The ‘homosexuality is un-African argument’, whichever way its proponents wish to phrase it, is racist on several levels.
First, in its crudest form, it implies Africans must be genetically different from all other humans.
If, however, we believe Africans are part of the human race then these homophobias have no choice but to accept that homosexual Africans are “born that way”. It is then clear that African homosexuals are being persecuted for their inherent nature.
Why is this any more acceptable than oppressing someone because they are born black-skinned?
Already in the 1970s on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada had seen the argument that prejudice against sexual orientation was as unacceptable as sexism and racism.
Some may reply that if you are born homosexual, you can control your behaviour, whereas you cannot really control your skin colour.
(This is also the orthodox position of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths, which accept that people are born homosexual, but must control it. According to some Islamic scholars, the Prophet Muhammad held that two men who loved each other and kept their love platonic were to be honoured as martyrs for their sacrifice.)
A black man who is born homosexual is told he may not be homosexual, because he is a black African. This is simply racist. Proponents of this argument want to put a “whites only” sign on homosexuality.
(Telling Africans they may not do certain things because they are African, is completely antithetical to promoting or celebrating African culture in a positive way.)
Only slightly more subtle is an argument that seems to revolve around contamination. This argument goes that homosexuality was introduced by the white man and is destroying African tradition and culture.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a bit like the British saying homosexuality was invented by the Greeks.
In many places missionaries and colonial governments destroyed the way indigenous African culture dealt with homosexuality, along with African beliefs, cultural and social practices, including other sexual customs.
To oppose homosexuality in Africa is to deny the rich cultural history of Africa; it is to say Europeans may be free to realise themselves, but Africans may not.
(Why is it only this so-called “African” taboo on homosexuality that is suddenly being reclaimed as a cornerstone of African culture, when so many other customs are not?)
It is also paternalistic, for it asserts that the most intimate relations of black people must be regulated, their self-actualization must be controlled by laws because obviously two consenting black adults do not know what is good for them even in the privacy of their home. If they are white, no problem, that’s their culture; they can enjoy their freedom and the bounty of Africa.
We can be quite sure that there were African cultures, perhaps even the majority, but not all, where homosexual behaviour was frowned upon or even taboo. But that is a very far cry from criminalising and passing legislation to unleash the police and all the coercive forces of the modern nation state against innocent people, pronounced guilty of nothing but a victimless ‘crime’. You cannot legislate culture.
Arguments that homosexuality is destroying the moral fabric of society are as ridiculous as they are risible. Murder, car hijacking, armed robbery, fraud, corruption, and human trafficking is hardly being carried out by some secret band of feral homosexuals.
Most crime is committed by heterosexuals, to which can be added our biggest social ills – the rape of women, wife beating and domestic child abuse, crimes by definition not perpetrated by homosexuals. Some crimes are specifically committed by heterosexuals – “corrective” rape and gay-bashing.
We are then left with the religious argument (which is itself un-African).
Firstly, religion is not an acceptable basis for common law regulating the people of a country, many of whom are not religious, unless the intention is to establish a religious state.
Even then there is a problem; for the law would express only one interpretation of the scripture, and who is claiming this right?
As a non-believer, I will not pronounce on theological disputes and exegeses around the original meaning of words such as malakos and arsenokoites and toevah used in the relevant Bible passages cited as apparently injunctions against homosexuality.
But I can observe that there are very many gay Christians and gay preachers, as well as heterosexual and celibate religious leaders and renowned theologians, who have in good conscience reconciled homosexuality with the word of God and their religion.
How then did Africa get itself into such a self-mutilating muddle? How did African governments come to adopt creaky old British colonial attitudes to chastise and mock their own people in the name of Africa? Why are they bent on supressing a people’s history?
It is as important to note that once again, it is women, be they lesbians or the mothers and sister of homosexuals, who are bearing the brunt of this assault on human dignity, mostly orchestrated and executed by men. Homophobia is always strongest in deeply patriarchal societies.
