Last week, my University (The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London) held a discussion about LGBT rights in Africa. Invited were SOAS lecturer Marica Moscati (preparing her PhD on same-sex marriage), a spokesperson for Amnesty International, John Bosco (a Ugandan refugee) and Skye (Zimbabwean gay rights activist).
One against the stream
Moscati gave a quick picture of what gay rights in Africa looked like and showed a diverse picture from several nations punishing homosexuality with the death penalty or prison to one extreme opposite, South Africa. It prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation since 1996 and legalised same-sex marriages ten years after that . Seen in many western nations as one of the last legal steps to full equality, same-sex marriage was a very early change for better in South Africa. The equal marriage law “serves as a strong example for equality” and as an orientation point for South African society that largely still is as homophobic as it’s neighbours.
South Africa learnt from it’s divisive past and so did Rwanda that decided not to criminalise homosexuality in 2009. Rwanda experienced similar race relation problems as South Africa did. Today, 56.3% of parliamentarians are women, Zimbabwean gay rights activist Skye Chirape pointed out and argued it would have been a major factor for this decision as women are “more compassionate”. “If women were to seize their rightful share of governance, gays will be better off, too”.
LGBTAfrica Homosexuality – a Western import?
A member from the audience tried to contravene with an often heard statement: “Homosexuality is against African values” and the West would be pushing their ideas onto the continent. He was swiftly dismissed by the panellists: “What is African culture?” Moscati asked back and waited for a reply. “What is African culture?” she repeated after a few seconds of silence and then went on:
“Culture is not something fixed or written somewhere on a pillar. It’s something changeable. We can improve culture! We shouldn’t avoid reality just because it has mostly been done that way in the past.”
In fact, this accusation is quite ironic as it were the European colonialists who brought the anti-sodomy laws to the rest of the world in the first place. “There were lesbian relationships with legal implications in some ancient African tribal communities” said Moscati. Of course Africa also knew discrimination and resentments. Amplified homophobia yet is a Western import.
No coming out, no rights
As for nowadays, Skye mentioned that in Zimbabwe, the punishment for homosexuality is 10 years in prison “… if you’re lucky to come out alive”. She also emphasised that there are as many LGBTs in Africa as elsewhere, but “reports are oppressed by governments“ and almost all gays and lesbians are “too scared to come out”.
This, however, is crucial to be able to fight fully for rights. Some say, gays and lesbians should be careful and see how change comes along before risking their lives. Yet how can people be treated equally if Africa is unaware of their existence? How can they achieve justice if the handful of gay activists are branded as tainted by Western influence? It requires courage and may be daring, but otherwise the lives of gays in Africa will continue to be made miserable.
John Bosco's story
John Bosco told his story at the LGBT Rights in Africa event at SOAS. He realised he is “gay” by the age of 18. He only knew what “gay” meant from the taunts of fellow pupils. He didn’t come out in fear of arrest, but he couldn’t control the feelings that he felt.
“Nobody wants to be gay in Uganda but you are what you are.”
A gay bar he visited was raided in 2001. He escaped police, yet people tracked his home down where his brother was taken and questioned about John, who wasn’t there. His brother didn’t know of his whereabouts and was beaten and ultimately killed.
Bosco then sought asylum in the UK in September that year and went through immigration hell in inhumane detention centres. Freed later, he had to report to the police daily. After his asylum appeal was rejected several times over the next years he returned to a detention centre and was then forcefully put on a flight back to Uganda in 2008. He told the immigration officers that he would be killed but they said “We told the Ugandan officials nothing”, suggesting that if he keeps quiet, he will be fine.
Yet nothing was fine as the police in Uganda was aware of his identify from the bar raid seven years ago. Since being gay is illegal, he had to bribe his way to freedom coming out of the airport with 500£. People said, he would want to be gay so he could come to the UK and this shows how homosexuality is perceived as something foreign that doesn’t naturally happen in Africa.
He flew back to the UK and but was held in the detention centre again until finally his asylum was granted in May 2009.
Bosco said even the Home Office in Britain treats you differently as a gay. He was asked for example to prove that he would be gay while applying for asylum. He was told if they allowed him in, “all gays from Uganda would come”.
“Many solicitors on top are also reluctant to take up cases of gay refugees”, he said.