The international campaign for equal rights for homosexuals and other sexual minorities took a step forward on 14 November when South Africa became the first country in Africa, and the fifth in the world, to legalize same-sex marriage. “This country cannot continue to be a prisoner of the backward, time-worn prejudices which have no basis,” declared ruling African National Congress parliamentarian and Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota in urging passage. “Culture is not static.”
The new law, adopted by a 230– 41 vote, was welcomed by gay and lesbian activists in South Africa and around the world as a significant advance for equal rights. But it is not a trend. Conservative religious and political leaders in many countries still strongly oppose equal rights for homosexuals, including same-sex marriage. The week before the South African move, same-sex marriages were banned in eight US states, although similar proposals were defeated in a dozen others. In Nigeria, President Olusegun Obasanjo introduced legislation in 2006 that not only bars same-sex marriages but criminalizes anyone who “performs, witnesses, aids or abets” such ceremonies. Sex between men in Nigeria, defined as sodomy, was already punishable by up to 14 years in prison, reports the non-governmental International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA).
‘Ultimate rejection’ of human rights
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour noted in August 2006 that worldwide, more than 80 countries criminalize consensual sexual relations between persons of the same sex — including seven in which the punishment can be death. “There is no doubt that these laws violate international human rights standards,” she said. “Neither the existence of national laws nor the prevalence of custom can ever justify the abuse, attacks, torture and indeed killings that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons are subjected to because of who they are or are perceived to be.”
The “shameful silence” with which homophobic violence is greeted by governments and society, she told delegates to a Montreal human rights conference, is the “ultimate rejection of the fundamental principle of the universality of rights.”
In Africa, according to a 2000 study by the ILGA, homosexuality was illegal in 29 countries and enjoyed legal protection in just 10. Although sexual minorities are gradually winning recognition and protection of their rights under the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other human rights treaties, they remain at great risk of official harassment, arbitrary detention, public stigmatization, extortion and even assault because of their sexual orientation. These minorities include lesbians, homosexual men (often referred to as “gay”), bisexuals and persons of one sex who identify primarily as members of the other (known as “transgendered”).
Discrimination, isolation, repression
Bias and stigmatization against homosexuals and other sexual minorities in Africa is rooted in deeply held cultural and religious values. They can be accompanied by abuses, are too often enforced by vigilante violence and are sometimes enshrined in law.
In one widely reported instance, the UN Human Rights Commission found Cameroon in violation of its treaty obligations after police arrested 17 men at a Yaoundé nightclub believed to be frequented by members of the gay and lesbian community and held nine for more than a year. One of the detainees, a 30-year-old man living with HIV/AIDS, died 10 days after his release.
Prosecutors initially charged the men with “homosexuality,” although that is not itself a crime in Cameroon. Seven of the men were later convicted under the country’s anti-sodomy law, although no evidence of any sexual activity was presented. In a letter to the New York–based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), a senior government official said that homosexuality was not acceptable in society and defended the arrests as necessary to preserve “positive African cultural values.”
In Uganda, five men were arrested in October 2006 under the country’s colonial-era anti-sodomy law, which can bring life imprisonment upon conviction. The arrests followed by months the publication in a Kampala magazine of a list of 45 men alleged to be homosexuals. The editors acted, they claimed, “to show the nation ... how fast the terrible vice known as sodomy is eating up our society.” The publication was denounced as “homophobic” by Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a human rights organization in Kampala. It said the men now lived “under unbelievable fear of being arrested, ostracized by their families or sacked from their jobs.”
It was not the first time Ugandan activists linked hostile articles in the press to victimization. In 2005, local government officials raided the home of SMUG chairperson Juliet Victor Mukasa, seized files and papers and briefly detained another activist after a state-owned newspaper called on police to “visit the holes mentioned in the press, spy on the perverts, arrest and prosecute them.”
