I joined Outright International in 2019 as its Africa Program Officer working on a groundbreaking project tackling the prevalence of so-called conversion therapy. Such practices, which aim to change, suppress or divert sexual orientation or gender identity of those who do not conform to arbitrarily assigned norms, embody the depth of the challenges we have to face while fighting for LGBTIQ equality. At their core, these practices speak to just how unaccepted, feared and hated LGBTIQ people are, and their prevalence and ferocity are symptomatic of the scale of the challenges we face.
As I embark on this new journey, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on the roots and causes of the deeply ingrained hate towards LGBTIQ people across the continent.
The main factors contributing to the marginalization of LGBTIQ people as well as pervasive gender inequality are conflated notions of religion, culture and tradition. Specifically, there is a strong belief that same-sex attraction, gender identities beyond the binary, and even gender equality - especially bodily autonomy of women - are “un-African”, imported from the West, and somehow threatening to local culture and tradition. This has led to hate speech, and even incitement to hatred and violence, against LGBTIQ people by politicians and religious leaders. Which, in turn, gives the green light to private individuals to express their own homophobia or transphobia in public.
For example, just recently, in November 2019 Twitter in Kenya was abuzz with hateful and threatening messages under the hashtag #lettertothepresident. This came on the backdrop of the International Conference on Population Development (ICPD) organized by the UN in Nairobi, Kenya, from 12 – 14 November. The inclusion of women, girls and LGBTIQ people were featured in the program, leading President of Kenya, HE Uhuru Kenyatta, Leader of majority in the Kenya National Assembly, Adan Duale and various religious leaders calling the conference a platform for driving the ‘gay agenda’ and abortion.
This pervasive hate against LGBTIQ people has even been codified in legislation. Former president of Nigeria Goodluck Johnathan publicly welcomed and signed into law the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Law in 2013, which also criminalizes expressions of same-sex affection, and witnessing or “abetting” of same-sex marriage. In 2014 President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act into law in Uganda - a country which already criminalizes same-sex relations, but went a step further to impose the death penalty (the law was later withdrawn on a technicality, but rumors of its resurgence have circulated ever since). In essence, both laws have very publicly pronounced that being LGBTIQ is not only not acceptable, but punishable by death in Uganda, and even knowledge of same-sex love of others can land you in prison in Nigeria.
Other governments have also sought to impose or extend the scope of draconian laws that not only limit the fundamental freedoms of LGBTIQ+ individuals, but openly perpetuate hate. Across the continent only nine countries have decriminalized same-sex relations. Last year, Angola and Botswana joined this small group, while efforts to decriminalize in Kenya failed. The Kenyan High Court rejected claims that the colonial-era law is discriminatory, or unconstitutional, and stated that decriminalization would "open the door for same-sex unions" which are contrary to Kenyan culture and tradition, thus echoing the broader narrative across the continent that same-sex attraction and gender identities beyond the binary are un-African.
This is of course utterly ridiculous. LGBTIQ people have existed, do exist and will continue to exist everywhere. Literary and other sources show not only the prevalence, but also the acceptance of same-sex attraction in several communities in Africa. For instance, In the Buganda Kingdom (in Uganda) King Mwanga II was openly gay and lived freely.
The negative impact of these laws can not be overstated. They have given very clear permission for violence and persecution against LGBTIQ people, and contributed to rising shocking levels of homophobic and transphobic attacks in sub Saharan Africa. Moreover, criminalization hinders access to fundamental services, such as economic and social benefits, healthcare or housing. It also perpetuates bullying of LGBTIQ youth, thus reducing their chances of obtaining an education and later on being able to reach their full potential in the workforce.
Religion is a far more convincing argument for this pervasive hate. Though, sadly ironic, as Africans challenge homosexuality and transgender identities by basing their argument on a religion that was imposed as a means of eroding their traditions to facilitate Colonialism.
It is time for African leaders and religious leaders to reflect on the commitments and obligations to ALL their citizens, to embrace our history, celebrate our diversity and promote equality and acceptance of everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
As Outright's Africa Program Officer I look forward to working with civil society, as well as with policymakers, to change the dominant narratives and work towards ensuring an inclusive society for all, including LGBTIQ Africans.