From Lagos to Lilongwe, Disappointing Progress on LGBT Rights

From Lagos to Lilongwe, Disappointing Progress on LGBT Rights


By Hobie Hunter The status of LGBT rights in Africa is truly worrisome. Compared to regions such as the Americas or Western Europe, the continent has seen little progress. What changes it has seen have been for the worse. Gay people have been “denied access to health care, detained, tortured, and even killed."[1] Several trends underlie this issue that show little sign of going away.

Almost all states on the continent do not recognize same-sex relationships, do not allow recognition by same-sex couples, nor ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Of the 54 countries in Africa, 38 have criminalized same-sex intercourse outright.[2] In Uganda, Tanzania, and Sierra Leone, offenders can receive life imprisonment. In Mauritania, Sudan, and northern Nigeria, those convicted of homosexual acts face the death penalty.[3] Furthermore, Nigeria has passed a law that bans straight family members, friends, or allies from supporting LGBT individuals. The law carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. The one bright spot is South Africa, which allows same-sex marriage and bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.4]

Some Western countries have reduced aid to countries that impose homophobic policies. Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands have shifted approximately $30 million in aid away from the Ugandan government to non-governmental organizations in the wake of severe anti-gay legislation in the country.[5] Leaders have remained defiant in the face of the cuts. For example, the President of Gambia recently said that he could not be “bribed” by Western organizations into supporting LGBT rights.[6] Some leaders have voiced the opinion that homosexuality did not exist before colonization and that it is a Western import. Robert Mugabe, the dictator of Zimbabwe, has declared that homosexuality is “un-African” and a “white disease."[7]

This is an ironic position. Homosexuality is not a Western import. Rather, modern homophobia in Africa is in large part a legacy of the colonial period. A substantial number of societies in precolonial Africa seem to have accepted homosexuality. For example, the Azande of Northern Congo “routinely married younger men who functioned as temporary wives—a practice that was institutionalized to such an extent that warriors would pay ‘brideprice’ to the young man’s parents.” A Dutch military attaché in the late 1640s encountered a woman in a Ndongo kingdom who ruled as “king” in place of “queen” and was surrounded by a harem of young men dressed as women who were her “wives.” Examples abound across Africa.[8] In many cases, these non-procreative relationships were seen as mere “play.” Because they did not have the same status as heterosexual relationships, they were not a threat to social norms.[9]

In the late 19th century colonial powers surged across the continent. These powers, in the grip of conservative social mores, imposed binary notions of sexuality as well as sodomy laws on their colonies.[10] The United Kingdom was particularly responsible. Areas that were colonized by the French, on the other hand, tend to be more tolerant. Most have legal same-sex intercourse. When these colonies sought independence, most decided to keep these laws. They generally had more pressing issues with which to deal. Over time, leaders learned that they could score easy political points by demonizing gays. Research from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that “negative mentions of homosexuality tend to spike in African media during close electoral contests."[11] The enduring popularity on Christianity in the region during the colonial period and afterwards has helped to solidify this system of beliefs.[12]

One outside group has had a strong role in promoting homophobic policy in African nations: conservative evangelical Christians from the US. Ultraconservative activists, losing in the West, have come to Africa to spread a message of hate. One of the foremost is Scott Lively, who bills himself as an expert on the “international homosexual agenda.” He hosted a prominent three-day conference in Uganda where he discussed how homosexuals recruit children into their “lifestyle” and how gays caused both the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.[13] While such comments are laughed off in the United States, they helped to set off a firestorm of homophobia in Uganda. The next month, a Ugandan lawmaker introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (commonly known as the “Kill the Gays” bill), which originally called for the death penalty for those convicted of homosexuality. The death penalty was later moderated to life in prison. The law remained in effect for about six months before being ruled unconstitutional in August 2014.[14] These American homophobic activists have also operated in Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe among others.[15]

It is easy to sit back in America and relish progress made toward LGBT rights. Most Emory students have the luxury of moving to Midtown, Chelsea, or South Beach and ignoring what happens in Lagos, Kampala, or Nairobi. However, Westerners have played critical roles in promoting homophobia in Africa both during the colonial period and the present. Engrained cultural notions, the convenience of a scapegoat, and vigorous action by homophobic evangelical activists are factors that will not disappear. Strong action must be taken. On this front, at least, the news is encouraging. In 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that protections for LGBT citizens would be taken into consideration when dispensing foreign aid.[16] In February 2015, Secretary of State Kerry took further action by appointing the US’s first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons.[17] Steps can and must be taken to ensure that LGBT rights are enjoyed globally.


[1] Raghavan, Sudarsan. "Gays in Africa Face Growing Persecution, Human Rights Activists Say." Washington Post. December 11, 2010. Accessed March 4, 2015.

[2] Fisher, Max. "From Colonialism to ‘kill the Gays’: The Surprisingly Recent Roots of Homophobia in Africa." Washington Post. June 27, 2013. Accessed March 6, 2015.

[3] "LGBT Rights in Africa." Wikipedia. Accessed March 4, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Whitling, Alex. "Western Donors Cut Aid to Uganda in Response to Anti-gay Law." Thomson Reuters Foundation. February 26, 2014. Accessed March 4, 2015.

[6] Shryock, Ricci. "Gambian President Says No to Aid Money Tied to Gay Rights." Voice of America News. April 22, 2012. Accessed March 5, 2015.

[7] Evaristo, Bernardine. "The Idea That African Homosexuality Was a Colonial Import Is a Myth." The Guardian. March 8, 2014. Accessed March 5, 2015.

[8] Stewart, Colin. "21 Varieties of Traditional African Homosexuality." January 30, 2014. Accessed March 4, 2015.

[9] Divani, Aarti. "Is Homosexuality "Un-African"?" Think Africa Press. October 12, 2011. Accessed March 4, 2015.

[10] "'Sodomy' Laws Show Survival of Colonial Injustice." Human Rights Watch. December 17, 2008. Accessed March 4, 2015.

[11] Fisher, Max. "From Colonialism to ‘kill the Gays’: The Surprisingly Recent Roots of Homophobia in Africa." Washington Post. June 27, 2013. Accessed March 6, 2015.

[12] Kalende, Val. "Homophobia Is a Legacy of Colonialism." Think Africa Press. April 1, 2014. Accessed March 23, 2015.

[13] Kaoma, Kapya. "How Anti-gay Christians Evangelize Hate Abroad." LA Times. March 23, 2014. Accessed March 5, 2015.

[14] "Uganda Court Annuls Anti-homosexuality Law." BBC News Africa. August 1, 2014. Accessed March 5, 2015.

[15] Baptiste, Nathalie. "It’s Not Just Uganda: Behind the Christian Right’s Onslaught in Africa." April 4, 2014. Accessed March 4, 2015.

[16] Peralta, Eyder. "U.S. Says It Will Use Foreign Aid To Promote Gay Rights." NPR. December 6, 2011. Accessed March 5, 2015.

[17] Peralta, Eyder. "U.S. Appoints First-Ever Special Envoy For LGBT Rights." NPR. February 23, 2015. Accessed March 5, 2015.

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