Queer in Africa: Confronting the crisis
It's been five months since Uganda passed its anti-homosexuality law, and a recent report states that since then, one suspected gay person has been killed, 17 arrested, and many more driven to seek asylum outside Uganda. In Nigeria, a Ugandan-modelled anti-gay law signed in January has led to violence, homelessness, unemployment and a drop-off in HIV/Aids treatment. In supposedly liberal South Africa, meanwhile, it's been just two months since the last report of a man killed for being gay. African academics and activists gathered at the University of Cape Town on Monday to try to make sense of the problem.
Opening Monday's symposium, UCT's Vice Chancellor Max Price stood in front of a print of a spoof Economist cover reading: "Oh F*ck!" It was, Price said, appropriate under the circumstances, serving to "[express] our disgust" at the rising tide of homophobia seemingly sweeping the African continent.
It is no coincidence that the current backlash comes at a time when advances in rights for gay people - most prominently, the right to marry - are progressing apace in other parts of the world. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, said the Human Sciences Research Council's Professor Vasu Reddy: "This is the best of times and the worst of times".
Africa was the focus of the day's discussion, but it is not just Africa that is caught up in a struggle between progress and regression when it comes to gay rights. Over the past few years Russia's increasingly anti-gay stance has drawn condemnation. In France, Reddy reminded the audience, hundreds of thousands of Parisians took to the streets last year to protest against gay marriage. India, Brunei and parts of the US have just proposed regressive legislation. The fight for gay freedom is not this continent's alone.
That said, the issue of what has caused the upsurge in African homophobia over the past decade or so is a complex one. A factor often cited is the influence and funding of American evangelicals seeking a new battleground on which to fight a culture war they look set to lose in the US. While this impact cannot be ignored, African politicians have their own reasons for pushing an anti-homosexual agenda.
Take Zimbabwe, for example, where evangelicals campaigned last year to ensure that LGBTI rights were not enshrined in the country's Constitution. The demonisation of gays in Zimbabwe, suggested University of Zimbabwe's Kudzai Biri, is being framed as a moral issue when it really has everything to do with the country's post-colonial political economy. Post-independence "nation-building" narratives have sought to elevate the notion of "Mother Zimbabwe" and "Mother Africa" above the degraded West, Biri said, with the issue of gay rights a convenient lightning-rod.
A rejection of homosexuality has been packaged as part of the need to unite against Western cultural imperialism and assert the purity of the moral fabric of the nation. Politicians and religious leaders have converged to shape Zimbabwe's problems as spiritual, Biri said.
In reality, "it's not a moral or spiritual crisis," Biri said. "It's an economic crisis. But the scapegoat is abortion, homosexuality…"
It's a point that South Africa would do well to take heed of, as a country where the need for " moral regeneration" has been voiced repeatedly over the past few years. In South Africa, too, the imperative of "nation-building" is often stressed - sometimes in benign contexts, sometimes less so. Former Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana's objection to Zanele Muholi's 2010 exhibition of lesbian photography, for instance, was that it was "going against nation-building" - which suggests a quite specific view of a nation being built in which lesbians were unwelcome.
The idea of rejecting gays as a tacit up-yours to the degraded former colonisers is pretty ironic, as has been widely discussed, considering that anti-homosexuality statutes in many African countries were a colonial imposition. Anthropologist Stella Nyanzi, from Uganda's Makerere University, put it succinctly. "The colonial masters have moved on," she said. "They are marrying [gays]. And we are forced to stay with the shit they left behind."
The argument usually advanced against the claim that homosexuality is "unAfrican" is the evidence of homosexual practice in the pre-colonial era. Algerian academic Imam Zahed Ludovic indicated on Monday that the same defence could be lobbed against those asserting that homosexuality is "unIslamic" - a perspective we tend to hear less of.
"For centuries homosexuality in the Arab world was not a problem," Ludovic said, with its evidence recorded by Western travellers. The stereotype of "criminal homosexuality, violent and perverse", only properly took root in the 19th century when doctors pathologised homosexual activity. Ludovic cited the example of Damascene judges allowing "hermaphrodites" to marry without issue in medieval times.
A "queer-friendly Islam" is entirely possible, Ludovic believes. What it entails involves rejecting inauthentic notions of Islamic "tradition"; re-interpreting certain Quran passages which are read as endorsing homophobia; and focusing on the development of a "new Islamic theology of liberation".
But what breeds a homophobic climate is not just repressive religious interpretation and conservative politics, most speakers agreed. "Homosexuality goes straight to the heart of gender and patriarchy," suggested Reddy. The University of the Western Cape's Fikile Vilakazi made the same point: "We are dealing with a crisis of patriarchy which didn't arrive with colonialism," she said. Essential to the maintenance of patriarchy is the need to control bodies.
It's clear that patriarchy, religion, nationalism and notions of "traditional" African culture can combine into mutually-reinforcing systems of control which are toxic for African queer communities. In the face of these formidable opponents, what is to be done?
Reddy suggested, among other measures, that enlightened and influential religious leaders on the continent should be identified and collaborated with. The most prominent example here is South Africa's own Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said last year that he would "rather go to Hell than worship a homophobic God". Reddy also said that it might be strategic to similarly engage with progressive African legal institutions and jurists.
Information campaigns should focus on a reminder that gay rights are human rights, Reddy said, and the rights of gays in Africa should be tied to those of other vulnerable groups.
UCT's Pierre de Vos said, however, that in his experience it was often necessary to go one step beyond the articulation of rights, to explain why gays have rights. De Vos said that it was seductive for activists and Western donors to rely on a human rights paradigm, but "I'm not sure it actually works, in terms of changing people's behaviour". His alternative proposal: "Tell stories." Giving real-life examples of gay struggle, he said, might serve to humanise the issue and combat some of the perceived ephemerality of the human rights discourse.
De Vos said that South Africa exemplified the truth that enshrining gay rights in law was not sufficient to change social attitudes - though Reddy pointed out earlier that research shows that legal frameworks in countries do influence the attitudes of individuals towards homosexuality. "Law itself is not a magic bullet," De Vos said, but there were still legal aspects we could pay more attention to. "A conversation we don't have is whether we select judges who are feminists, judges who are queer," he suggested.
A state of crisis can give rise to a sense of paralysis, but speakers urged optimism, too. Reddy cited the example of Apartheid South Africa to make the point that "oppression is sometimes most intense and forceful in its dying days". Two weeks ago, he pointed out, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights adopted a landmark resolution condemning violence and discrimination against LGBTI individuals.
Uganda's Nyanzi also cited two significant legal wins against the state in her country on the matter of gay rights over the past decade. "Victories are still possible even in homophobic countries," Nyanzi said. "We have to claim those victories for ourselves."
This column appeared on Daily Maverick .