Is Africa “the most homophobic continent on Earth”?
In 140 characters, [executive director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth] Roth encapsulated a broad sweep of history and geography and one of the central paradoxes of Africa’s new war on gay and lesbian people. It is a war marked by political opportunism, biblical fundamentalism and a clash between cultural relativism and universal human rights. But it is also a measure of conservatives’ anxiety that every day more and more African homosexuals are coming out and losing their fear. Western liberals eager to see the best in Africa must face an inconvenient truth: this is the most homophobic continent on Earth. Same-sex relations are illegal in 36 of Africa’s 55 countries, according to Amnesty International, and punishable by death in some states. Now a fresh crackdown is under way.
While it’s true that any country—whether Uganda, Nigeria, Russia or elsewhere—which legislates punitive measures against LGBTQI people ought to be on the receiving end of international ire and protest, it’s disingenuous to name the continent of Africa as the most homophobic. Countries in Africa are, in fact, guilty of sanctioning detestable pieces of anti-gay legislation, but such is true of many others. We are all complicit.
In the US, for example, it was only 11 years ago that the Supreme court reversed Lawrence v. Texas, finally invalidating the criminalization of sodomy in the 14 remaining states that maintained such laws.
And as of today, same-sex couples in 36 states in the US are still unable to legally marry, 29 states still do not outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 33 states have yet to formally pass anti-discrimination laws based on gender identity or expression.
Furthermore, the same Christian conservatism and biblical fundamentalism that foregrounds the Uganda anti-homosexuality law similarly shapes the work of well-funded US-based bodies like the National Organization for Marriage and Family Research Council, among others.
While we should be certain to not “legislate against love or marriage,” as Archbishop Desmond Tutu noted in the case of the Ugandan anti-homosexuality law, we in the US (and the West more broadly) should be ever mindful of our own politics of anti-love. When we too quickly and solely isolate the policies of African countries it might easily cause us to not think about the global circuits of homo and trans-antagonism and Western countries’ participation in a global campaign of anti-homosexuality as well. Maybe we need a different rubric, beyond our hierarchical listing that ranges from the most to least homophobic, to gauge progress.
Moreover, fraught designations like that offered by Smith, does not account for those state agents, NGOs, informally organized bodies, and African peoples (LGBTQI and otherwise) who oppose homo and trans-antagonistic laws every day. Smith duly notes, for example, “There is, however, a paradox in the wave of oppression: the harsh laws being enacted may be a measure not of failure but of success, a reaction to gay and lesbians asserting their political identity and rights as never before.”
Yet Smith fails to articulate the self-determination demonstrated on the part of LGBTQI Africans as proof against an imagined Africa where all people think negatively about queer and trans people.
Even in Uganda, on the very day of the passing of the anti-homosexuality bill, queer and trans Ugandans, and their allies, are asserting their disapproval through a global media campaign aptly titled, #IAmGoingNowhere.
That there are those placing their lives on the line, today, should be ample enough proof that not all Africans are homophobic. It should also remind us to resist the urge to cast our critical gaze upon other geographical spaces before we cast it upon ourselves.