The politics of gay-bashing
A pattern has emerged in stories from Africa about homosexuality. In Malawi, two men were sentenced to 14 years in prison for “gross indecency and unnatural acts” for attempting to get married. They were pardoned in late May after intense pressure by Western donors, upon whom the Malawi government depends heavily.
In Uganda, the president intervened after parliament proposed the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”. He argued that the bill had become a “foreign policy issue”, hinting at Ugandan culture being under international pressure.
The pattern is one of supposedly enlightened Westerners teaching supposedly savage Africans a lesson. This pattern is harmful, precisely because there is some substance to it.
In many African countries, Western donors have funded research on men who have sex with men for the sake of public health and stemming HIV/AIDS. Moreover, donor agencies have supported the emergence of gay-rights associations.
The Dutch organisation HIVOS, for example, is the key funder of Behind the Mask, an advocacy group based in South Africa. Its website www.mask.org.za has helped to create a pan-African network of activists, artists and researchers.
African political and religious leaders have responded to this coming out, and to the obvious connection to the West. Some use fiercely homophobic rhetoric and incite to vigilantism. They accuse the West of wanting to impose its values.
An overlooked side of the story, however, is that African artists and activists have been debating the issue for some time with considerable verve independently of Western engagement. They have often been strongly critical of Western models of gay rights and “queer” identities. They refuse to simply follow a path to gay liberation pioneered by the West, insisting on finding and creating models that fit African societies. Their criticism of Western condescension, however, feeds into anti-Western nationalism with its anti-gay biases.
All involved, moreover, tend to overlook that the West had – and continues to play – a direct role in fomenting homophobia in Africa. European colonial powers imposed anti-sodomy laws that, in most cases, stayed in force after independence.
African “traditional cultures”, moreover, were defined in print by Western missionaries and anthropologists – almost invariably men. Their books were rarely sensitive to gender subtleties and even less to sexual secrets.
Present-day missionaries from the West, moreover, are still promoting intolerance. Thanks to US President George W. Bush’s PEPFAR programme, faith-based organisations like the Fellowship Foundation and the Southern Baptist Convention gained a well-funded foothold in Africa to promote their conservative strategy to combat HIV/AIDS. They won some high-profile converts, including Janet Museveni, the wife of Uganda’s president, and David Bahati, the sponsor of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill.
Why are evangelical churches and similarly fundamentalist movements among Muslims so attractive to Africans today? There are many reasons, including unemployment, the widening gaps between poor and rich, the collapse of public-health and education systems and the atomisation of society. The emphasis on individual welfare, which was implicit in structural-adjustment policies, has thus contributed to creating a fertile field for homophobic and other kinds of divisive politics that mobilise community sentiment against “outsiders”. Gay-bashing serves as a proxy for venting anger at the West.
Political homophobia is a real danger in Africa today. It drives men who have sex with men underground and denies them their right to self-determination. It also compounds problems related to HIV/AIDS. Therefore, homophobic demagoguery by African leaders must be challenged. But there is no room for smugness on the part of Western observers.
On the contrary, people from the West who aspire to help Africa need to be sensitive to the historical and ongoing role of the West in helping to create the problem. This might help them to listen more closely to African activists who are taking the lead in the struggle for sexual rights and sexual health in Africa.