By Stephen Buchanan-Clarke
President Obama’s visit to Kenya as the first sitting US president will likely be remembered most for the strong stand he voiced on the issue of LGBTI rights on the continent. Standing alongside Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta at a joint press conference on Saturday, Obama unreservedly stated his belief “in the principle of treating people equally under the law”, noting that “the state should not discriminate against people for their sexual orientation”. Like his much publicised speech marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, he likened LGBTI to the civil rights movement, stating that if you start treating “people differently, not because of any harm they are doing to anybody but because they are different, that’s the path by which freedoms begin to erode …and bad things happen”.
Kenyatta fired back with a watered down version of the often-heard argument that LGBTI rights are a form of Western cultural imperialism, stating, “There are [values] that our culture, our society don’t accept. It is very difficult for us to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept.”
It is understandable that the colonial legacy has left Africa tired of being subjected to judgement from the West. One can’t help also but see the hypocrisy of America lecturing Africa on treating “people differently” while African Americans are still structurally marginalised and new stories of police brutality come out almost weekly.
But LGBTI rights are not a form of cultural imperialism. One cannot use culture as an intellectual firewall against debate on what is fundamentally a human rights issue. Nor can culture masquerade as an explanation. It is not something static. Practises develop out of changing environments and have natural causes. Many cultural practises are ethically questionable. If a case is to be made for why LGBTI individuals should not enjoy equal political rights in the societies in which they live, it has to be based on an honest and rational argument, and not simply an appeal to religious authority or cultural relativism. It is very difficult, once social biases and religious sentiment are taken out of the equation, not to find homosexuality morally identical to heterosexuality.
Kenyatta is not wrong that LGBTI rights are something that the majority of Kenyans do not support. Recent data from Afrobarometer, which conducts public opinion surveys, shows that 84% of Kenyans would “strongly” or “somewhat” dislike their neighbour to be homosexual. These findings do not mean that legal protection should not be granted to gay and lesbian Kenyans. The function of rights is precisely to protect the minority from the majority. While the rest of the world makes important legislative progress on this issue, Africa is being left far behind.
Levels of intolerance against LGBTI people are common across the continent. A 2013 Pew Research poll found that over 90% of Ugandans, Nigerians, Ghanaians and Senegalese believe homosexuality should not be part of society. Africa had the highest levels of intolerance against homosexuality across all regions measured — including the Middle East, where a number of states carry the death penalty for it. Of the continent’s 54 countries, only South Africa has legalised same-sex marriage. Thirty-four African states have some kind of anti-homosexuality laws on their books.
The belief that LGBTI rights are a Western concern seems to be predicated on the underlying assumption that homosexuality is a colonial import, or as Robert Mugabe puts it, an “un-African white-disease”. The idea that homosexuality and other varieties of sexual preference did not exist before the colonial era is simply wrong and has been thoroughly debunked in several studies. Will Roscoe and Stephen O. Murray’s research into historic African cultures details how, from the 16th century onwards, homosexuality had been recorded in Africa by European missionaries, adventurers and officials who used it to reinforce ideas of African societies in need of “Christian cleansing”. There is a strong case to be made that the colonial import of Islam, and later Christianity (both religions which expressively vilify homosexuality), served to embed in traditional African societies the current modes of intolerance against homosexuality seen widely today. Before this period, several historical examples show that African societies had mechanisms for accommodating a range of sexual preferences and customs built around these roles accordingly. The evidence for this change is most starkly visible in a comparison of former African colonies’ legislation on this issue. While Britain was introducing legal systems around the world during its period of colonial expansion, included in them were anti-sodomy laws. Many of these survived post-independence and over 70% of former British colonies continue to criminalise homosexual behaviour using these same laws.
As a 2013 Pew Global Attitudes survey shows, there is a high level of correlation between a society’s level of religiosity and intolerance towards homosexuals. The more secular a country, the greater acceptance there is towards homosexuality. African countries have some of the highest levels of religiosity in the world. Exacerbating this more recently, in countries like Uganda, have been Latter-day evangelical missionaries from the US, who have managed to drum up support for extreme legislation that proposes the death penalty for same-sex relations.
Furthermore, as the Pew studies illustrate, predominantly Muslim countries remain the least accepting towards homosexuality; with the likes of Yemen, Iran, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates having the death penalty for homosexual behaviour. With Islam being the fastest growing religion in Africa, this may pose further challenges to the advancement of LGBTI rights on the continent.
While the colonial legacy has likely played a central role in defining how LGBTI individuals are treated on the continent, more modern waves of anti-gay sentiments also have a lot to do with the odious attitudes towards homosexuality propagated by some leading political figures. Gambian president Yahya Jammeh has referred to gay people as “vermin”. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, Kenyan vice president William Ruto and Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf have publically shared similarly derogatory sentiments. Recently, the Gambian, Nigerian and Ugandan legislatures, among others in Africa, have created new laws against homosexuality and added provisions to old laws which increase the severity of punishment.
Stephen Buchanan-Clarke works in the Justice and Reconciliation in Africa Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation based in Cape Town, www.ijr.org.za. He is completing his master’s degree in conflict transformation and security studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Follow him on Twitter @stephen_bclarke