Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario: One of the United States’ minor allies passes legislation criminalizing a particular identity-politic shared by a small portion of its citizens. The country then employs its police force and judiciary to jail members of this population, obliges discrimination, physical abuse – even murder – by vigilantes, then permits the press to publish identifying information forcing individuals from their homes and jobs. Does the US cut ties? Does it intervene?
Complicating this scenario, suppose the minority population is born to parents of the majority group that oppresses them. How can their long-term safety be secured when the country cannot be broken into distinct states or autonomous regions?
Homosexuality has been illegal across most of Africa since the colonial powers conquered the continent and outlawed sodomy, but a recent push by US evangelical groups to harden penalties (most famously by Scott Lively’s Abiding Truth Ministries) has brought a new wave of oppression against African LGBT communities. Laws passed in the last several years in the Gambia, Uganda, and Nigeria1 have criminalized both same-sex relations writ-large and a variety of activities considered to “support” or “promote” them, such as providing sexual health services to LGBT people. The furor that US and African evangelical groups have stirred up has resulted in the intimidation, eviction, beating, and assassination of LGBT people and has forced thousands to flee their homelands. Contributing to this exodus is a growing prevalence of homophobia and violence against LGBT people, as well as proposed copycat legislation in neighboring countries [those refugees have either established exile communities in Cape Town and other progressive African cities that remain relatively safe for LGBT people, or have applied for asylum in the West].
The underlying impediment to Western action against unambiguous human rights violations is our own flawed understanding of the socio-political nature of LGBT Africans as a body politic.
This situation poses geopolitical and moral challenges to Western governments in light of the millions of LGBT people who still live in Gambia, Uganda and Nigeria and may be forced to flee (not to mention countless more in Cameroon, Zimbabwe and other countries with hostile environments for LGBT people). When the Ugandan and Nigerian anti-LGBT bills were signed in early 2014, the outpouring of public condemnation reached all the way to the White House. However, anti-gay advocates in Africa (as well as some U.S. evangelical groups) countered with a claim that efforts to protect LGBT rights constitute cultural imperialism and warned the West against meddling in what they see as domestic affairs. Opponents of African LGBT rights frame the conflict as a morally ambiguous quandary, however the challenge is not merely limited to determining the valence of criminalization. The underlying impediment to Western action against unambiguous human rights violations is our own flawed understanding of the socio-political nature of LGBT Africans as a body politic, and our consequent willingness to buy into the myth of their oppression as a “family affair.”
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When President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda was considering the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014, he convened a panel to study whether or not homosexuality is genetically determined. When the panel’s report declared the evidence ambiguous, Museveni nonetheless signed the bill, defending his decision by saying: “Since nurture is the main cause of homosexuality, then society can do something about it to discourage the trend.” This extreme rhetoric sent a wave of fear through LGBT communities around the world and caused an outcry from LGBT and human rights groups for action by the West.
In June 2014, the US announced new measures to punish the Ugandan Government, including travel restrictions on Ugandan officials, policing and public health program divestment, and the cancelling of a joint military exercise. Pressure from the EU and corporate investors also mounted in the following months. Just before Museveni traveled to Washington for August’s US-Africa Leaders’ Summit, the Ugandan Constitutional Court overturned the Anti-Homosexuality Act due to a technicality (improper parliamentary procedure) during its passage. The reversal was widely viewed as a politically-motivated verdict.
For Museveni, homophobia is a political tool which he has used to maneuver politically ahead of an upcoming presidential election. Homosexuality still remains criminalized under an earlier statute in Uganda, and the harsher penalties of the Anti-Homosexuality Act may yet be reenacted either through a pending court challenge or through threatened legislative action. Museveni supported the bill when opposition to the West could gain him a needed boost in popularity and silently let it overturn when he wanted to avoid uncomfortable conversations in Washington.
