Last month, the Ugandan parliament passed one of the toughest pieces of anti-gay legislation in Africa. If signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni, the bill would mandate draconian punishments, including the possibility of life in prison for those who identify as gay, and even the death penalty in certain cases.
While this assault on human rights might be expected in authoritarian contexts like Uganda, African democracies have also been swept up in the winds of prejudice.
In Ghana, for example, ‘extreme’ anti-LGBT legislation has been drafted and proposes criminalisation, with up to five years in prison, for identifying as an LGBT person or for being in a gay relationship. In Zambia, activists are being arrested for participating in peaceful protests against gender-based violence – this, on the assumption that such public actions ‘support homosexuality.’
‘Irony here is striking’
The latest round of homophobia – which demonises some of the world’s most vulnerable people and communities – is being enacted by populist leaders who claim to be protecting ‘African values’ against the ‘colonial imposition’ of LGBT rights.
The irony here is striking. These leaders conveniently ignore the fact that homophobia has its roots in colonialism.
In an overwhelming number of cases, the first explicitly homophobic laws in Africa were introduced by colonial administrators and Western missionaries – not by African leaders.
The British were particularly problematic: while 33% of former French territories criminalise homosexuality today, the figure rises to 66% in Commonwealth countries. As Aileen Kimuhu recently wrote, this means that “properly understood, homophobia is a legacy of colonialism – and it is one that a genuine process of decolonisation would have removed”.
Baton is passed along
Today, it is right-wing evangelical leaders who have taken up the baton of exporting prejudice. Through massive amounts of funding, the staging of conservative political conferences abroad, and media disinformation campaigns that promote extremist interpretations of religious texts, these groups have emerged as key drivers of this toxic agenda.
In the African context, this has included everything from promoting ‘anti-gay’ politics to supporting ‘anti-feminist’ campaigns that fiercely oppose a woman’s right to choose what to do with their own body.
This process is not a new one – it has its foundation in the emergence of more radical forms of charismatic Pentecostal Christianity in the US. Through missionary activity, which often worked hand-in-glove with colonial oppression and a ‘globalising’ religious world, these changes spread rapidly across Africa.
Although American practices were never adopted wholesale, and always interacted with existing beliefs and practices, leading to new hybrids, this process created networks and alliances that have spread right-wing American dogma across the continent.
The polarising ‘culture wars’ in the US have fuelled fresh waves of anti-gay and anti-feminist vitriol across the globe.
One prominent exemplar is Scott Lively, president of the Abiding Truth Ministries, and a rabid anti-gay crusader. Despite being a notorious conspiracy theorist known for promoting flawed and dangerous ideas – like the claim that the reason the Nazi party carried out the Holocaust was that it was full of gay men – has been able to personally meet with prominent African politicians.
Back in 2009, Lively met with Ugandan lawmakers and government officials, some of whom went on to draft draconian legislation known as the ‘kill the gays’ bill. That legislation ultimately failed, but its legacy contributed to the extreme ‘anti-gay’ bill just passed by the Ugandan parliament.
Meanwhile, the polarising ‘culture wars’ in the US have fuelled fresh waves of anti-gay and anti-feminist vitriol across the globe, as ‘radical Pentecostal communities from the US’ have sponsored the introduction of anti-LGBT laws throughout Africa. This has shaped the politics of identity in Africa in new, often bizarre, and dangerous ways.
Just take a look at how American debates about protecting the ‘traditional family unit’ have played out in Africa. In the American context, this has become a driving concern of conservative religious figures who fear that an increasingly assertive LGBT community will erode the notion of a nuclear family.
Through conservative evangelical networks, this obsession has been exported to countries like Uganda and Nigeria where references are often made to protecting the ‘family unit’, even though they have not seen the trends of declining marriage rates experienced in America.
Similarly, Ugandan state media and politicians have used similar rhetoric―‘groomer’, ‘paedophile,’ ‘protecting the children’― that ring familiar with audiences in the US. In the words of Caleb Okereke these narratives with ‘deep links to white evangelical Christianity’ are ‘polarising African countries and harming and endangering LGBTQ+ people’.
‘The West makes for a good bogeyman’
Of course, African religious and political leaders are not simply being duped into following foreign dogma. As ever, they have responded to and manipulated global trends to suit their selfish interests.
Across Africa, if you hate gay people, you get votes.
Rattling the ‘anti-gay’ sabre can increase the following of both preachers and politicians. In other words, figures like Uganda’s Museveni are well aware of the colonial and foreign roots of anti-gay prejudice. However, they also know that the West makes for a good bogeyman and that depicting queerness as a Western imposition while pledging to ‘save the world from homosexuality’ plays well with the voting public.
In this way, self-professed ‘anti-colonial’ leaders like Museveni – as well as Robert Mugabe and Yahya Jammeh before him – end up parroting colonial talking points as part of their cynical attempts to maintain relevance and their grip on political power. As Nigerian activist Bisi Alimi once said: “Across Africa, if you hate gay people, you get votes.” This helps to explain why Uganda is merely the tip of the iceberg: of the 64 countries that have laws criminalising homosexuality, nearly half are in Africa.
The good news is that just as bad leadership can channel these processes into prejudicial laws, responsible governments can draw on their country’s inclusive histories and constitutional protections to defend human rights. Angola’s new president João Lourenço signed into law a penal code that allows same-sex relationships while banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In 2006, South Africa became the first African country to legalise same-sex marriage. In Gabon, homosexuality was decriminalised in 2020. In diverse countries like Botswana, Mozambique, and the Seychelles, anti-homosexuality laws were undone by lawmakers, welcomed by the public, and upheld by the courts.
Nevertheless, the dangerous blend of populist autocrats seeking to cling to power, colonial legacies, and right-wing US zealots represents a constant threat not only to LGBT people, but also to women’s rights. It is up to African civil society groups, leaders, and average citizens to demand policies that reflect their own histories and constitutions, rather than imperial relics and nefarious outside agendas.
Doing so will help communities currently under assault, as well as safeguard the rights of those who may be targeted in the future. The democracy and safety of all are weakened when society allows the rights and liberties of some of its members to be undermined.
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