Until the arrival of homophobic colonials, many places in Africa shared a tacit acceptance of gay relations so long as they took place before or alongside marriage, which retained a particular focus on childbearing and the importance of lineage. In fact, what we might describe as lesbian interaction was often not even considered sexual, as no penis was involved, and took place between women frequently and without question. This still goes on in some places on the African continent, although the influence of Western ideas, particularly homophobia and our distinctly European binary view of sex, is changing that.
Colonial settlers and missionaries were horrified by what they saw when they arrived on Africa’s shores; of polygamy, same-sex relations and often matriarchal societies. They immediately set about ‘civilising’ the locals, by introducing strictly patriarchal structures, new Christian ideas about sex and gender, and an ugly, pervasive view of same-sex relations; industrial-size homophobia was brought to the continent.
Fast forward to the present day and the West has experienced a dramatic sexual revolution. First of all, the contraceptive pill, female emancipation, gender equality legislation and the blossoming of individualism all created an environment where sexual choices are those for the individual and the Victorian obsession with conservative sexual morals has come (almost) to an end. The last legal stalwart of this prudishness was anti-homosexuality legislation, discriminatory laws dropping like flies so that now, most Western countries can boast that gay people have full equal rights under the law, including the right to marry, have children, serve in the military and live lives free from discrimination. There is still a long way to go until social equality catches up with the law, but a major obstacle has been bulldozed in achieving this ultimate goal.
But the world had not yet shared in this social revolution. We, the British, should feel particularly ashamed of the colonial legacy of homophobia that we left behind – ex-British colonies are significantly more likely to have laws criminalising homosexuality than countries that were colonised by other European powers, or not colonised at all. It would be simplistic and incorrect to suggest that homophobia didn’t exist in Africa until the arrival of colonial powers, but we certainly reinforced it and turned it into a legal and social nightmare. And we shouldn’t forget that our change in position on this issue is an extremely recent one, only three decades ago, European governments including Britain were defending homophobic legislation in the European Court of Human Rights arguing that they had the “legitimate aim” of the “protection of morals”, based on religion and centuries-old moral standards. Many African countries are currently experience a fresh wave of homophobia, from new criminalising laws including the horrifying threat of the death penalty, to public crackdowns on homosexual behaviour, free speech violations and harassment. Shrewd politicians have sought to capitalise on dangerous public sentiment for easy political gains, with a homophobic media lapping it up, and sometimes even baying for blood. Even more worryingly, reports suggest that wealthy evangelical Christian churches from America, having lost their battle with homosexuality at home, are increasingly turning to the African continent to peddle their hate-filled brand of religious belief.
Attempts to influence these African nations to drop homophobia legislation has proved challenging, and understandably so; the response often boils down to claims that homosexuality is a Western invention with no place on the African continent, and attempts to prevent homophobic discrimination are colonial influence that has no place in the modern world. It is essential that we recognised that the majority African view of homosexuality is not just one that we held until extremely recently, but one that we specifically imported and cultivated there. At the same time, we cannot simply dismiss the problem as none of our business, while human rights abuses continue and people are suffering. We know that homosexuality is an intrinsic part of the human condition, not a culturally-specific phenomenon. But our approach must be sensitive, it must not be preachy; we must tread carefully when tackling the endemic homophobia we are largely responsible for. So what is the right approach?
First, we must seek to understand the complex and often unwritten rule of customary law, and appreciate the different attitudes toward sex that cross Africa, and can vary dramatically even in relatively small areas. We cannot combat homophobia with Western conceptions of sex that are confusing and alien to those on the ground. And to appreciate the role we can play, we must first challenge our own pervasive prejudices of a homogenous Africa inhabited by the savage and simple-minded – nothing could be further from the truth. We must begin by taking Africa seriously, and treating Africans as equals with their own views and voices, instead of simply assuming we can boss them around.
In the past, Western donors have threatened to cut development aid (and in some cases actually have), but this is the wrong approach. People do not respond well to threats, and threatening aid budgets is emotional blackmail that also will hit the poorest people in African nations the hardest. Threatening counties might make them remove legislation, but it will further entrench views of colonial bullying and do nothing to change hearts and minds on the issue at hand; if anything it may reinforce these views more stubbornly. This approach is also highly hypocritical, considering the lavish support we throw at other nations with an appalling record of human rights abuses against gay people, with Saudi Arabia being a key example.
Instead, we must recognise that there are many Africans fighting homophobia on the ground in their countries; these are the efforts we should be supporting. Aid funding should be channelled to these organisations, and our human rights organisations and foreign offices should keep tabs on them so they are at least somewhat protected from both legal and physical harassment. We are also ignoring high level African voices against homophobia that challenge the perception of defence of homosexuality as ‘unAfrican’; the South African Human Rights Commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the former President of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, are some such voices that must be heard. For it to succeed, the fight against homophobia on African soil must be an agenda led by Africans, based on African, not Western, values.
Homophobia in Africa is a growing problem, and we must recognise that it will be a long and difficult road towards achieving the same level of equality and acceptance that we have here in the UK, even when we also have so far to go. But a ham-fisted approach that involves neo-colonial bullying and ill-considered pressure will only make the situation worse. Combating homophobia in Africa requires patience and a grass-roots approach, so that the vital voices of African activists take precedence over our own.