Nor is family or community necessarily a haven. In testimony at the UN Council on Human Rights, Ms. Mukasa, a transgendered person, described her life as a member of this “highly vulnerable” community: “In Africa, transgendered people are seriously punished for being who they are. I was always being beaten by my father for ‘behaving’ like a boy. In school the same story. . . . I became the laughingstock of the village and expelled myself because of the humiliation.
“In church I was once stripped naked before a multitude of people. The pastor ‘saw’ the spirit of a young man inside me and they burnt my clothes and shoes in order to kill the male spirit. . . . As a transgendered person, it is constantly demanded of me to explain and justify why I do not fit into other people’s idea of what a man or a woman should be.”
A gay Nigerian man, who refused to provide his name for fear of reprisal, told IGLHRC in early 2006 that “a team of policemen in Lagos came to my apartment and took me away to an unknown place for two days. I was beaten beyond recognition and am still receiving treatment for the head injury I received. I was dehumanized and paraded naked to the press. My money, ID card and shoes were taken. Eventually I was released without being charged and tried. My only offence was that I am gay. I no longer live in Nigeria. I cannot go back there.”
‘Un-African’ claims challenged
Much of the stigma attached to homosexuality in Africa has been justified by opponents on broad religious or cultural grounds, with assertions that same-sex relationships are condemned in the Bible or Qur’an or that they never occurred in pre-colonial African society. Religious scholars on both sides of the issue are still debating, sometimes bitterly, the proper interpretation of scriptural references to homosexuality.
Recent research by African and Northern academics, however, is challenging the assertion that homosexuality was imported to Africa by colonialism and is not compatible with tradition and culture.
To be sure, same-sex relationships can raise a host of issues in societies where marriage and family are intimately bound up with access to land and property, inheritance rights, community status and even political stability. In an interview with the UK Independent newspaper, a South African traditional healer, Mrs. Nokuzola Mndende, lamented the difficulty of applying traditional practices to same-sex couples: “There’s the issue of lobola [a traditional dowry paid to the family of the bride]. Normally the man pays it. In this case who’s going to pay?” The prospect of same-sex households being childless and thus complicating long-standing inheritance and family practices is another concern raised by traditionalists.
But research among the Gikuyu people of Murang’a district in central Kenya by Wairimu Ngaruiya Njambi and William O’Brien found traditional acceptance of “woman-woman marriage” when such relationships brought children into households or eased disputes over inheritance of land and other property. In one case, they reported in 2000 in a scholarly article in the US National Women Studies Association Journal, a childless woman married a younger woman with the expectation that the new wife would bear children by a male partner and create heirs. In the relationships examined in the study, the complexities of gender roles were more a source of amusement than tension in the community, and, at least within Gikuyu tradition, acceptable.
Other researchers have found traditional homosexual and bisexual practices among men in some African cultures as well, and words for homosexuality, gay men and lesbians in a large number of indigenous languages.
Some Gikuyu women in same-sex relationships have expressed a sense of liberation from male domination and of equality within the marriage. One female “husband” told researchers: “I don’t have a man, but I have a woman who cares for me. I belong to her and she belongs to me. And I tell you I don’t have to worry about a man telling me what to do.”
In the view of many such researchers, the traditional African family was quite adaptable, and sometimes encompassed a range of same-sex relationships, entered into for economic, romantic and emotional reasons.
Out of the shadows
Despite the risks, a slowly growing number of African gays and lesbians, encouraged by the spread of democracy and galvanized by the need to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, have emerged from the shadows to confront stigma. In recent years gay and lesbian advocates have become more visible — challenging legal discrimination in the courts and at the African Union, asserting their rights under international law and the African Charter for Human and People’s Rights and claiming a place in Africa as Africans.
In February 2004, 22 homosexual, bisexual and transgender organizations from 16 African countries called on their leaders to “safeguard our real situations and our basic rights. We, African lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people, do exist — despite your attempts to deny our existence.
“Political leaders promote hatred against us to solidify their own political situations,” they continued, but “we have and have always had a place in Africa. . . . We demand that our voices be heard.”