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Difficult Conversations: A Reflection On The Ostracization Of The LGBTQIA+ Community In Africa

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Joy L Blankson-Hemans

Section Editor for Africa

First and foremost, it’s important for me to emphasize that I am an ally of the LGBTQIA+ community and fully support equal civil rights for all and whilst this affirmation is a succinct one, it is an unequivocal assurance that I do not agree with any form of discrimination against members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

This article is motivated, quite unfortunately, by the current state of affairs in Ghana, West Africa, following the closure of a new LGBTQI resource centre in the nation’s capital following public outcry and controversy. [1] After a wave of protests, threats and online abuse, the centre which was established to be a safe space and a source of support was forcibly closed by police. In order to have a relevant conversation on the anti-gay sentiment that remains present in African countries - despite a seemingly progressive stance elsewhere - this piece will examine the history of homophobia in African nations and give an insight into the future path towards reform and change that will better ensure the protection of LGBTQIA+ rights in Africa.

A Historical Analysis: Imported Homophobia

The concept of imported homophobia can be examined in African nations that were once colonised under British rule. There has found to be a direct correlation between Commonwealth countries and countries that still have homophobic legislature in their constitutions.[2] As a matter of fact, prior to European colonisation it has been speculated that attitudes towards sexual orientation were more relaxed and in an excavated tomb in Egypt from 2400 BC for example, two men’s bodies were found embracing each other as lovers. Ancient Egyptians would also depict deities as androgynous, with Goddesses Mut and Sekhmet sometimes portrayed with erect penises.[3] This was not even isolated to Egypt alone as in the 16th century, the Imbangala people of Angola had instances of cross-dressing and “men in woman’s apparel, with whom they kept amongst their wives”.[4] In contrast, in 1533 King Henry VII had just signed an act that criminalised homosexual sex with fatal hanging as a consequence to being caught. Therefore, it is safe to say that there was indeed gender fluidity pre-colonisation and African nations were certainly not pre-disposed towards homophobia.

However, colonisation soon spread throughout African nations and with it came strong Christian convictions which were soon ingrained into the minds of the African community. Whilst Christians made up about 9% of the population in 1910, this skyrocketed to 63% by 2010 and the new values that came with it caused Africa to lose a substantial part of its cultural identity. Anti-gay laws were written into the legislature but also into the subconscious of African people so much so that it is now seen to be part of the culture to shun homosexuality. As a result, by the time homophobia began to have no place in Western society and social movements prevailed to support LGBTQIA+ rights in Western countries it became a “thing of the West” and even the late former Zimbabwean President Mugabe labelled homosexuality as a “white disease”.

Present Day Sentiments

Through the rebranding of homosexuality and gender fluidity as a trait of Western culture, it has become increasingly difficult to attempt reform, especially when coerced by Western countries. This is because after years of having its own culture eroded by colonialism, African nations that are now enjoying their independence are suspicious and wary of interference from the West. For example, when David Cameron threatened to withhold aid in response to the lack of respect of gay rights in Uganda, the UK was criticised by a Ugandan official for its “bullying mentality” and Ugandan Presidential advisor John Nagenda told the BBC that “Uganda is a sovereign state…if they must take their money, so be it”.[5]

On the one hand, it would be inaccurate to present Africa as a continent that is incapable of change and reform. Some countries have taken major steps towards acknowledgement and acceptance of the gender and sexual orientation spectrum as well as an increased effort in the protection of civil rights for members of the LGBTQIA+ community. For example, in a 2014 Botswanan High Court case, the court asserted that LGBT people have the same universal rights as anyone else and hence a previous refusal to register an activist organisation in support of the community was a violation of the applicants’ rights to equal protection of the law and to freedom of expression.[6] Furthermore, in 2019, the UN welcomed Angola’s repeal of anti-gay law and decriminalisation of homosexuality after a review of its colonial-era penal code.[7]

On the other hand, these efforts have been sparsely dispersed across the continent and out of 54 states, homosexuality is still explicitly outlawed in 34 African countries and is even punishable by prison and death penalties in some.[8] Individuals who identify as anything but heterosexual are often forced to adopt self-censoring behaviour or even deny their sexual orientation and gender identity in order to avoid being subjected to sexual assault, intimidation and extortion by way of an attack from both mobs, authorities or even family members.[9]

Future Reform

It can be argued that one of the reasons why anti-gay sentiments have remained strong in public discourse in Africa is because politicians have used it as an opportunity to gain favour and approval because they are aware the population is largely homophobic.[10] Similarly, religious leaders also play a harmful part in cementing discrimination, which is irresponsible given the huge impact and influence religion has on individuals who are guided by their faith. Homophobic statements by local and national government officials, traditional elders and religious leaders all help to create a climate of homophobia due to the sheer influence that the words carry. Even among ordinary citizens, one of the long-standing justifications is that homosexuality is “just not part of the culture” and acceptance of it is often interpreted as a forfeiture of tradition.

In my opinion, it is lazy to make a normative assertion that based on history and tradition alone, homosexuality has no place in present-day African culture. In a powerful piece by Eusebius McKaiser, the author insisted that homosexuality could only be maintained as un-African if we held that only “a few individuals are entitled to define what being African must mean”.[11] He also went further to say that even if homosexuality did not predate colonialism, as debated in the earlier part of this article, then like any society “African beliefs and traditions [should] be subject to moral criticism and revision”. We are always quick to profess Africa’s ability to be a progressive continent with an astonishing capacity to grow and evolve – and it has done so both economically but even more relevant - culturally. We’ve seen its nations be responsive to social movements and go as far as make positive change. One of the most popular ones being Apartheid in South Africa, which was unravelled, among other things, due to social activism, legitimisation and legalisation of support organisations and abolishing discriminative laws.[12] A similar approach can be applied with the LGBTQIA+ civil rights movement in African nations but it has to be tackled from both political, social and religious dimensions.

All in all, one thing remains clear – societies are ever-changing and cannot be immune from revision and criticism. Yes, tradition is important to preserve culture, but it is equally important to recognise that tradition exists to create a sense of group belonging and as such we cannot continue to endorse the flagrant ostracization of members of the LGBTQIA+ community under the guise of safeguarding tradition.


[1] [2] [3] ibid [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12]

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