From colonialism to ‘kill the gays’: The surprisingly recent roots of homophobia in Africa

June 27, 2013

President Obama listens during a joint news conference with Senegal's President Macky Sall in Dakar. (EPA)

This post has been updated with a correction, appended below.

When President Obama praised the Supreme Court's decision this week to overturn a law that had forbidden the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, he just happened to be in Senegal, standing alongside the country's president. Naturally, reporters at the event asked Senegalese President Mackey Sall whether he might improve gay rights as well, albeit from a very different starting point, by rolling back his country's law banning homosexuality. Sall no doubt knows that the Obama administration has long pushed African nations to improve gay rights. But he didn't hedge: The answer, he said, is no.

"We are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality," Sall said. "These issues are societal. ... We should not have one standard model that’s applicable to all nations." He added, though, that Senegal is "very tolerant" and that "This does not mean we are homophobic."

Sub-Saharan Africa has an infamously poor reputation for LGBT rights. Out of 54 countries in the continent, 38 criminalize homosexuality. A global Pew study on attitudes toward homosexuality found that surveyed African countries tended to be among the least likely to agree that society "should accept homosexuality." The more comprehensive World Values Survey yielded similar results. And, as gay rights improve in much of the world, they're getting worse in Africa. As The Washington Post's Sudarsan Raghavan wrote in 2010, LGBT Africans "have been denied access to health care, detained, tortured and even killed," a trend of growing persecution "fueled by fundamentalist preachers, intolerant governments and homophobic politicians." And the Guardian's Madeleine Bunting wrote, also in 2010, "There is consensus among the vast majority of Africans that homosexuality is wrong."  Just on Tuesday, Amnesty International released a lengthy report detailing what it says is worsening and "dangerous" homophobia across much of Africa.

The story of how and why things got so bad is complicated and disputed, not least because it would be impossible to generalize across dozens of countries, a much wider array of cultures and a physical area three times the size of Europe. And there is at least one very important exception: South Africa, which in some ways is more progressive on gay rights than many Western countries (more on this later). But Africa's poor record on gay rights would seem to be too broad a trend to be coincidence; surely there must be some common factors. Academic study of the region has identified a few themes and trends that, while certainly not definitive of every African society, help to broadly identify some of the roots of homophobia in Africa.

Like so many pan-African trends, this one appears to have its origins in the colonial era, when a handful of European powers carved up the continent during the 19th and 20th centuries. (Before colonialism, at least some African societies appear to have accepted homosexuality, the Africa scholar Deborah Amory has written.) At the time, the rigorously conservative social codes of the Victorian era were sweeping through Europe, particularly the United Kingdom; this included passionately held and severely enforced laws against homosexuality. The colonial powers, organizing their African colonies within largely arbitrary borders and writing constitutions from scratch, imposed these sodomy laws across the continent.

When Europe began giving up its colonies after the end of World War Two, most of Africa's newly independent states decided to keep the colonial-era constitutions. A study by Human Rights Watch found that half of the world's "sodomy laws" criminalizing homosexuality are direct hold-overs from British colonial rule; former French and Portuguese colonies retained the laws as well.

But that was half a century ago. Why haven't African countries rolled back the laws, as their former European powers have done? And why does it seem to be getting worse? To find out, I spoke to Kim Yi Dionne, a professor at Smith College who studies the issue. At first, she says, people in these countries and their governments were simply "busy doing other things." Destabilized by internal resource competition between groups forced together by the artificial colonial borders, by domestic conflict and by dictatorship, there was not really space to roll back the laws and social norms that had taken hold.

Eventually, the same resource competition that robbed African societies of space to reconsider anti-gay laws may have actually worsened them. Political and religious leaders, Dionne says, learned that they could score easy points by condemning homosexuality, which was already widely unpopular. This habit, which allowed leaders like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe to "divert from more pressing issues," only further ingrained homophobia. And it can get worse in times of conflict or scarcity. Dionne says that some forthcoming research from the University of Pennsylvania found that negative mentions of homosexuality tend to spike in African media during close political contests. And it's not just elections. According to Amory, "Sexual orientation has become a cause, or perhaps an excuse, for political persecution and personal violence in diverse African contexts."

Ironically, some leaders, including Mugabe, began arguing that homosexuality is a "Western perversion" imposed from outside, Amory noted. When Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika began losing foreign aid because of his government's growing authoritarianism, Dionne says, he blamed the loss of funding on homosexuality, arguing that Western countries were trying to impose pro-gay values on his country.

NGOs and Western governments have at times suggested that they might cut funding to African countries that persecute gays, an understandable policy but one that has had the perverse effect of worsening public backlash against gays in some countries. As the Guardian's Bunting wrote, "Anything that smacks of westerners telling Africans what to do prompts instant bridling." It can hit on what she says some scholars have termed a "crisis of masculinity" that may be both a result of post-colonial politics and a factor in homophobia; anything that could be taken as undermining African masculinity, such as perceived Western lecturing, also risks exacerbate hostility toward homosexuality. Even Liberia, though never a colony, has seen homophobia worsen after a U.S. effort to pressure Nobel peace prize-winning President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to repeal the country's sodomy law. She refused.

More recently, there's another trend that appears to be worsening homophobia in the sub-Saharan: the influx of evangelical and pentecostal preachers, often from the United States, which has spurred an increasingly competitive contest for African worshipers. Dionne says that these religious figures, much like political leaders before them, sometimes get peoples' attention by leveraging preexisting homophobia, perhaps worsening it in the process. But, once again, outsiders are doing their part. As the Post's Raghavan wrote, conservative American Christian groups "send missions and help fund local churches that share their brand of Christianity. Sermons and seminars by American evangelist preachers are staples on local television and radio networks across the continent." Often, these sermons play up the supposed threat of homosexuality to Africa's culture and its children. As in the case of Uganda, which has spent years debating a "kill the gays" bill to punish homosexuality with death, ever-harsher political rhetoric and social attitudes can follow.

Still, it's important to note that there's nothing about African society or politics that makes it necessarily homophobic, as South Africa's remarkably progressive record on the issue shows. Owing in part to work by gay rights activists during the anti-apartheid movement, the country was the first to outlaw discrimination against gays, one of the first to allow gay marriage and still holds annual gay pride parades in Johannesburg and Cape Town. While public attitudes in the country are still not particularly pro-gay rights – only 32 percent of Pew poll respondents said society should accept homosexuality – they're still much more accepting than most other African nations. Progress is possible here, no different from anyplace else.

Still, at the moment, progress can be difficult. A month after Malawi's new president, Joyca Banda, took office in May 2012, she pledged in her state of the union to repeal the country's strict ban on homosexuality, calling for a national conversation on the law and its implication. The public backlash, from religious figures and political rivals, was fierce. While she suspended enforcement of the law in November, it remains technically on the books and her promised public debate never came.

Correction: This post initially stated that former Malawian President Hastings Banda had blamed homosexuality for his country's loss of Western aid money. In fact, this practice was associated with Bingu wa Mutharika, who was president of Malawi from 2004 until his death in 2012.

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Max Fisher | June 27, 2013