Barack Obama and not until his second term, which started in 2012. If we look back, Nigeria first introduced anti-gay legislation in 2006, two years after I came out on national television. George W. Bush was the president of the U.S. and his policies were not in support of LGBT issues nationally or internationally. Indeed, his policy on HIV, which led to the formation of the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), was simple: sex is bad, and not having sex is good.
There is also the notion that America’s foreign policy of challenging homophobia in hostile settings and with hostile governments was also a factor. To some extent this might be true, but the logic is flawed. The discussion of LGBT with African leaders was never raised in isolation of human rights and the need for African leaders to take a stand against hate. It was this agenda that led to that famous speech by Hillary Clinton at the UN in 2011 when she declared “gay rights are human rights.”
Onishi also wrote about American financial investment in LGBT rights in Africa. I think it is imperative to be clear that the foreign aid investment in Nigeria (that I can speak of) has been to fight against HIV alone. For example, PEPFAR has never in any way given money for LGBT rights.
That said, American nonprofit organisations — not the American government — have been at the forefront of supporting LGBT advocacy in Nigeria. I can confidently say, there has never been a time when visibility was a key condition to accessing funding. Never.
Finally, Onishi assumed that the pulling of the funds in Uganda was due to the anti-LGBT law in the country, but that is false. The funding was actually from the World Bank and not the US government. They withdrew the money because the Ugandan government could not prove beyond doubt that the HIV clinic being funded by the World Bank would not be used to criminalised gay men or be used to deny gay men access to HIV care and support.
While Onishi might have good intentions with his article, I fear his false information will actually further arm anti LGBT campaigners on the continent of Africa and enable them to do more harm. It is important to know and spread the truth.