Lessons from history
Possibly the oldest evidence of homosexuality is in Africa. In Egypt stands the 4390-year-old Saqqara tomb (near Giza) of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, two men buried together for the afterlife. On the walls are several depictions of them in intimate embrace and nose-kissing (the form of kissing favoured by heterosexuals too in ancient Egypt).
Egypt has a rich homosexual history – from the transvestite khawalat dancers introduced when Muhammad Ali, the founding Pasha of Egypt, banned women from performing, to the famed oasis of Siwa on the Nile that practised boy marriages up until the 1930s (to the disgust of the occupying British).
What was particularly interesting about the recent controversy surrounding King Goodwill Zwelithini’s comments was the defence of his words by Zulu academics and linguists who said the king had not targeted homosexuals.
University of Zululand Professor Jabulani Maphalala pointed out that the monarch saidukuhlukumeza, which meant abuse in this context. Maphalala continued that since time immemorial homosexuality is well documented in Zulu oral history, and had the king wanted to talk about homosexuals he would have used terms such as ongqingili or izinkonkoni orizitabane.
In other words, the language itself tells us that Zulu society had come to grips with the phenomenon of homosexuality long before any white people appeared.
There is no space in this blog to go into the tons of evidence for pre-colonial sub-Saharan homosexuality, but suffice to say that every African culture has experienced it and in various degrees permitted, ignored or controlled it.
Reasons for persecution
The biggest reason for homophobia (like racism) is simply gross ignorance.
But why is there across Africa suddenly a movement to persecute homosexuals?
I have been told, off the record, by among the highest authorities in the Anglican Church (not Tutu in case some people jump to that conclusion) that nothing short of bribery is at work; huge sums of money from Christian groups in the USA are being paid to African bishops to oppose homosexuality.
Many blame North American evangelical preachers who are using the issue to further their influence. Thus Ugandan rights activists are suing American evangelists in a US federal court for whipping up anti-gay hysteria that has led to the torture and deaths of innocent people.
Mendacious propaganda tours of Africa to indoctrinate the public and drum up support for hate laws calling for the death penalty for homosexuals have involved showing the public pornographic videos of coprophagia. They should be laughed off the stage as one would if somebody took any sadomasochist video from a porn store in Amsterdam or Vienna and went on a tour telling people that this is “one of the things” heterosexuals do.
Some time ago I spoke to Cambridge human geographer Dr Andrew Tucker who has been working in the field in Uganda. He was sceptical of laying all the blame on American evangelists.
He suggests that the genesis of the recent homophobia appears to be rooted in political mudslinging, by politicians smearing one another as homosexual.
There have been innumerable cases of this going back to the Smith government’s attacks on Mugabe. (Last year, a MDC politician was thrown in jail for saying Mugabe had homosexual sex.)
These politicians then vie with each other to prove who is more “anti-gay”.
Feeding into this is the bogus “defence of African culture”, opposition to “Western decadence”, and resistance to “neo-colonial” “liberal” ideas like human rights.
Some cynical governments clearly intend to use this issue as a bargaining chip, while other scurrilous politicians use homosexuals as political footballs; most recently, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf joined those ranks.
Where it all went wrong
Many who practise same-sex relations outside the West find the term ‘gay’ inapplicable to them, colonising, and even insulting.
We can agree that ‘gay’ is un-African, but that does not mean homosexuality is. Many ignorant Africans and Westerners confuse the two.
Tucker believes rights activists should foreground the many examples of communities that have come to terms with the idea of sexualised difference amongst themselves without Western intervention.
In this way there will be nothing to stop communities understanding same-sex desire and queer identity within their society, just as many African cultures did in the past.
Western notions of gay liberation and the closet have done damage and fed the misguided idea of homosexuality as culturally alien.
The ire of many has been raised by both UK Prime Minister David Cameron and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for saying that foreign aid to Africa will be linked to gay rights. Hadn’t they heard certain human rights are not for Africans?
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