In November 2012, Malawi’s first female president, Joyce Banda, temporarily suspended anti-gay laws, urging debate.

Instead of acknowledging these laws as inhumane, reports suggest that Malawi feared losing money from liberal Western donors who insist that sexual minorities be protected. Gay rights are in vogue for Western funders, the European Union has already given 1.8 million euros to Ugandan gay rights activists. And they’re putting their money where their mouth is — British MPS this week voted to legalise gay marriage in England and Wales.

Despite Malawi’s move, Banda was silent on this issue in her maiden state of the nation address on February 8 2013. The words homosexuality, gay or even discrimination did not appear once during her entire speech.

The safety of homosexual men and women is virtually non-existent throughout Africa — 37 African states have banned homosexuality, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that sexuality is a normal variation in genetics, like height or body type. From pigeons to penguins to people, from Africa to Asia to America, differences in sexuality are present, without any dysfunction in other areas of life. Despite this, globally, 78 countries have criminalised homosexuality. This is as ridiculous as criminalising left-handedness, just because it’s a rare genetic difference.

A report presented earlier this year by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay says merely being gay could result in the death penalty in at least five countries. Currently South Africa is the only country in the world that protects sexuality in its constitution, and the only country on the continent that has legalised gay marriage.

Ignorance and religious delusion about sexuality feed into homophobic political agendas across the world. Arguments to limit the rights of sexual minorities usually cite unproven, blatantly invalid reasons, such as the negative effects on children being raised in a same-sex household. Currently, the Catholic Church in France is doing exactly this as French President Francois Hollande tries to legalise gay marriage.

On the contrary, studies in academic journals of psychology and sociology prove otherwise. There are no significant differences between children raised by gay or heterosexual parents.

In an open letter to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to protest Uganda’s insane anti-gay bill, the Psychological Society of South Africa, stated that “research and clinical experience have found no relationship between sexual orientation and someone’s ability to contribute to the community and to influence children to become responsible members of society” and that “South African-based [and] international research has found … no difference between children who are raised by homosexual versus heterosexual parents”.

Historically inaccurate misinterpretations of religious texts fuel sheepish public discourse. Populist policies that pander to the ignorant masses are coupled with a fear of the unknown to create a recipe whose logical end is a genocide of sexual minorities.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex individuals (LGBTI) are an especially vulnerable group for suffering from mental health problems due to feelings of isolation and social disconnect. These socially-induced psychopathologies, rooted in norms that perpetuate prejudice and hatred, is an invisible epidemic borne daily by millions.

Uganda, an epitome of violent homophobia, has already seen the murder of gay activist David Kato. The South African government, despite its own progress, remains silent — and thereby complicit — when its neighbours commit atrocities on fellow Africans.

So far, only 11 countries, including South Africa, have legalised same-sex marriage. These are Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Many countries have some form of civil union that grants gay couples some rights of a traditional marriage. LGBTI groups have never asked for special rights, just equal ones.

Meanwhile, Western donors who still have a long way to go in their own country (less than 10 states have legalised gay-marriage in the US) have threatened Malawi with donor cuts unless it changes anti-homosexual laws. While this is good news for sexual minorities, the spirit in which it is being done is questionable. Human rights are being commoditised and packaged for display, so that Western donors feel satisfied that their beneficiaries are progressive liberals who respect everyone. These changes in laws may not accompany attitudinal, social and religious shifts, and may even further entrench hatred, as the bigoted feel hard done by their elected leaders for selling their values — however twisted — for a couple of bucks.

Malawi’s political rhetoric, however, will spin a different tale, citing genuine changes of heart and mind and social dialogue. But when it comes to beefing up state coffers, politicians have a funny way of forgetting just how recently they opposed what they now support. The trouble, however, with selective amnesia when it comes to policy making, is that the rule of law is not based on a value system that fundamentally respects human rights, scientific evidence and minority rights. Instead, laws are made on the whim of political needs and wants and, like many failed states around the world, progressive laws don’t necessarily steer the country forward if the intentions are not well-rooted. The rights of a minority should never be left to the impulse of an uninformed majority.

Social change must emerge from a common purpose shared across society. But South Africa’s enlightened stance to legalise gay marriage and ensure that sexual minorities live freely and without discrimination was not a universally shared objective across the country.

For example in an interview published on the website Fair Observer, Bernedette Muthien, executive director of the South African NGO Engender, says that “if you are a lesbian especially a masculine looking lesbian, or if you are a gay man who looks more feminine, you will expose yourself to rape. Anything that is not gender conforming will be susceptible to rape”. Deep-seated myths simply hardened, fuelling an aggressive retaliation by the desperate and the deluded. Like gender-based violence against women, the oppression of sexual minorities is perpetuated by patriarchy and its vicissitudes.

Over-regulation leads to conformity at the expense of happiness and creativity, freedom of thought and personal identity. Liberal values that maximise autonomy in one’s private life must diffuse globally. Since Western countries contribute to the African piggy bank, liberal values might have to be grudgingly adopted by African conservatives.

But will LGBTI-friendly laws in homophobic, cash-strapped African countries needing liberal Western money translate into actual social change? I don’t think so. But I do hope so.


  • Suntosh Pillay works as a clinical psychologist in a public hospital in Durban. He is a PhD researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and has written extensively on a range of topics in various media. He is grappling with social dilemmas and paradoxes that we are faced with every day & hopes to trigger debate, controversy, reflection and connection via his writings. He is past chair of the Board of Directors of the Mandela Rhodes Community and is part of various national committees of the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA). Suntosh Pillay on ResearchGate To chat, network, or collaborate, email [email protected] Twitter: @suntoshpillay


Suntosh Pillay

Suntosh Pillay works as a clinical psychologist in a public hospital in Durban. He is a PhD researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and has written extensively on a range of topics in various media. He...

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