Skip to main content

Opinion: Is Africa the most homophobic continent?

By Marc Epprecht, professor of Global Development Studies, Special to CNN
February 28, 2014 -- Updated 1546 GMT (2346 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • This week Uganda passed a bill that could mean life in prison for "aggravated homosexuality"
  • Marc Epprecht says the vehemence of some of the homophobia in Africa is striking
  • But he says Africa is a continent and its countries differ in their attitudes to homosexuality
  • The West has played a role in creating homophobia in Africa, Epprecht says

Editor's note: Marc Epprecht is a historian and professor of Global Development Studies, Queen's University, Canada. He is the author of several books on sexuality and gender in Africa. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN) -- New laws in Nigeria and Uganda, plus reports throughout the continent of extortion, murder, so-called "curative rape" and abuse of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex) -- and their allies -- are deeply concerning to many people, in and outside of Africa.

While Africa is not alone in this apparent trend, the vehemence of some of the homophobia, and the way it is being linked to pan-African struggles against Western imperialism, is striking.

Marc Epprecht
Marc Epprecht

Not surprisingly, many people now view Africa as the most homophobic continent in the world. It is commendable that so many want to help in the fight against state-backed repression of sexual rights.

Before rushing in, however, let's keep four things in mind.

First, Africa is not a country. It is 54, 10 of which have signed the 2008 United Nations declaration recognizing sexual orientation and gender identity as human rights, including two which had originally opposed it but switched sides in 2011 (Rwanda and Sierra Leone).

Consenting male adult homosexual acts are legal in 14 African countries, while female-female sexuality is largely ignored outside a handful. In 2004, Cape Verde joined South Africa in decriminalizing sodomy while Botswana and Mozambique have made discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexuality unlawful.

Ugandan president: Gays 'disgusting'
Gay Ugandan speaks out about new law
Branson to boycott Uganda over law
Gay Ugandans committing suicide

The country of South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world for protecting human rights and was a co-sponsor of the United Nations' 2011 initiative to develop global strategies to end violence and discrimination against sexual minorities.

One can be skeptical about international human rights statements and the reliability of the police and courts, especially for the poor majority. But important symbolic victories have been won in recent years across Africa, and in some cases policy reforms have been substantive.

While not highly publicized, for example, many states now provide some health education, anti-retroviral medicine and other services to men who have sex with men (condoms in prison and the like).

There has been an explosion of culturally sensitive scholarship by an emerging generation of African researchers that undermines homophobic claims.

Gay-friendly art, literature, theatre, and films have also flourished. One of Kenya's best-known authors, Binyavanga Wainaina, publicly acknowledged he was gay just this year, joining a growing list of political, religious, and cultural figures in Africa who have spoken out forcefully against homophobia.

Second: homophobia in Africa is real and dangerous, but appearances can be deceiving. Many of the factors contributing to the recent homophobic turn in African politics have their roots outside of Africa.

Homophobes today often cite "family values" as a traditional reason Africans hate homosexuality, and it is true that there was a strong culture of extended families to help folks survive in often harsh environments. Yet the African philosophy of "uBuntu" meant keeping families together even when members strayed from the heterosexual, married, and fertile ideal.

This meant tolerance accommodation with sexual difference as long as discretion was maintained. Enforced celibacy or abstinence, adultery, impotence, erotic preference for the same sex ... all these things were known and understood as part of the diversity of the world to which humans, ancestors and the yet-born could adapt.

Islam as traditionally practiced in Africa was also relatively accommodating to the fact that individuals sometimes strayed from the ideal moral behavior. The family could be maintained through all of that by using discretion and appropriate rituals, prayers, sacrifice and/or compensation.

Colonialism, Christianity and capitalism messed much of this up. The British in particular were almost systematic in their introduction of laws that criminalized male-male sex acts. European missionaries denounced them with the threat of eternal hell-fire. Families were meanwhile broken apart to serve the labor needs of the colonialists. Africans were taught that they had no history and no culture of value, indeed, maybe they were not even quite human.

Political independence unfortunately did not solve this ideological hangover. On the contrary, since the 1980s especially, bad governance and economic turmoil have left much of the population of Africa frustrated. We in the West should not forget our role in creating the present shambles in so many African countries, whether through assassinations, bribery, or more subtle economic thumbscrews.

The "Washington consensus" around neo-liberal structural adjustment was particularly devastating to families and social safety nets. In this context (rich getting richer, poor poorer), there is a widespread hunger for scapegoats and for simplistic solutions.

Third, mainstream faiths have not been very good at addressing Africans' need for spiritual meaning after so many decades of economic and political malaise. The American Christian Right has by contrast been very active, and well-funded, in stepping in to fill that void. There is compelling evidence that American evangelicals have been instrumental in promoting Africans who will spread the homophobic message, including ghost writing speeches and advising on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda.

Let us not forget that homophobia is not yet dead and buried in the West before we jump on our high horses.
Marc Epprecht

A similar "homophobia international" may be happening in Muslim-majority countries where the Islamic Right is gaining ground over traditional Sufi beliefs. In a place like Nigeria, where sectarian violence is a looming threat to the stability of the nation, homophobia is one of the few points of agreement for canny politicians to calm the sectarian waters. In a place like Uganda, which some see acting as a mercenary for American geopolitical schemes in the region, denouncing the West's so-called social imperialism is an easy way to cover complicity in a resurgent real imperialism on the continent.

Finally, let us not forget that homophobia is not yet dead and buried in the West before we jump on our high horses. Maybe we can help our friends in Africa and ourselves by supporting African LGBTI in their efforts to strike at the Western roots of "African homophobia."

A federal court case in Massachusetts bears watching, in which Uganda activists are suing an American Pastor" who is charged with persecuting homosexuals.

Their triumph in that case will surely be a bigger blow for the global cause of human rights than cutting off aid or imposing other sanctions on African people.

Read more: Uganda's president signs anti-gay bill into law

Read more: How American evangelicals may be responsible for Uganda's anti-gay law

Read more: Did Pastor promote homophobia in Uganda?

Read more: Ugandan President: Being gay not a right

Read more: Ugandan tabloid prints list of 'homosexuals'

The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marc Epprecht.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT