Thursday, June 11, 2015

Africa comes out

Mozambique will officially rescind “vice against nature” legislation in a few weeks time.

Of the 76 countries that still criminalise same-sex relationships and behaviour, 38 are African. Recent surveys also show that the overwhelming majority of people who live in Africa strongly disapprove of homosexuality. This is even the case in South Africa, the only country on the continent that has legalised same-sex marriage.

Dozens of studies show that same-sex practices in pre-colonial Africa were not generally taboo in the way that colonial administrations codified them. Many traditional societies in Africa, and elsewhere, developed ways of ordering and tolerating same-sex attractions and behaviour. Many tolerated some same-sex relationships among men, particularly in age-related cohorts or military units. Large numbers of men practised some same-sex activities while asserting their heterosexuality in other spheres of life. Among women, many different African societies record marriage or other kinds of recognised relationships between women, as well as different forms of cross-dressing and role-swapping. These include societies and cultures in Kenya, Sudan, Cameroon, Nigeria, Lesotho, South Africa and many others.

Only during the height of colonisation were precise definitions of sexual orientations developed and proscribed behaviours punished. The British in particular brought in legislation because they thought “native” cultures did not punish “perverse” sex enough. Like so many other colonial era laws based on Victorian prejudices, these laws should have been repealed as part of the decolonisation process. But, on liberation, most English-speaking colonies did not repeal colonial-era “sodomy” or “crime/vice against nature” laws.

More recently, some of the impetus behind new laws has come from conservative and often racist organisations based in the US. In the last 15 years, the Christian right, primarily charismatic right-wing churches from the US, has been very active in driving anti-homosexuality sentiment in parts of Africa, like Uganda. These groups have supplied their African allies with discredited junk science to bolster what is ultimately a narrow, imported set of ultra-conservative values. Similarly, the growth of a more conservative set of Islamic customs in some parts of Africa has seen the erosion of indigenous belief systems that have been historically more tolerant of non-heterosexual orientations.

In Uganda President Yoweri Museveni signed a law that contained harsh new punishments for “homosexual acts” and for what it calls the “promotion” of homosexuality. Implementation of that law is currently suspended by the Ugandan Constitutional Court. There are also new laws in Nigeria, homophobic changes to the constitution in Zimbabwe and discussion about possible new laws in a number of countries, including Kenya. A particularly dangerous aspect of new laws in some parts of Africa is that they are designed to criminalise those who advocate for LGBTI rights or campaign for better access to public health facilities. This impedes the work of NGOs and activists and wider dissemination of new science about sexual orientation.

Same-sex attraction is neither “un-African” nor a colonial import. Between 350 million and 400 million people globally are not heterosexual, about 50 million of whom live in African countries. It is time to transform the continent’s laws. 

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