In the days following the Constitutional Court’s decision, Ugandan ministers of parliament reintroduced the bill. Similar legislation has also been considered in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. And in October, Gambian President and outspoken homophobe Yahya Jammeh signed a law with language lifted directly from the Ugandan bill.
To date, the West has not taken any action against the Gambian or Nigerian governments. But if circumstances in Uganda are indicative of how anti-LGBT legislation will play out elsewhere in the region, the international community’s realist calculations, in conjunction with African leaders’ pragmatism, may be sufficient to limit extrajudicial violence and some of the worst repressive legislation. Nonetheless it appears unlikely to change the fundamental reality of a criminalized LGBT population, currently living amidst growing homophobia across most of the continent.2 LGBT rights advocate Micheal Ighodaro, who fled violence in Nigeria and was granted asylum in New York in 2013, has been fighting against the western indifference, but he acknowledges it’s an uphill battle. “It’s Africa. It’s Nigeria. And it’s LGBT people. Who cares?” Ighodaro says that the violence he has experienced can’t change the fact that he will always be Nigerian at heart, and the laws as they stand keep him in exile. Even if the Nigerian government’s trade aspirations keep the worst of the violence in check, they won’t remove the wedge that has been driven between him, his family, and his home.
Because of the success that opponents of LGBT rights have had framing international pressure as neo-colonial imposition of Western values on African societies, the West needs to be careful in how it exerts pressure on repressive governments. Sanctions have also engendered trepidation among some human rights advocates who worry they will impact HIV/AIDS services and disproportionately impact the poor. But the eventual court decision striking the Ugandan law down, following only moderate international pressure,3 shows change is possible, and African advocates like Ighodaro can help chart a path that ensures international pressure serves the interests of African LGBT people and Africa as a whole. The only missing component is the moral outrage this situation deserves.
The Queer African’s Double Bind
The governments of Uganda and Nigeria justify the new legislation necessary to prevent an increase in the number of homosexuals. But replace “homosexuals” with another minority group, say “Palestinians,” “ethnic Chinese,” or “Yazidis” and the images recalled highlight the severity of this reasoning. Historically, the West has maintained relations with governments that have turned a blind eye to violence against minority groups (including each of these three), but when the repression is one-sided, state-sponsored, and driven by the belief that the target group should not exist, the political calculus must be different. However, as much as state sponsored efforts to stamp out homosexuality may sound like genocide, a close reading of the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide shows violence against LGBT people cannot meet the standard set by international law:
[G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
By punishing homosexuality as a crime in itself and seeking to “prevent its spread,” the governments of the Gambia, Uganda and Nigeria are seeking to destroy their LGBT populations. All five crimes defined in the convention above have been documented in these two countries and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. By failing to fit into the categories of “national, ethnical, racial, or religious groups,” people who are persecuted as a result of sexual orientation and gender identity do not receive the humanitarian protections of international law. Ultimately, the institutions that would otherwise protect the persecuted do not recognize the LGBT community as “a people.”
Given that nearly every LGBT person is born to cisgender, heterosexual parents, this distinction may seem reasonable, but if these individuals grow up in a repressive society, their relationships with other members of the LGBT community often become more significant than bonds with their biological families. Visit Cape Town or one of the other centers of the African LGBT diaspora, and the similarities with other groups exiled from their homeland and brought together by a shared history, culture, and fear for safety becomes apparent. There are two reasons for these similarities. First, culture in the internet age is created on an international platform and the social identifiers of the LGBT community – patterns of dress, social venues, dating apps, etc. – make these refugee groups distinguishable, both to themselves and to the communities where they make new homes. And second, the African LGBT diaspora increasingly shares a political history, as international phenomena like the current wave of homophobia sweeping the continent ties it together in mutual determination.
Our relatives, country mates wonder at how it is possible for gay people all over the world to understand, fight for and embrace those in other countries, even when unknown, except in the news. It’s because we know the trials of being different. While family and country throw us out, our family, and friends, not by sacred blood, but by rite of passage, embrace and secure us. Not because of magic, or voodoo, or the mysterious gay agenda for equality. We have experienced this. We will no doubt experience it again. And, our contentious, quarrelsome, diverse rainbow family will step in. Again, and again.
