In Africa, issues concerning sex are treated with utmost secrecy. Talking openly about one’s sexual life is taboo. Discussing sexual feelings, acts, and experiences in public is frowned upon. Little or no sex education takes place in African schools or homes. Parents and teachers are reluctant to teach children about matters relating to sexuality because of a general belief that such teaching will corrupt them, so children and youths are left to wallow in darkness. Young Africans learn about their sexuality on their own. Africans uphold this culture of silence and secrecy over one of the most important aspects of human life and society. So many Africans grow up ignorant, confused, or misguided about their own sexual life, to say nothing of that of others.
Issues concerning human sexuality in Africa are poorly understood, misunderstood, or misrepresented by Africans themselves and by the rest of the world. This phenomenon has given rise to a situation in which a few African clerics and politicians speak for all others in terms of what is socially, sexually, or culturally acceptable. They try to foist what they regard as sexually normal or moral on the rest of society. This convoluted approach to sex is manifested in the various ways Africans react to homosexuality and treat homosexuals.
Recently, there has been an upsurge across Africa in attacks on and persecution of those known or imagined to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) persons. An unprecedented wave of homophobia has been sweeping countries including Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Three bills to ban same-sex marriage have been tabled before the federal and state parliaments in Nigeria. In 2004, Nigeria’s Anglican Church hosted a meeting of African bishops who opposed the ordination of gay persons. In Senegal, a mob yanked the body of the late Madieye Diallo—who only hours before had died of complications from AIDS—out of the grave. They spat on it, dragged it away, and dumped it in front of his parents’ home. Nothing was done by the local authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The president of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, has threatened to behead any homosexuals in the country. In Kenya, the police arrested five men accused of homosexuality. They alleged that two of them were found with wedding rings and had attempted to get married. The other three were reportedly beaten by a mob before being handed over to the police. Christian and Muslim leaders in Kenya have vowed “to use all means to curb this vice.” Uganda’s parliament is considering a bill that would make homosexuality a crime punishable by life imprisonment or death. In Malawi, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga—a gay couple—were sentenced to fourteen years’ imprisonment on charges of homosexuality; they were pardoned only in response to worldwide pressure (see “LGBT Rights in Malawi” by George Thindwa on the next page). The Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has stated that there will be no place for gay rights in the country’s new constitution. And in South Africa, all is not well for LGBTI persons despite its progressive constitution. Gangs in South Africa have carried out “corrective rape” on lesbians. Throughout Africa, LGBT people face abuse, torture, and violence.
The issue of homosexuality evokes different attitudes from different segments of society. To African politicians, gay sex has often been made a scapegoat to distract the people from the government’s failure and corruption. Homosexuality has become another tool in the kit of blame-the-West ideologues. For African clerics, homosexuality is another weapon for re-evangelization. To many ordinary Africans, speaking against gay sex has provided a platform to vent their anger and frustration on “others” over the poverty, misery, and stagnation afflicting their own societies.
The reactions and behaviors of Africans toward homosexuals are varied and can be placed into four general categories: fear, hypocrisy, hatred, and respect. Many people in Africa are afraid of homosexuals. They regard them as threats to society, public safety, order, and morality. In many countries, people treat gays as dangerous beings who could harm others, even though no one clearly says what harm a homosexual can supposedly cause that a heterosexual cannot. So many Africans show irrational fear toward homosexuals. They want them either eliminated or kept behind bars with no just cause.
As with many issues concerning human sexuality, many Africans are hypocritical about same-sex relationships. It is often denied outright that homosexuals exist in Africa or that homosexuality is practiced on the continent. Hence the popular expression that homosexuality is “un-African.” Because homosexuality is supposedly alien to the continent, it is often derided as a sexual import from the West. It is sometimes argued that if homosexuals do exist in Africa, they should practice their homosexuality in private and in secret, remaining in the closet and never going public with what many regard as “repugnant behavior.”
Many other Africans accept that homosexuality exists but still regard gay sex as the epitome of immorality. Homosexuality is seen as a moral perversion, an abnormal and indecent behavior that should not be associated with human beings. Homosexuality, in this view, is equated with bestiality. Robert Mugabe once said that homosexuals are worse than pigs and dogs. Many Africans go so far as to demonize homosexuals. They regard gay sex as satanic and evil, viewing it as a sin—an offense against God. This attitude has been reinforced by passages in the Bible, Qur’an, and other sacred texts that prohibit same-sex relationships.
Finally and fortunately, there are Africans who treat homosexuals with dignity and respect. They view homosexuals as human beings, not beasts; homosexual acts as human acts; and homosexual rights as human rights. These gay-friendly Africans are in the minority. Many of them are afraid of “going public” with their enlightened stance because of the dominant and mainstream homophobia that is ravaging the continent.
Generally, attitudes toward homosexuals and homosexuality in Africa are informed by ignorance, prejudice, intolerance, and religious fanaticism. But I must add that these attitudes are not peculiar to Africa and to Africans. Antigay behaviors prevail in non-African communities too. In addition, much of the intolerance, persecution, and hatred displayed by Africans must be understood as legacies of foreign influence and colonialism, evangelical Christianity, and Islam.
Africans need to change their attitudes and mentality to cultivate respect for homosexuals, turning the tide of homophobia to a wave of human rights. The pace of this attitudinal change will be determined by the resolve and readiness of Africans and their leaders to embrace universal human rights, religious reform, cultural rebirth, openness to new ideas, and tolerance of different lifestyles.