Skip to main content

Opinion: Is Africa the most homophobic continent?

By Marc Epprecht, professor of Global Development Studies, Special to CNN
updated 10:46 AM EST, Fri February 28, 2014
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
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 5:15 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT