African homophobes have argued that homosexuality is a Western import, a consequence of mingling with White folks. Journalists, researchers, and African LGBTQ+ people have been pushing back — against homophobia in law and policy, in particular. Instead, they point to homophobia, not homosexuality, as a cultural stain of European influence.
The 2000s illuminated disturbing episodes of intolerance and violence against LGBT+ people across the continent. Backed by support from an amen corner of missionaries in the United States in 2013, Uganda infamously passed a bill that punished same-sex relations with life imprisonment, and death in egregious circumstances. In 2017, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) published a comprehensive report on sexual orientation laws across the globe. Africa was one of the least welcoming places in the world for LGBTQ+ people. And by 2018, it was illegal to be gay and/or do gay things (like openly date, have sex, or get married) in more than 30 of Africa’s 54 countries. From Egypt to Kenya to Angola to Senegal.
“[Before colonialism] there were men who dressed as women, and they were seen as spiritual people, with a special gift.” -Unoma Azuah
The courts overturned the most extreme aspects of Uganda’s anti-gay legislation. But, today, same-sex relations are still illegal, and still punishable by imprisonment. Of just seven years though. Slight work.
Just a month ago, the Kenyan High Court ruled to uphold its anti-gay laws, despite mounting pressure from local and international advocacy groups. They decided against organizations who’d filed a petition charging that the criminalization of same-sex conduct in the country’s penal code denies to gay Kenyans their constitutional rights — the rights to equality, human dignity, security, and privacy, among others. Organizers also submitted that its anti-gay laws are agents of discrimination that do the dehumanizing work of colonialism. The High Court was unmoved. It ruled unanimously in favor of the antiquated laws.
The good news is that the trajectory for LGBTQ+ rights on the continent isn’t all bleak. The protection of basic LGBTQ+ rights signals a quiet but persistent drip of progressivism in places like South Africa, Mozambique, and the Ivory Coast. In June, Botswana became the latest to decriminalize homosexuality, ridding itself of a what has become a deeply embedded relic of colonialism’s cruelty in many African states. In an article for The Atlantic, Nigerian writer, Unoma Azuah, notes that during her grandmother’s time growing up in Nigeria before colonialism, “there were men who dressed as women, and they were seen as spiritual people, with a special gift.” She remembered that her grandmother joked about a man who’d married a woman, but spent most of his time in private with another man. Apparently, neither the adultery nor the assumed queerness inspired social outrage or punishment by law back then.
When Europe colonized Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, it created the first anti-gay laws on the continent by using phrases like “unnatural offenses” and “order of nature” in penal codes to criminalize existing behaviors between people of the same gender. When African nations gained their independence, many of them integrated into their free societies legal and moral prescriptions left by their colonizers. LGBTQ+ activists are challenging African constitutions that claim to value human rights and equality while criminalizing gay humans and using the tools meant for the dehumanization of all Black people. All three members of The High Court of Botswana agreed that their anti-gay laws should be overturned. The laws were a violation of gay people’s human rights, and therefore a violation of Botswana’s Constitution — an African constitution, not a colonial one. One that was envisioned to be better than what preceded it.
Opponents argue that the criminalization of homosexuality is less about human rights and more about protecting the national culture and moral traditions. To this point, the Botswana case has quite a rebuttal. In a statement read by their lawyers, the anonymous plaintiff said: “[w]e are not looking for people to agree with homosexuality but to be tolerant.” They said, in other words, you ain’t gotta like me, but you can leave me tf alone. According to the New York Times, Judge Michael Leburu, who delivered the judgment, added that “Sexual orientation is not a fashion statement…[i]t is an important attribute of one’s personality….[and] a democratic society is one that embraces tolerance, diversity and open-mindedness.” Boom.
If there was one positive left from colonialism, maybe it’s that you definitely know what discrimination and oppression look like. And there’s no excuse when you see it to not root it out. Either you want to wield the power of an oppressor, just against your particular enemies. Or you’re anti-oppression. LGBTQ+ Africans are challenging where their home countries fit in that spectrum.
For more info on “African Homosexualities,” check out Murray and Roscoe’s “Boy Wives and Female Husbands.”
Cover photo LEGABIBO