The average gay African is no stranger to torture, rape, prison or terror. Thirty-eight countries in Africa now oppress LGBT individuals in one way or another, and although a recent wave of anti-gay legislation is gaining massive media traction, the dignity of these people has never really been embraced in all corners of the continent. Instead, a narrow form of western conservatism has been accepted as the norm. These laws represent the rejection of African jurisprudence and worldview in law-making.
For the last seven days African gays and lesbians have been sitting shiva, mourning the final dismantling of LGBT rights in Nigeria. Nigeria has just passed Africa’s most recent legislation aimed at oppressing those who live contrary to the safe heteronormative standards demanded of them by this continent. This follows an attempt by Uganda’s parliament to pass similar legislation; the passing of which was labelled a Christmas gift to the country by parliamentarians.
Legislated homophobia in Africa is either a relic of British colonial law or the enforcement of religious bigotry (both Muslim and Christian). Almost all the sub-Saharan countries which criminalise homosexuality are former British colonies that have retained outdated anti-sodomy laws; while many French and Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa seem to prefer to stay out of their citizens’ bedrooms. This disparity in the application of anti-gay laws is one of the greatest arguments against the common refrain that homosexuality is un-African.
This refrain serves to normalise homophobia as part of the African condition. But the effects of homophobia seem greatly out of step with African philosophy, which celebrates the community over the primacy of the individual. This celebration of the community speaks to a belief in the interconnectedness of Africans; individuals are believed to be obligated to one another and the community as a whole.[i] Legislated homophobia pushes LGBT people away from the community. This amounts to an exile where the victims of homophobia are reduced to an unequal societal status, one where they are unworthy of state protection and recognition or familial/community support.
If a community of interconnected individuals forms the centre of African society, then legislated homophobia, which operates on the basis of exclusion and disconnection from the majority, represents the antithesis of African philosophy. Therefore, these anti-gay laws present an even greater affront to the dignity of LGBT Africans. Not only are these Africans denied the right to engage in activities, which form a part of their experience as human beings, but they are also subjected to exclusion from the rest of the community.
Mabogo More, writing about uBuntu, noted that this philosophy is a “demand for respect for persons no matter what their consequences may be”. In other words, all individuals form part of the community and must be respected as full members thereof. Therefore, any challenge to LGBT Africans’ dignity and rightful place in the community is un-African.
The ancillary effects of exclusion of African LGBT communities include the increase of violence against these people, the perpetuation of abuse in private spaces (where families intervene, for example), and economic consequences due to possible discrimination. The mental wellbeing and general health of victims of legalised homophobia are also threatened; isolation is dangerous and prevents people from accessing the services they need.
LGBT Africans are effectively stripped of their humanity by anti-gay legislation. They are the victims of colonial ordinances and Victorian sensitivity to sex. African gays and lesbians are the victims of governments that have looked to American evangelical lobbyists for direction on public policy. There is nothing African about the victimisation of these people; this kind of oppression was transplanted here and it’s important to start acknowledging it as a product of western conservatism.
Legislated homophobia is un-African. Isn’t it time to decolonise the bedroom, once and for all?
[i] Fuller & Cornell in Cornell, D and Muvangua, N uBuntu and the law: African ideals and postapartheid jurisprudence (2012) New York: Fordham University Press 3.