– Dr. Paul Semugoma, exiled Ugandan LGBT rights advocate
Facebook, July 30, 2014
Unfortunately, the same social identifiers that are part of this identity make LGBT Africans more easily identifiable by their oppressors. Exile is not a permanent solution, and unlike other groups – the post-war Jews or the Southern Sudanese, for instance – a homeland cannot be created for this diaspora (to say nothing of whether that would even be desirable given the experience of the two aforementioned groups). As a result, LGBT Africans occupy a sort of no-man’s land.
The political philosopher John Rawls – whose “practical utopian” vision of international law is reflected in the foreign policies of most major international powers – believed that justice was possible if the international system consisted of a “society of peoples,” in which each people was entitled to self-determination and in which international law protected this right. In Rawls’ view each people would be united by “common sympathies” and ruled by a common government. For LGBT Africans, however, common sympathies frequently prove elusive with their cisgender, heterosexual neighbors. Conversely, persecution of LGBT Africans will not be “solved” by isolation from their persecutors. Every day, LGBT Africans are born into repressive societies, but unlike the ethnically or religiously disenfranchised, diasporic safe havens offer no durable resolution.
A Collective Re-Imagining
So what obligation does the West have beyond the prevention of genocide? When President Museveni accuses Western governments and LGBT rights groups of “meddling” in a domestic affair, do we accept that interpretation? In March 2012, Sexual Minorities Uganda – an umbrella group for LGBT advocacy organizations – filed a lawsuit in a United States district court against evangelical pastor Scott Lively, who is widely credited with inspiring the Anti-Homosexuality Act. The case, which is still in process, will force the legal system to grapple with these questions.
In the society of peoples, we share in a collective responsibility to protect one another’s safety and right to self-determination.
Supporters of LGBT rights and human rights more generally must do the same. The fact that people taking safe haven in Cape Town, Nairobi, and New York do not share a language, skin-tone, or religion with one another does not mean they should be entitled to lesser protection by their own government or the international community.
In the society of peoples, we share in a collective responsibility to protect one another’s safety and right to self-determination. LGBT populations will never be able to self-determine like national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups, but they can still be persecuted in the same manner. By recognizing this, we can put to rest Museveni’s argument4 that the status of LGBT Africans is a domestic issue and begin to take collective responsibility for the crimes being perpetrated among an inherently indivisible population.
We have historically failed to imagine the African LGBT diaspora as a people because of their inability to form a fully independent society. This distinction is not trivial. All people want to be accepted by the societies into which they are born, and the distinct identity, culture, and political experience of LGBT individuals should not be used to further other or marginalize them. Only tolerance, common sympathy, and acceptance by mainstream African society will provide a long-term solution. In the meantime, the African LGBT diaspora deserves the same protections given other members of the society of peoples. Given their uniquely vulnerable position, members of the common society have a responsibility to fight for the rights of all disenfranchised peoples.
Cover image courtesy Meleko Mokgosi from his series Pax Afrikaner.
Men Of Shame. Page 5, The Rolling Stone November 01-08, 2010.
Worldwide laws regarding homosexual relationships and expression, Wikipedia. Accessed March 25, 2015.
Unfortunately, surveys of the homosexual population have been impossible in most of Sub-Saharan Africa (with significant negative implications for the AIDS response). Given the 3-4% lower bound prevalence of homosexual orientation in the United States estimated by a number of reviews of the literature, and making the (significant) assumption that prevalence does not substantially vary geographically, the number of LGBT people among the more than 200 million residents of these two countries can be assumed to be in the millions.↥
Thirty-seven African countries currently criminalize homosexuality.↥
And similar ones used by Presidents Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, Vladimir Putin of Russia and countless other homophobic leaders.↥