In June, Botswana overturned colonial-era laws which criminalised homosexuality, with the judge, Michael Leburu, declaring that “the anti-sodomy laws are a British import” and were developed “without the consultation of local peoples”.
It was viewed as a massive success and a historic moment across the continent. Despite this the more than half of the countries in Africa outlaw homosexuality, with four enforcing the death penalty. At a time where we see more and more countries worldwide becoming progressive with regard to LGBT rights, why does Africa still maintain their anti-LGBT stance? Is homosexuality, rather than homophobia a “western import” as claimed by Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni?
Of course not. There is a direct correlation between countries which belong to the Commonwealth, and therefore have previously been under British rule, and countries that still have homophobic biphobic and/or transphobic legislature in their constitutions. 25 per cent of the world’s population (2.4 billion people) currently live in a country belonging to the Commonwealth, however they make up a disproportionately large 50 per cent of countries that still criminalise homosexuality.
But this phenomenon is specific to those under British rule. By the 13th century in France, punishments for male homosexuality include castration for the first offence. But the French repealed their anti-sodomy laws after the first French Revolution in 1750, two centuries prior to the British in 1967. This is then echoed in La Francophonie nations; out of 54 member states, only 33 per cent of these criminalise homosexuality, in comparison to 66 per cent of Commonwealth nations.
Prior to European colonisation, throughout the African continent we see far different, more relaxed attitudes towards sexual orientation and gender identity. As far back as 2400 BC tombs have been excavated in ancient Egypt with two men’s bodies Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep embracing each other as lovers. In addition to their acceptance of same sex relationships, Ancient Egyptians, similar to other civilisations at the time not only acknowledge a third gender, but venerate it. Many deities were portrayed androgynously, and goddesses such as Mut (the goddess of Motherhood; lit. translation Mother) and Sekmeht (goddess of war) are often depicted as women with erect penises.
This was not unique to Egypt or this time period. In the 16th century, the Imbangala people of Angola had “men in womens apparel, with whom they kept amongst their wives”. In contrast, King Henry VIII had just signed the Buggery Act in 1533 in England, which criminalised sex between two males. The last men to be sentenced to death by hanging in England were in 1835 for engaging in homosexual sex; whilst at the same time there was an openly gay monarch, King Mwanga II of Buganda (present day Uganda), who actively opposed Christianity and colonialism. The Igbo and Yoruba tribes, found mostly in present day Nigeria, did not have a binary of genders and typically did not assign gender to babies at birth, and instead waited until later life. Similarly the Dagaaba people (present day Ghana) assigned gender not based on ones anatomy, but rather the energy one presents. In the royal palaces of Northern Sudan, daughters were sometimes given slave girls for sex.
For centuries, across the African continent there was a completely different attitude towards sexual and gender identities. Many African countries did not see gender as a binary in the way that their European colonisers did, nor did they correlate anatomy to gender identity. In no African country prior to colonisation do we see any persecution of LGBT individuals because of their sexuality, nor any anti-LGBT laws.
So how, despite a very relaxed attitude towards homosexuality and gender fluidity for almost all its recorded history, has Africa become one of the most difficult continents to be LGBT?
Colonisation and the spread of fundamentalist Christian attitudes from the British meant that much of Africa lost its previous cultural attitude towards sexual orientation and gender identity and were forced to adopt “new” values from British colonisers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Homophobia was legally enforced by colonial administrators and Christian missionaries. In 1910, Christians made up about 9 per cent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa; by 2010, the figure had leapt to 63 per cent. Anti-LGBT laws were not only written into constitutions, but also into the minds of many African people, and after the passing of several generations, this has become dogma.
While many of the countries under British rule are now independent, the majority who still criminalise homosexuality, including Jamaica and Uganda, have carried over these laws from the colonial era. Generations later, many Africans now believe that an anti-gay attitude is one that is a part of their culture. So much so, that former Zimbabwean President Mugabe labelled homosexuality as a “white disease”.
The association of homosexuality as something “western” is echoed throughout the ex-Commonwealth and particularly in African and Caribbean nations. For many who had their lives and cultures stripped from them by the British, western-ness is to be treated with suspicion and it’s essential to hold on to any part of themselves and their culture they can. This combined with the fact that western countries have threatened to deny aid to these countries unless they conform to their ideals has hindered the fight for LGBT rights in African countries. For instance, when ex-Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to withdraw aid from Uganda as they “were not adhering to proper human rights”, the presidential adviser responded with ‘But this kind of ex-colonial mentality of saying: 'You do this or I withdraw my aid' will definitely make people extremely uncomfortable with being treated like children."
It is clear that top down reform, with the western world leading the way is not going to be the road that Africans take to change their anti-LGBT laws; scepticism towards the West and homophobia are far too closely intertwined. Rejecting pro-LGBT legislation is rejecting neo-colonialism and is in favour of African nationalism, self-determination and self-worth. Unfortunately, African homophobia is a tricky mix of anti-neo-colonialism, politics, and religion, made worse by the HIV/AIDS crisis. This crisis has led Africans to associate HIV/AIDS and death as a consequence of being gay, similar to American attitudes towards HIV/AIDS during the United States AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
So what is the future for LGBT rights in Africa? In many countries, despite the legacy of colonisation, citizens are taking a more autonomous stance on LGBTQ+ legislature, with the queer communities taking the lead, instead of external pressures from the West. Across the world, countries that have improved their LGBT rights records have done so because of the hard work, organising and leadership of local LGBT groups and communities, and the case of Africa is no different. Enforcing top-down change from the West would do little to change the attitudes of Africans towards homosexuality; this is a struggle that must be led by local LGBT communities who know best what they need and how to fight for it.
Unspoken facts: a history of homosexualities in Africa - Marc Epprecht (2008)
"Bisexuality" and the Politics of Normal in African Ethnography - Marc Epprecht (2006)
How Britain’s exported homophobia continues to drive health inequalities amongst LGBTQI communities - Annabel Sowemimo (2019)
Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women - Leila J. Rupp (2009)
Boy-wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities - Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe (1998)
The Commonwealth, colonialism and the legacy of homophobia - Marjorie Morgan (2018)