Being gay in the west is, generally speaking, becoming increasingly acceptable. With gay culture flourishing in areas such as London’s Soho and the West End, Manchester’s Canal Street and Brighton’s south coast, it is hard to imagine that you can still be stoned to death in areas of Africa for simply being gay. In the same month that Britain celebrates LGBT history month, an anti-homosexual bill has been resurrected in Uganda, showing the clear distressing gulf between Africa and the west regarding gay rights. Despite the fact that western gay rights are still far from complacent in the struggle for equality, at least an individual cannot be labelled as a “criminal” or be described by their own presidential leader as “worse than dogs and pigs.” So ask yourself, where would you prefer to live?
You might have made your well-informed decision, but the sad truth is, many Africans don’t have such a choice. Instead, they are forced to experience the nightmare of living in their own country on a daily basis. Homosexuality is a taboo in many African countries, illegal in 37 of them, and homophobia is deeply entrenched into the culture and minds of its citizens. It is true that the homosexuality laws in Africa are largely based on remnants of sodomy laws imposed by colonial rule, but instead of the countries of Africa liberalising their attitudes towards the gay population, the draconian laws have manifested into the diverse African culture and general attitudes towards gay citizens have regressed further.
As mentioned earlier, Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, is infamously known and condemned throughout human rights organisations for suggesting that gays and lesbians are, “worse than dogs and pigs.” Whether or not he said this to divert attention away from the economic and political crises the country was experiencing is irrelevant; the idea of world leaders using anti-gay rhetoric for political manipulation is, as Barack Obama described rightly, “odious.”
Just recently, David Bahati resurrected the anti-gay bill in the Ugandan parliament, which was first suggested in 2009. Uganda gained international notoriety when the original bill was proposed, prompting condemnations from western governments and human rights organisations. The recent bill, although dropping the death sentence clause it previously contained, will enforce the prosecution of homosexuals with the threat of long prison sentences. Despite the fact that homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda and many other African countries, politicians feel the need to impose further restrictions against individuals based on their sexual orientation.
Amnesty International has warned that if the bill becomes law, it would be in violation of internal human rights law and lead to further human rights offences. Both the UK and the US recently urged developing countries to respect gay rights or become at risk of losing much needed aid. The proposed action was condemned by African leaders as the west trying to impose their imperial culture on Africa. Whether or not the west should use their economic position to pressure African governments into enforcing gay rights is a question which needs serious consideration.
On Valentine’s Day, the Ugandan minister for ethics and integrity, Simon Lokodo, along with armed police, raided a gay rights conference and demanded the arrest of one of its organisers, Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera. Kasha, a prominent LGBT rights activist, was forced to flee the demonstration in fear of her own safety. Lokodo suggested that the conference organisers “were recruiting people to go out and divulge the ideology of LGBT. In Uganda, the culture, tradition and laws do not support bestiality and lesbianism. They were illegally associating.” Earlier last year, Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato was bludgeoned to death weeks after winning a court case against Ugandan newspaper, the Rolling Stone. In a method of social manipulation, the newspaper identifies and targets individuals by publishing photographs of suspected homosexuals within its pages, inciting that they should be murdered, or more crudely, “hanged to death.”
Last year Radio One presenter and DJ Scott Mills presented distressing footage of Ugandan citizens suggesting gays should be killed and that being gay is a state that can be “cured” by witch doctors in the shocking documentary The World’s Worst Place to be Gay? In Mills’ documentary he openly expressed that he feared for his life when he told a Ugandan minister that he was gay himself. Documentaries such as these, raising awareness of the violent discrimination within Africa, need to become more common. Pressure needs to be put on African leaders and the west should consider funding the safeguarding of LGBT activists in Africa. Through an influx of narrow-minded religious fanatics from the United States, the west must accept some responsibility for the nightmare experienced by gay community in Africa on a daily basis.
There are however, always exceptions and in this context, South Africa is the exception with some of the strongest provisions regarding gay rights on the continent. Cape Town’s gay culture has prospered since the fall of the apartheid, which previously harshly penalised homosexuality. Its existing liberal constitution enshrines equal rights and allows for same sex couples to freely marry and adopt children. In recent years, Cape Town has become a popular destination for same sex couples, with a thriving tourism industry as a result. It is difficult to imagine that in countries sharing the same continent as South Africa, homosexuals are forced into exile and are denied citizenship. In a recent BBC report, a gay man in exile in Uganda suggested, “being gay is like breathing without air.”
However, much like the west, South Africa isn’t perfect when it comes to gay rights. England officially decriminalised homosexuality in 1967 and Northern Ireland and Scotland followed in the 1980s. The acceptance of gay culture has been a long struggle in the west but it is at least improving gradually. In the United States, marriage and anti-discrimination laws vary from state to state, with only a handful recognising gay marriage. As Maryland becomes the latest state to consider allowing gay marriage, there is an air of optimism for gay rights in the United States. The picture is indeed much bleaker and depressing throughout the vast majority of the African continent. It is inspirational that LGBT activists still maintain a large degree of hope for the future of Africa.