Photo credit: Flickr user max_thinks_sees
The difficult struggle for gay rights is ongoing all over the world, but a few cases in Africa raise the troubling possibility that the effort may actually be backsliding. While some Countries at the Crossroads states, like Argentina, have made encouraging advances in civil rights for gay couples, a number of African states are falling behind. Growing antipathy for gay rights was exemplified this week at the African Anglican Church conference in Uganda, where over 400 bishops renewed their condemnation of homosexuality. Speaking in reference to international pressure to promote gay rights, Archbishop of the Church of Uganda Henry Luke Orombi said, “Homosexuality is evil, abnormal, and unnatural as per the Bible. It is a culturally unacceptable practice. Although there is a lot of pressure, we cannot turn our hands to support it.”
Uganda attracted international attention in the fall of 2009 when a member of parliament, David Bahati, proposed a bill that would impose the death penalty for certain homosexual acts and would even criminalize (with the possibility of up to seven years in prison) the failure to report known homosexuals. As in most of Africa, homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, but Bahati and his many supporters argued that stricter laws and enforcement were necessary to protect Ugandan children and stop the spread of homosexuality, a behavior he considers both “learnt” and “foreign.”
The bill garnered significant public support (and opposition) in highly religious Uganda, but it sparked so much international outrage (including threats to cut international development aid) that President Yoweri Museveni formed a committee to review the bill. The committee recommended that the bill be withdrawn and it has been tabled for now, but the public response throughout the episode revealed rampant homophobia in the country. Supporters of the bill called homosexual behavior “deviant” and “sick” and Bahati himself said that he wanted “to kill every last gay person.” Even some opposition to the bill was laced with antigay stereotypes. One opposition op-ed, for instance, complained, “I really resent the word Gay bring annexed and monopolized by homosexuals and lesbians,” cautioned against adoption rights for same-sex couples (so that the children in question do not adopt their parents’ sexual preferences), recommended that homosexuals display “decorousness” to avoid offense, and cautioned against same-sex marketing to children. Though the bill is currently tabled, there is a possibility that Museveni or any other politician will reinvigorate the issue to build quick public support. Gay rights are thus subject to the precarious whims of political life.
Unfortunately, virulent homophobia is not exclusive to Uganda. A recent Pew poll estimated that 97 percent of Nigerians disapprove of homosexuality. In Ghana, which like Nigeria criminalizes homosexuality, the rumor of a gay rights conference in Accra incited so much opposition that the government issued a public statement declaring its staunch opposition to homosexuality. By the time it was revealed that the conference was not in fact real, the government had already made clear that gay community and its supporters had no freedom to associate in Ghana. In Malawi, a gay couple wassentenced to 14 years in jail in 2010 for committing unnatural acts; only following pressure from outside donors did the president pardon the couple. Kenya has likewise experienced antigay protests in 2010, especially following allegations of a planned gay wedding in February.
All of the above cases are made more complex by the fact that it is not only the legal environment that is relevant—members of the gay community must also contend social opposition to homosexuality, including violence inflicted at home and in religious institutions. Reports of sexual assault by police and “corrective rape” to “cure” homosexuality are common. Even South Africa, which in many ways is a striking and hopeful exception to the antigay trend, social opposition to homosexuality persists. Same sex couples in South Africa have the right to marry and adopt, but social norms have prevented the full realization of gay rights. Antigay violence is not uncommon, and there are no hate crime laws to protect gay communities from such attacks.
The question of international influence is complex with respect to Africa’s struggle over gay rights. Antigay activists often boast close relationships with Western evangelical leaders, and members of the American evangelical community, including the popular Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in California, have expressed support for campaigns to criminalize homosexuality in Africa. On the other hand, international advocacy groups have spent considerable time and money attempting to combat such attitudes. For their part, Bahati and others claim that homosexuality is a foreign behavior nonexistent in African culture. Foreigners try to infiltrate African culture, they say, by plying the young and poor with material benefits in exchange for exposure to the “gay lifestyle.” Gay rights advocates argue in response that undue foreign influence is demonstrated instead in the legal language that criminalizes homosexuality, as many of the phrases used to criminalize homosexual behavior in African law are in fact a remnant of colonial legal systems. It is unclear then how the international community can most effectively oppose the spread of antigay legislation when opposition to laws like Bahati’s is routinely chalked up to neocolonial meddling—an allegation that donor threats to cut development aid, however well intentioned, play into. Moreover, many Western nations, including the United States, have failed to adopt norms to place the rights of gays on equal footing with other citizens. Despite these complexities and the sensitivities inherent in addressing issues that touch on supposed cultural taboos, a universal approach to human rights demands that rights advocates continue to monitor and speak out against anti-homosexual discrimination and criminalization.