Western journalists and scholars shape much of the discussion about same-sex issues in Africa. Headlines from Western media houses read: "An African epidemic of homophobia," "Why Africa is the most homophobic continent" and "Why Africa's Turning Anti-Gay."
The "Africa as homophobic" narrative has even found a loyal following among people who consider themselves skeptics of standard Western portrayals of Africa. For example, students in my African politics courses and in audiences where I present research about sexual minority politics typically hold the belief that Africa is the worst place in the world to be gay.
Two data-driven projects highlight Africa as particularly anti-gay. Perhaps the most striking image is a map of the world created by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) highlighting countries with laws criminalizing homosexuality. Africa and the Middle East stand out.
Likewise, using survey data from 39 countries, the Pew Research Center reports widespread rejection of homosexuality in Africa (and in predominantly Muslim countries). Of course, the Pew study was conducted in only eight African countries, and the white on its global map of acceptance of homosexuality reflects lack of data from much of the continent.
Public opinion surveys and legal analysis allow us to compare cross-nationally the state of same-sex politics around the world. But in these studies, Western researchers are in the driver's seat. Where are the African scholars of same-sex issues in Africa?
The prominence of Western scholars in discussion of same-sex issues in Africa can perpetuate the myth that "non-normative sexualities are not a topic of particular interest to African intellectuals."
That quote comes from the recently published "Sexual Diversity in Africa: Politics, Theory, Citizenship," a volume of essays edited by political scientist S.N. Nyeck and historian Marc Epprecht. It complements other recently released volumes covering the politics of non-normative sexualities in Africa, including a reader edited by Ugandan legal scholar Sylvia Tamale.
The Nyeck and Epprecht volume emerged from a workshop and subsequent conference that brought together activists and scholars from North America and the African continent to discuss scholarship on gender and sexualities in Africa.
Topics in the edited volume range from the challenges faced by African refugees who have sought or are seeking asylum in Canada to the controversy surrounding the gender identity of South African track star Caster Semenya to rhetorical analysis of Gambian President Yaya Jammeh's threats to behead homosexuals.
The chapter that changed my thinking about "African homophobia" was written by Nyeck and titled, "Mobilizing against the Invisible: Erotic Nationalism, Mass Media, and the 'Paranoid Style' in Cameroon." In it, Nyeck disrupts the commonly held view among scholars that homophobia in Africa is a simple form of political demagoguery.
How might our perspectives shift if the researchers studying same-sex issues in Africa were from Africa? The Nyeck and Epprecht volume (like the Tamale reader) show much more diversity and nuance than a map or bar graph. Students in my seminar on same-sex politics in Africa learned a lot from the volume and found it one of the few accessible scholarly resources from which they could draw on experiences of women who have sex with women in Africa.
Perhaps relevant to equality activists, African researchers could be even more powerful than Western researchers as advocates for the rights of sexual minorities. Just last month, the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) issued a report that concluded that "variation in sexual identities and orientations has always been part of a normal society" and that efforts should "be focused on countering the belief systems that create hostile and even violent environments for those who are 'othered' within 'heteronormative' societies."
The Ugandan National Academy of Sciences collaborated on the ASSAf report and endorsed its findings. Ugandan researchers' endorsement of the report stands in stark contrast to the current state of sexual minority politics in Uganda, where the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was signed into law in 2014 (the Constitutional Court of Uganda later ruled the law invalid).
Unlike maps of criminalizing homosexuality or bar charts capturing public opinion rejection of homosexuality, this report by African scientists and scholars unequivocally accepting of diversity in human sexuality was not widely reported. (Granted, Slate featured a post by two South African scientists and Nature also summarized the report's findings.)
I don't expect that with the ASSAf report science alone will shift anti-gay prejudice in Africa. The report and Nyeck and Epprecht's recent volume do not change the fact that same-sex sex acts are illegal in many African countries, nor do they nullify the results of public opinion surveys about acceptance of homosexuality. These newer studies by African scholars show, however, that referring to Africa as "homophobic" diminishes our understanding of sexuality in Africa.
The backlash against Western-promoted gay rights efforts in African countries suggests some rethinking. The growing group of African scholars and scientists studying sexual diversity in Africa might be the first people to invite to such a conversation.
See our earlier posts in this year's African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular:
- ‘Protest is always hopeful’: Examining the third wave of popular protest in Africa (Adam Branch, Kim Yi Dionne, and Zachariah Mampilly)
- Governance, gender and no guarantees in Africa’s oil-rich states (Celeste Hicks and Laura Seay)
- What are the drivers of Nigeria’s ‘ups and downs’? (Kim Yi Dionne and Carl Levan)
- Is ‘China in Africa’ something to fear? (Howard French and Laura Seay)