Image: Bruno Aguirre (Unsplash)
According to a 2018 infographic by Amnesty International, more than half of all African countries have anti-gay legislation. Homosexuality or identifying as LGBT+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) is illegal in 33 African countries. In Mauritania, Sudan, Northern Nigeria, and Southern Somalia, homosexuality warrants the death penalty.
Why is Africa so homophobic?
What exactly about Africa makes it so antagonistic about non-conformist gender identification and sexuality? Many writers and academics pin homophobia in Africa as a consequence of colonialism, as an import of British imperialism and religion. In a 2020 Stonewall article, Leah Buckle identifies a strong causal relationship between Commonwealth states and anti-LGBT+ legislation. Buckle astutely points out that only 25% of the world population reside in a state that was once colonised by the British, but simultaneously consists of half of the states that outlaw homosexuality. The origins of Britain’s sodomy laws are traced to 1533 when the Buggery Act was introduced, where private consensual “homosexual acts” were punishable by death. It was only in 1967 (which was just 54 years ago) that anti-sodomy laws were repealed in Britain, but not in their colonies.
In the study of homosexuality in Africa, Boy-Wives and Female Husbands, same-sex relationships are documented as evidence that gender non-binary individuals and relationships existed in pre-colonial Africa. In northern Uganda where “effeminate men could marry men in pre-colonial times” and in Zambia where “youths and adult men had sexual contact” during Ndembu circumcision rites. The book also identifies instances where same-sex marriages between women operated in the same manner as heterosexual marriages, including bride-price and “acquiring husband’s rights” in over thirty African populations. Another example is illustrated by Annabel Sowemimo in a 2019 Gal-Dem article, of King Mwanga of Buganda in the late 1800s, who engaged in openly bisexual relations with royal male subjects. Interestingly, the same royal male subjects refused King Mwanga’s sexual advances after they had converted to Christianity.
Religion plays a significant role in the reinforcement of homophobia in Africa, especially since 93% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa are either Christian or Muslim. According to a World Values Survey in 2017, mixed Christians and Muslims were more likely to rate homosexuality as “never justified”. American sociologist, Amy Adamczyk, explains that countries are more likely to hold conservative views when a high proportion of the population is “highly dedicated to their religion”. Homophobia in Africa also stems from the misconstrued narrative that homosexuality is “un-African”. According to a 2019 DW article by Kate Hairsine, African elites which include religious, political, and community figures uphold the belief that homosexuality is an “imported Western evil” when it is the hate for homosexuality that was the actual “imported evil”.
Beliefs about homosexuality in Africa are situated in an ahistorical context. Religious beliefs about homosexuality neglect the pre-colonial gender structures that facilitated gender fluidity that existed before the introduction of Christianity or Islam. Homophobia remains strife in the majority of the African continent because anti-sodomy laws remained intact in post-colonial African states despite Britain repealing those laws in the late 1960s. In addition to multiple stagnations of Africa’s development, deeply rooted internalised beliefs about gender identities and sexual orientations are another unwanted ‘gift’ of European imperialism.
Even though homophobia in Africa denies people on the gender spectrum in more than half of African countries from ‘legally’ being themselves, homophobia has critical consequences on accessibility to health care and safe sexual practices.
Homophobia and HIV/AIDS transmission in Africa
The HIV/AIDS (Human Immunodeficiency Virus/ Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) epidemic is already wrongfully associated with homosexuality, as a disease that only affects gay men. In Africa, the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS among gay men is much higher in comparison to heterosexual men, because of the discrimination and criminalisation of their sexual orientation. According to a 2020 Aids Map article, gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM), in sub-Saharan African countries that criminalise homosexuality, are five times more at risk of contracting HIV than those men in countries that do not criminalise homosexuality. Kate Mitchell, a researcher from Imperial College London, estimated that thousands of gay African men are likely dying from HIV/AIDS every year because of homophobic laws that prevent them from getting tested and treated.
HIV/AIDS is a huge risk to MSM and LGBT+ communities in repressive African states with harsh anti-LGBT+ legislation because they are unable to access sexual health services without compromising their gender and sexual identities and becoming vulnerable to criminal charges.
Therefore, the onslaught of anti-LGBT+ legislation cuts off a large population of people who are at an increased risk of contracting HIV, from accessing the medical help they need. In addition to these repressive laws preventing individuals from having an identity that is considered ‘legal’ and socially accepted, they are endangering the physical and sexual well-being of LGBT+ people. In the 2020 UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS) Seizing the Moment report, stigma and discrimination are identified as the key barriers to accessing sexual health services related to contraception and HIV prevention. In the grander scheme of fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic, these individuals are excluded from research that has the potential to significantly improve health policies and programmes targeted at preventing HIV transmission.
Perhaps instead of hard legislation aimed at controlling who has consensual sexual relations with whom or who marries who, more effort should be focused on legislation that prevents and punishes those who have non-consensual sexual relations with others, and those that incite sexual violence, harassment, and other sex-related offences. Aside from denying someone their identity, repressive anti-gay laws are fueling health epidemics in the African continent that already has too many to deal with. It is overdue that anti-LGBT+ laws should be repealed everywhere, but especially in Africa. It should not be a crime to be one’s true self, and no one should be afraid to access the medical services they need.
Nirvana Govender is a postgraduate student at the University of Pretoria completing her Honors degree in International Relations. She is a tutor in the Political Sciences Department. She is also the co-creator of the grassroots community organisation, Get Involved. Please follow her page (@getinvolved_gbv) on Instagram to help support her organisation.