Last week, my University (SOAS, University of London) held a discussion about LGBT rights in Africa. Invited were SOAS lecturer Marica Moscati (preparing her PhD on same-sex marriage), a spokesperson for Amnesty International, John Bosco (a Ugandan refugee) and a Skye (Zimbabwean gay rights activist).
One against the stream
Moscati gave a quick picture of what gay rights in Africa looked like and showed a diverse picture from several nations punishing homosexuality with the death penalty or prison to one extreme opposite, South Africa. It prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation since 1996 and legalised same-sex marriages ten years after that . Seen in many western nations as one of the last legal steps to full equality, same-sex marriage was a very early change for better in South Africa. The equal marriage law “serves as a strong example for equality” and as an orientation point for South African society that largely still is as homophobic as it’s neighbours.
South Africa learnt from it’s divisive past and so did Rwanda that decided not to criminalise homosexuality in 2009. Rwanda experienced similar race relation problems as South Africa did. Today, 56.3% of parliamentarians are women, Zimbabwean gay rights activist Skye Chirape pointed out and argued it would have been a major factor for this decision as women are “more compassionate”. “If women were to seize their rightful share of governance, gays will be better off, too”.
Homosexuality – a Western import?
A member from the audience tried to contravene with an often heard statement: “Homosexuality is against African values” and the West would be pushing their ideas onto the continent. He was swiftly dismissed by the panellists: “What is African culture?” Moscati asked back and waited for a reply. “What is African culture?” she repeated after a few seconds of silence and then went on:
“Culture is not something fixed or written somewhere on a pillar. It’s something changeable. We can improve culture! We shouldn’t avoid reality just because it has mostly been done that way in the past.”
In fact, this accusation is quite ironic as it were the European colonialists who brought the anti-sodomy laws to the rest of the world in the first place. “There were lesbian relationships with legal implications in some ancient African tribal communities” said Moscati. Of course Africa also knew discrimination and resentments. Amplified homophobia yet is a Western import.
No coming out, no rights
As for nowadays, Skye mentioned that in Zimbabwe, the punishment for homosexuality is 10 years in prison “… if you’re lucky to come out alive”. She also emphasised that there are as many LGBTs in Africa as elsewhere, but “reports are oppressed by governments“ and almost all gays and lesbians are “too scared to come out”.
This, however, is crucial to be able to fight fully for rights. Some say, gays and lesbians should be careful and see how change comes along before risking their lives. Yet how can people be treated equally if Africa is unaware of their existence? How can they achieve justice if the handful of gay activists are branded as tainted by Western influence? It requires courage and may be daring, but otherwise the lives of gays in Africa will continue to be made miserable.
See my next post for Ugandan John Bosco’s story