By Marc Epprecht
Not every story out of Africa is doom and gloom, even on topics like “the rise of homophobia.” To be sure, there have been some recent shocking cases of violence and hate-mongering against gays, lesbians, and trans people around the continent. Governments in many countries are meanwhile proposing to reform laws inherited from former colonial rulers, moving toward greater repression and in divergence from major international bodies and public health initiatives. Were Uganda to enact and enforce its proposed Anti-Homosexuality bill, to give one of the most notorious examples, it would be required to withdraw from the United Nations and African Union, sever links with all its major donors, and arrest a large proportion of the heterosexual population for knowing (but not reporting to the police) suspected homosexuals or human rights and sexual health advocates.
Another side of this story, however, does not get as much attention. This is the story of the emergence of a vibrant lgbti (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex) network across the continent, of creative and courageous challenges to homophobia, of sensitive and insightful new research into “sexual secrets,” and of political and religious leaders who are resisting the demagogic tide. How many people are aware that six African nations endorsed the recent UN General Assembly resolution to include sexual orientation in the universal declaration of human rights?
Alright, the Central African Republic and Gabon are not among the heavy weight or vanguardist states in Africa. One is probably justified to suspect neo-colonial arm-twisting upon them by their major donor (and the resolution’s sponsor - France). Nonetheless, a precedent has been set. It is not politically impossible for African governments to support an inclusive definition of sexual rights as understood by liberals in the West. Sexual rights activists in Africa, with international solidarity, are actively pursuing those rights through a range of strategies and fora, including through the mass media, the courts and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
This is not going to be an easy struggle. It is not just that overt homophobes seem to be proliferating in the context of intense rivalry between evangelist Christian and Muslim faiths and opportunistic (mostly American) missionaries. There is also a profound, ongoing economic and health crisis across much of the continent. This makes it extremely difficult for sexual rights and sexual health advocates to make their case in the public eye. How to convince unemployed youth, landless peasants, and women trapped in abusive marriages or survival sex work, that freedom for men to have consensual sex will improve their lives? This is particularly challenging given the widespread stereotype in Africa that gays and lesbians are economically privileged and well-connected to opportunities in the West.
Yet successes are happening. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that the backlash against inclusive sexual rights and sexual health can be sustained in the long run. Four factors make me guardedly optimistic about this.
First, notwithstanding the “homosexuality is unAfrican” rhetoric one so often hears, African cultures traditionally recognized and in some cases honoured a wide array of alternative expressions of sexuality and marital arrangements, including female-female marriage, transgender spirit possession, and warrior/”servant” relationships. Knowledge of these traditions, and of new forms of sexual relationships that emerged in industrial centres, prisons, boarding schools, and criminal gangs in the early 20th century, may be attenuated and/or somewhat embarrassing. Most Africans, however, in my view, know in their hearts that the “unAfrican” claim is false and hypocritical.
Second, again from my personal observation, Africans tend to have a very strong sense of pragmatism. Behind the idioms of culture and religion, most people want to keep families together and, indeed, even many of the self-identified gays I have met in Africa want to have their own families for emotional and practical reasons. Most Deputy Ministers of Health, Education, Defence, Prisons and Police, meanwhile, do not want their constituents to die from easily preventable diseases or their officials and the courts to be bogged down with cases of consensual relationships and petty extortion. When the empirical facts are quietly explained, using euphemistic language if appropriate to avoid attracting political attention, families, health officials, police, and concerned bureaucrats tend to respond in pragmatic ways. The key is to get the facts explained.
That is my third point. From the onset of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa, it was assumed that male-male transmission of the disease was not a significant factor. “African AIDS” meant heterosexual intercourse and mother-to-child transmission, with some isolated cases of needle stick injuries and intravenous drug use. From the mid-1990s, however, research (and memoirs and fiction) began to cast some doubt on this characterization. Evidence of unsafe male-male sex in prison, among street kids, and among networks of “hidden” bisexuals have now accumulated to the point - 25 years after the first case of HIV among black Africans were reported - that The Lancet finally conceded it may have been mistaken to overlook male-male sexuality (and homophobia) as contributing to the spread of the disease. Large scale studies in places like Nigeria and Kenya have by now established that male-male transmission may be responsible for as much as 15% of all cases of HIV. Males who have sex with males but do not identify as homosexual clearly pose a public health risk.
As this information percolates from academic studies to the mass media, the danger is that lgbti will be further stigmatized in the public eye. My final cause for optimism, however, is the courage and articulateness of so many sexual rights activists in Africa. In the last few years I have had the privilege of participating in a number of workshops where this was on display, including a November 2010 event in Cape Town that brought over 100 delegates from around Africa together to debate political strategies. One can also see the network and the self-confidence grow on the pan-African sexual rights website, Behind the Mask. The movement is forging closer ties to feminist and other non-gay civil society groups than was conceivable a decade ago, getting the message out that lgbti are equally deserving of human rights, health and dignity as any other citizens.
Having well-connected friends in the West is a big help. Yes, there are problems of neo-colonialism or Western cultural imperialism over nascent African identities and organizing. But there is also much to admire in the recent turn by the big Western donors to a less compromising position on the universality of human rights. In what is probably a first for me, I want specifically to praise the United States. Even before the Obama administration, large American donors like the Population Council began funding research and taking the political risk of disseminating honest and frank sexuality education. Since Obama, and through the influence of his Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, the foreign policy establishment has added its heft to promoting gender-sensitive and non-ideological approaches to sexual rights. Indeed, in June 2010 Clinton explicitly honoured African lgbti activists for their work. For diplomatic reasons, some of the heft remains behind closed doors, but we can sense it at work in the words of Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni. The proposed anti-homosexuality bill should not go forward in parliament, he argued, because it had become “a foreign policy issue.”
What then is the appropriate role of individuals in the West who wish to support the attainment of sexual rights and sexual health in Africa? One would surely start by neither romanticizing African lgbti nor being naïve about the dangers of backlash. One should consequently be prepared to speak out (and pay up) in solidarity with the victims of homophobia. But I would also say we should be alert to the quiet victories that are unfolding behind the sensational headlines about homophobia. Indeed, I believe we could develop the desired solidarity and hence strengthen the movement better than at present if we were willing to praise at least as much as we criticize when we look closely at the struggles taking place on the ground and in cyber-space.
Marc Epprecht is a Professor in the Department of Global Development Studies at Queen's University. He has published extensively on the history of gender and sexuality in Africa including Hungochani: The history of a dissident sexuality in southern Africa (winner of the 2006 Joel Gregory Prize from the Canadian Association of African Studies) and Heterosexual Africa?: The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS (finalist for the 2009 Mel Herskovits prize from the African Studies Association). He recently received the Desmond Tutu Award for “Outstanding Contributions to the Study of Sexuality in Africa” from the International Resource Network-Africa, an arm of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the City University of New York.