LGBT in Africa: Persecution and Persistence

While some LGBT equality advocates settled in for a night on the sidewalk in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on the eve of its marriage rulings, others gathered in the Capitol Visitors Center for a screening of Born this Way, a new documentary about LGBT people in Cameroon, a country with laws that criminalize homosexuality.

The documentary introduces viewers to several courageous gay men and lesbians willing to go on camera to share their stories and the lives that leave them vulnerable to threats of violence, arrest, and jail time for the crime of being gay. Also prominently featured is Alice Nkom, a prominent human rights lawyer who advocates on behalf of people who are prosecuted under anti-gay laws. 

Unlike God Loves Uganda, Born This Way does not make its primary focus the religious component of the homophobic culture and legal system of Cameroon, though there are glimpses of it: a debate opponent of Nkom thunders, “You put homosexuality above Jesus Christ, the son of God.” A young lesbian says she is accused of being a witch. 

Nkom told the screening audience that gays in Cameroon can lose everything, including their mother’s love and God’s love, because “religions are the first to oppress and persecute gay people in Cameroon.” During a Q&A period following the Capitol screening, Nkom said the Catholic Church in Cameroon is a driving force for anti-gay sentiment in the country, citing an archbishop who referred to homosexuality as a plague. In addition, she suggested, government officials use homophobia to distract from failures in basic functions of governing, such as providing drinking water and energy.

The documentary is sometimes achingly intimate, conveying the palpable fear of a young woman facing five years in prison as well as the equally palpable relief and joy of a Catholic lesbian who comes out to a nun who had served as her mentor and finds warm acceptance rather than the rejection she feared. An activist struggles to live honestly and joyfully while facing physical attacks and death threats that drive him from his neighborhood.

These threats extend well beyond Cameroon, as Amnesty International documents in a new publication. Making Love a Crime: Criminalization of same-sex conduct in sub-Saharan Africa reports on rising harassment and violence directed against LGBT people. The report includes a section on the role that religion plays in fostering homophobia and justifying if not inciting violence. It reads in part:

In strongly religious communities, public condemnation of LGBTI people by religious leaders gives implicit permission to individuals to express their own homophobia in public, which they often do in violent ways. In turn, LGBTI individuals, many of whom are religious, are unable to confide in their religious leaders for fear that they will be expelled from the congregation, possibly publicly. They may also fear, from experience and from reports of the experiences of others, that their stories will be published in newspapers, that they will be reported to the police, or that they will be denounced from the pulpit as evil or demonic.

Religion is often conflated with notions of culture and tradition, and then used as a justification to condemn same-sex sexuality. The very existence of LGBTI Africans is often denied and same-sex sexuality or behaviour is largely blamed on the West. Meanwhile, the loudest and most public Western influence on this issue arguably comes from Western preachers, like Pastors Rick Warren and Scott Lively, who actively fund and promote homophobia in Africa

In neighboring Nigeria, a draconian anti-gay law passed the House at the end of May. While international human rights advocates have mounted a campaign this month calling on the country’s president not to sign the bill, some American religious right groups have praised the law. Mass Resistance called it a “bold” move by Nigeria to fight back against “the Western world’s efforts to subvert public morality.” The World Congress of Families and its Africa representative Theresa Okafor have been active in Nigeria for years where the group has, among other things, promoted its anti-abortion and anti-gay values under the guise of “character education.” Okafor appeared at the 2013 World Congress of Families where she repeated the current conservative talking point that the push for LGBT equality is a sign of cultural imperialism and moral decay in the West. According to one report:

Ms Okafor described the family basis in Africa in comparison to the West. She described the debt that Africa had to the missionaries from the West, but how much had changed, “We’re alarmed that the same ones that brought religion are trying to ostracise religion… Religion has been replaced by a new cult—the cult for equality.”

Peter Montgomery, a Washington, DC-based writer, is an associate editor for Religion Dispatches and a Senior Fellow at People For the American Way. His work focuses on religion, politics, and LGBT issues. Follow him on twitter @petemont.