I recently read the obituary of David Kato, a Ugandan gay rights activist who was murdered last month by a petty criminal. Not only was Kato brave enough to fight on behalf of LGBT rights in a horribly homophobic country (for which American evangelicals deserve some credit cultivating); but he had the courage to be openly gay himself, despite the considerable risks to his comfort and safety. Indeed, like nearly all of Uganda’s homosexuals (which are believed to number in the hundreds of thousands) Kato faced much persecution, not only from the usual religious authorities and elements of Ugandan society, but even from the political, legal, and media establishment.
In one chilling incident, a Ugandan tabloid known as Rolling Stone (no connection to the US-based publication), went so far as to list the country’s “top” 100 homosexuals, topped off with a bright banner that read “Hang Them” (Kato was among those listed). Most Ugandan police officers are known to harass and even beat homosexuals, at best behaving indifferently about their safety.
In fact, the Ugandan legal code, mostly a holdover from the British colonial era, actually goes so far as criminalize “homosexual acts” with an average of 14 years in prison. As if that weren’t enough, Ugandan politicians have actually been mulling over a “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” since 2009, which would penalize “serial” homosexuals with the death penalty, and “homosexual acts” with life imprisonment. Anyone found “helping, counselling, or encouraging another person to engage in a homosexual act” would receive seven years in prison. As of this month, the bill still remains in discussion in parliament, amid domestic and international outcries. The actual document is linked here.
Needless to say, it’s not easy being a homosexual in a country where every institution seems to be out to get you. Most LGBT people have it hard enough even in relatively tolerant societies, given that almost every country has elements within it that remain publicly opposed to “alternative” sexualities” (to say nothing of the intrinsic disconnect most non-heterosexuals feel from most of the people around them). So I can’t even begin to imagine what it feels like to be gay in a society where homophobia is ubiquitous, and one must actually fear for his or life and safety. Homosexuals have to choose between the discomfort of living a lie, ever fearful of being found out; or the even greater discomfort of being open and having to regularly face the omnipresent disgust, suspicion, and outright hatred.
Sadly, Uganda is hardly alone in it’s pervasive hostility to LGBT. Africa as a whole remains one of the most difficult places in the world to be homosexual, whether “in the closet” or out. At least 38 out of 53 African countries criminalize homosexuality in some way. Following Uganda’s debate on the it’s anti-gay bill, neighboring Rwanda and Burundi, also heavily Christianized, have been discussing their own legislation criminalizing homosexuality. Even South Africa, which has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world and allows gay marriages, has disturbingly prevalent incidents of “corrective rape.”
While many religious leaders and institutions have admirably stood against this growing wave of legally and religiously sanctioned homophobia, there is an obvious linkage between the proselytizing activities of Western Evangelical organizations and the entrenchment of homophobia in African society. In fact, the MP that sponsored the Ugandan bill, David Bahati, has ties to the American conservative religious organization, The Family. Several religious workshops and conferences have been held in Uganda with the explicit aim of countering the “gay agenda” and teaching such things as “the gay movement is an evil institution’ whose goal is ‘to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity'” and how “to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys.”
One particularly noxious organization, known as Exodus International, officially aims to promote “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ”. Prominent American Evangelicals such as Steven Lively and Rick Warren have been credited with shaping public perception and even policy towards homosexuals in several countries. The situation is no better or different in predominately Muslim African nations as well.
As in all other civilizations, homosexuality has a long history in Africa, with evidence presumably going as far back as Ancient Egypt in 2400 BCE (Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum have been proposed to be the first recorded homosexual couple in history, though it is disputed). As I alluded to earlier, much of the entrenched negativity towards homosexuality originates in 18th century during European imperialism, in which British, French, and other colonial nations imposed legal codes intended to ban abnormal sexual behavior among local Africans. In addition the growth of Islam, and especially Christianity as of late, has further reinforced negative perceptions towards gays, lesbians, and trans-gendered people.
Ironically, despite the fact that homophobia has a largely foreign origin, many Africans believe – and have been taught to believe – that homosexuality is a foreign import: un-Christian, un-Islamic, and un-African. Homosexuals are to Africans what Jews had long been to Medieval Europe: some sort of alien and dehumanizing force that is attributed to all the problems in a given society, in particular to moral decay and HIV/AIDS. Politicians are even known to channel the frustrations of their constituents onto homosexuals, blaming them for economic problems, crime, unemployment, and other ills. How homosexuals lead to such terrible things is never really explained or discussed in detail. Rather, it’s often treated as common knowledge, though for all intents and purposes it superstition.
Personally, I see this as an almost inevitable phase in Africa’s history. As with the Western world (and to a lesser degree other developed countries outside of it), African nations are enduring their coming of age with respect to facing the many ethical, social, and moral questions that all civilizations eventually do. African perceptions of homosexuals are often no different than that once held by European and North American societies, which have since endured their debates and culture wars and largely (though not entirely) gotten over the issue (at least to the degree of not sanctioning legal punishment for it).
Unfortunately, such social progression takes time, and it certainly took the West centuries to reach it’s point of tolerance, during which many lives were ruined and destroyed. It’s hard to suggest to the African LGBT community that they basically need to wait it out and do the best they can to counter the misinformation campaign. Interestingly, Africa remains a proxy for the greater culture war concerning homosexuality, with foreign organizations from both sides campaigning their respective views throughout the continent. It’s pretty much becoming the central battle ground LGBT rights.
But Africa is far from alone in it’s intolerance of homosexuals. Bigotry and social persecution of “abnormal” sexual orientation remains widespread throughout the world. LGBT individuals are perhaps among the most universally maligned, misunderstood, and hated demographics in human history. My only consolation is the thought that, like so many other once universally prevalent unethical positions (think slavery, the treatment of women, etc), such views towards homosexuals will be similarly marginalized. Sadly, like the examples I listed, this vice will never be completely eradicated. But we can only hope to eventually (mostly) leave behind this petty human obsession with something as ultimately harmless and personal as one’s sexual identity, and to continue our progress towards ethical and social attitudes that are founded on empathy, compassion, and reason.