Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Koroma, said that “we have to take into consideration our culture, tradition, religious beliefs and all that… I think the country should be led by what it believes is right for the country and not what is necessarily right for the international community because of the variations in our traditions.’’
In fact, pre-colonial African traditions varied widely. Over 20 cultural varieties of indigenous African same-sex intimacy have been recorded by anthropologists. There are Bushmen paintings of men having sex with one another. There are countless examples of cross-dressing and cross-gender behavior. There are instances of female warriors marrying other female warriors, such as in the kingdom of Dahomey, in present-day Benin—unsurprisingly, the Europeans called them ‘Amazons.’ There are even cases of male homosexuality being seen as possessing magical properties, such as the transmission of wealth from one person to another. And, like the hijras of India, there are examples in several ethnic groups of men who took on women’s roles and dress to have sex with men. These people were not “gay” or “homosexual.” Those are Western terms, laden with connotations of culture and medicalization. They had names of their own: Chibadi (Southern Africa), Mukodo Dako (Uganda), and many others.
Pre-colonial Africa was not some queer paradise. Many of the gender-variant male types were stigmatized; being regarded as women was hardly an elevation in social status. And some forms of African sexual diversity, such as pederasty, are hardly models for contemporary morality but the notion that homosexuality is un-African is not historically grounded.
“African” ideas about homosexuality are often those spread by American Evangelicals, out to colonize Africa spiritually rather than politically. Lou Engle, Scott Lively, Human Life International—these are not household names in the United States, and that’s precisely the point. Like has-been basketball players dunking baskets in Europe, the leftovers of the American Evangelical scene have found new life in Africa. These Westerners bring money and influence, and are gladly met by opportunistic African leaders. Each group is using the other: Evangelicals shift policy and are able to raise money back home, and their African collaborators can posture against Western imperialism and get rich.
At the same time, the notion of gay rights as Western is also reinforced by Western gay rights activists. By scolding countries like Uganda and Nigeria for getting gay rights wrong (even as the United States itself has only “gotten it right” for the last few years) American liberals reinforce the notion that LGBT equality is Western, and, even worse, remind many in Africa of the patriarchal colonialist attitude that we Westerners are advanced, and you Africans are backward. Each time Americans and Europeans threaten to cut off aid to an African country because of its anti-gay laws, another African leader can “stand up to the West” and look powerful for resisting the pressure. The notion that developing world countries should leapfrog 40 years of social history, and the corresponding one that Western sanctions should whip them if they don’t, only feeds the flames of anti-Western sentiment and bolsters the political position of anti-Western posturing.
Meanwhile, LGBT people on the ground become victims of the backlash.
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