The African continent has long been described as one of the most homophobic places on earth. And lately this appears more true than ever. From Uganda and Senegal to Malawi and The Gambia, gays are being attacked with alarming new vitriol.
While western media has been abuzz with shocking stories of gay-bashing across the continent, the reasons for this tragic turn have been less discussed. In fact, many western media outlets – not to mention human rights groups championing the gay-rights cause – have failed to provide proper context for this new wave of homophobia. And an informed view of the complex cultural and political factors that undergird anti-gay fervor is critical – especially if it is to be properly combated.
An ugly colonial legacy
Africa’s heated homophobia is fueled largely by anti-western sentiments. In colonialism’s wake, African strongmen solidified their newfound political power and cultivated nationalist fervor by stirring up anger against purported western influences – a real ‘us vs them’ construction of national identity. Among these so-called western values was homosexuality, an ‘evil’ to be expelled along with the colonial rulers who brought it.
The ironic truth, of course, is that homophobia – not homosexuality – is largely a product of the continent’s colonial past. By jumping on the homophobia bandwagon, some of these ‘Africa-first’ champions are actually perpetuating one of the ugly legacies of colonialism itself.
Western colonialism brought a Christian missionary zeal for rooting out ‘savage,’ native behaviors like homosexuality; and more generally, the western paradigm of sexuality promoted a dualistic way of thinking that sharply delineated between homosexual and heterosexual identities, undermining the more fluid approach embraced by many indigenous African cultures.
Surely, the history of indigenous African sexual norms should not be oversimplified; but research has revealed a diverse and nuanced anthropological story of pre-colonial African societies that were often tolerant of homosexual behavior – and where backlash against homosexuals was borne mainly of practical concerns (like an economic need for procreation), instead of the moralistic zeal we are now seeing.
Change from within
So if Africans really wish to throw off the shackles of a painful colonial legacy, perhaps they should consider freeing themselves from the rigid sexual mores of that arduous historical chapter.
And the time is ripe. This colonial legacy is currently being buttressed by some fundamentalist Christian groups in the West, who have brought their homophobic gospel to the continent. And this cultural neocolonialism appears to be making an impact: A handful of American religious zealots have been credited with influencing the Ugandan parliament’s current consideration of legislation that would punish homosexual activity by death in certain cases.
Of course, western human rights organizations have every right to rail against these pronounced injustices. But if they really want to improve the horrendous plight of homosexuals in Africa, they must better tailor their message to the cultural context in which they operate – a context that is decidedly anti-western. In order to sidestep charges of cultural imperialism that spew from the lips of homophobic African officials, rights groups must channel their energies into supporting activists on the ground; after all, a homegrown African gay rights movement is the only real path to credibility and sustainability. (This is certainly a lesson learned from South Africa’s gay rights success in 2006, when it became the only African country to legalize same sex marriage.)
Indeed, this new wave of African homophobia should serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of missionary zeal, regardless of the position taken: The universal promotion of human rights is certainly well and good, but let us not forget that context matters.