I recently read an interesting article titled “Why gay rights is a development issue in Africa, and aid agencies should speak up” by Hannah Stoddart. Stoddart, concerned with the very high rise in state-sanctioned homophobia in Africa, shows how homosexuality in some African countries is often accompanied by a life sentence or up to 20 years in jail as nearly 37 African countries have outlawed homosexuality. Such outlawing is often accompanied by “increased threats and attacks against gay people — as has been the case in Uganda since the anti-gay law was introduced last year” writes Stoddart.

According to Stoddart, development agencies working in especially the “developing world” are often faced with a dilemma in that the presence of these organisations is “in many countries authorised by the same states that are preaching homophobia — but whose supporter-base by and large consists of liberal folk in the developed world who find homophobia distasteful”.

As a result of this dilemma, gay rights are often seen as a different category to other rights with many organisations remaining silent on the issue. Those who do decide to tackle the issue often do so under creative and euphemistic titles and language utilising terms such as “at risk” or “high-risk” populations. It is in this fashion that Stoddart calls on us to “commit to lobbying donor governments to put pressure on recipient states who are criminalising homosexuality” because it is important “for the sake of good, fair and equal development” that we “speak up”.

Just over a year ago, I conducted interviews for Stop Street Harassment with self-identified lesbian women in rural Peddie (Eastern Cape, South Africa). In the write up I remarked that “despite progressive same-sex legislation, [South Africa] still presents an extremely hostile environment for non-heterosexual” identities. Yet, beyond the reports of homophobia and “corrective rapes” that saturate much of the South African public discourse, very little interrogation and investigation is paid to the ways in which social and state sanctioned anti-LGBTIQA sentiments also affect the development needs of such persons.

In speaking to many of the lesbian women, I saw that homophobia not only appeared to have psycho-social impacts, but also often affected many of their abilities for livelihood and shaped some of their migrational patterns in various and often detrimental ways. This is not a new observation, per se. Jessica Horn in her talk “Can aid donors help support LGBT rights in developing countries?” notes that the choice to discriminate on any basis is always a political choice. She says that it is political in two senses: firstly, in that as humans we are always choosing navigating questions of ethics, power and authority “and how we manage collective life”. And the second sense referring to the political choices we make especially in reference to party politics.

Horn says that it is important to expand the debates and attempts to “narrow spaces around sexual orientation and gender identity” because such efforts are part of broader heterosexist gender norms that want to maintain a particular type of social system of patriarchy in place. In this view, it is no coincidence that a lot of the anti-homosexuality legislations accompany backlash against other forms of challenges to patriarchy including challenges on marital rape, the prioritisation of women’s economic justice and resistance against restrictive gender norms.

Horns notes that in countries where there is anti-homosexuality legislation tabled, that legislation often goes side to side with legislation that criminalises the dress codes of women, legislation that censors the use of pornography, regulates the sexual and reproductive body and generally a lot of other measures of containment (that are also fuelled by “the religious right”).

What is also concerning to Horn is also the ignored party politic element to state-sanctioned homophobia where governments play on “presumed national homophobia” to garner support for anti-LGBT policies. In this process governments are able to create a distraction around “other” issues by creating a diversion where LGBT(IQA) individuals are used for a “scapegoating exercise”. Under such conditions, dissent becomes criminalised and ultra-surveilled with various penalisations that infringe people’s freedom of association. Horn concludes that issues pertaining to LGBT(IQA) therefore are not only about “a question of identity … [they are] economic, social and political struggles … and queer Africans are facing poverty; [lack of] education, lack of water, healthcare issues … ”

As we start unpacking the “post-millennium development goal agenda”, I strongly believe that an inclusive post-MDG agenda is one that also makes specific measures in place to accommodate the social, economic and political needs of LGBTIQA persons in both the African continent, and globally. This, I believe will be the first step in creating an intersectional, inclusive and accepting (MDG) world where differences are not a means for exclusion, but the entry point to connecting people across gender and sexuality.

First published here.


  • Senior Anthropologist at the University of Johannesburg and Researcher at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), Oxford University. Co-author of the "Anti-Racist Teaching Practices and Learning Strategies Workbook" with Warren Chalklen, PhD. Available: https://bit.ly/3huUEMP


Gcobani Qambela

Senior Anthropologist at the University of Johannesburg and Researcher at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), Oxford University. Co-author of the "Anti-Racist Teaching Practices and...

Leave a comment