Homophobia Is Un-African

On February 24, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed one of the most repressive pieces of anti-gay legislation in Africa into law. The bill has numerous harsh penalties including:

  • Life imprisonment for gay sex
  • Life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality” (including sex with a minor or while HIV-positive)
  • Life imprisonment for living in a same-sex marriage, seven years for “attempting to commit homosexuality”
  • Between five and seven years in jail and/or a $40,700 fine for the promotion of homosexuality
  • Businesses or non-governmental organisations found guilty of the promotion of homosexuality to have their certificates of registration cancelled and directors can face seven years in jail

Earlier versions of the bill included a provision that made it a crime not to report gay people.

In December, Museveni rejected the bill, however it appears that input from a commission of “medical experts” may have changed his mind. The commission's report stated that “homosexuality has no clear cut cause; several factors are involved which differ from individual to individual. It is not a disease that has a treatment.” According to this theory, homosexuality might be considered a condition caused solely by environmental factors rather than a preference that people are born with.

In Kampala, the witch-hunt against gays may have already begun following Ugandan tabloid Red Pepper’s recent publication of “200 top homosexuals in Uganda.” Such a list may lead to widespread attacks in the coming weeks. 

Michelle Kagari, the Africa deputy director at Amnesty International made recently stated that “this deeply offensive piece of legislation is an affront to the human rights of all Ugandans and should never have got this far.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his dismay at the bill, saying: "The United States is deeply disappointed in the enactment of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda. This is a tragic day for Uganda and for all who care about the cause of human rights. Ultimately, the only answer is repeal of this law.“ As Uganda’s largest development aid donor, such words may have a large impact as shown through the recent announcement that the Obama administration will be conducting an internal review of its relationship with the Ugandan government. The Netherlands is also considering withdrawing development aid for Ugandan civil society organizations. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has called on Uganda to repeal the draconian law. 

Uganda’s legislation comes on the heels of Nigeria’s recent ban on homosexuality. The latter law imposes 14-year prison terms for same-sex unions as well as a 10-year prison sentences for those who run gay clubs or organizations. Nigeria’s law trigged an outbreak of anti-gay violence: police torture of suspected gays as well as such as public whippings.

However, while Uganda’s recent legislation has sparked uproar and condemnation from the international community, there has been relative silence from the West on Nigeria’s law. As Africa’s most populous country, second-largest economy and one of the world’s largest oil-producing nations, Nigeria wields a considerable amount of influence on the international stage. Moreover, the United States buys 70 percent of Nigeria’s oil and depends on Nigeria for assistance with counter-terrorism efforts in West Africa and the Sahel. Indeed, following the passage of Nigeria’s anti-homosexuality law, the US Ambassador to Nigeria was quick to take to the airwaves to make clear that the US would not be imposing sanctions on its key African ally. 

Obama’s potential hypocrisy on the issue of homosexuality is compounded by his silence on Arizona’s new piece of legislation, SB1062, which would allow Arizona businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians based on religious beliefs.

Former New York Times Africa Bureau Chief Howard French may have said it best when he tweeted "As important as sexual freedom is in Uganda, the West’s moral standing badly undermined by highly selective attention to rights in Africa." 

The recent legislation may leave many spectators across the world believing that extreme homophobia is an African phenomenon, when in fact, such bigotry is a colonial import that has been fueled in recent years by American evangelical priests. According to Peter Tatchell, veteran human rights and gay rights campaigner, "prior to western colonization, there are no records of any African laws against homosexuality.” Many today’s statutes in Africa that ban homosexuality are a carry-over from the colonial era and are being revived and strengthened by conservative American Christian groups. In 2012, Ugandan gay activists sued Scott Lively, a evangelical from Massachusetts, under the Alien Tort Statute. Mr. Lively has been a longtime supporter of harsh laws against homosexuals, but he is just one of several American evangelical priests who have sought to influence Uganda’s stance of homosexuality - a mere drop in an ocean of prejudice and hatred.

Homosexuality has existed in Africa for centuries; it is homophobia that is un-African. Even Museveni’s Commission admitted that “homosexuality has existed throughout human history.” Thus, instead of claiming that homosexuality is a product of Western immorality and cultural imperialism, African nations may be better served by rejecting the homophobia that was imposed on them. While Uganda and Nigeria may be determined to preserve such oppressive laws, other nations can be deterred from implementing similar legislation if more African leaders in states where homosexuality is legal proclaim their support for the gay rights on the continent. By setting an example for their peers, they may be significantly more likely to affect change.