Gay Rights Comes to Africa?

Rachel C. Schneider on Decolonization, Sexuality, and Africa

Adriaan van Klinken and Ezra Chitando, eds, Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa, Routledge, 2016, 278pp., $149.95

Over the last decade, countless news stories, focusing on the difficult situation of LGBTQI people in Africa, have contributed to a Western perception of Africa as an exceptionally homophobic place. Perhaps the most extreme example cited, and the one that has attracted the most media attention, was the passage of the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda.  Supporters of the bill initially proposed the death penalty for anyone caught practicing homosexuality, though the signed bill reduced this punishment to life imprisonment after intense international pressure. Nevertheless, public support of such measures in Uganda prompted terror among the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex populations. The law was later struck down by the courts.

Uganda stands out not only because of the severity of its policies but also because of the conspicuous role that Ugandan and American religious leaders played in the passage of the bill. Conservative evangelicals in the United States have been accused of helping to draft the legislation via Ugandan surrogates, but Ugandan supporters of the legislation framed their stance as helping to build a strong Uganda by resisting the imposition of “foreign” sexual perversions. In seeking to criminalize homosexuality—a term in Africa that seems to encompass a wide range of gender and sexual expression—influential Ugandan pastors thus presented Uganda as a moral leader in a postcolonial struggle to preserve authentic African culture and Christianity vis-à-vis a depraved West.

Uganda, however, is not unique in its social resistance towards LGBTQI populations. Intense condemnation of homosexuality throughout Africa in the postcolonial era stands in contrast with the fact that same-sex behavior was largely tolerated in many pre-colonial societies as long as it was privatized or ritualized. Yet such histories are increasingly erased by political and religious leaders who assert that homosexuality is un-African. More importantly, it is striking that local communities are pre-emptively mobilizing to prevent the public assertion of LGBTIQ identities. Attempts to constrain the social visibility of LGBTQI Africans further perpetuates the myth that homosexuality is not “found” in African culture but rather a morally bankrupt Western import.  

Two recent volumes, Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa and Christianity and Controversies over Homosexuality in Africa, edited by Ezra Chitando and Adriaan van Klinken, offer a window into the targeting of LGBTQI Africans and the role of religion, particularly Christianity, in this targeting. Importantly, the editors seek to challenge the view—so common in the West—that Africa is uniformly homophobic. While not denying the role of religion in the proliferation of anti-gay discourses, the editors take issue with the fact that African culture and religion are often portrayed by Western commentators as monolithic forces of oppression, often with little effort to contextualize the relatively recent rise of public homophobia in Africa or local forms of contestation.

In their introduction, the editors remind their readers that scholarship on homosexuality in Africa has life and death implications. Thus, it is not enough for scholars to assert the link between (conservative) religion and homophobia if one hopes to advance the human dignity and rights of LGBTQI Africans. Rather, scholars must work to make intelligible the various moral and political logics at play if they are to be contested. I applaud this stance. Further, I believe it is especially important for scholars to also challenge the racist/colonial idea that Africans are somehow inherently sexually flawed and thus in need of Western enlightenment, civilization, and transformation. For this reason, Chitando and van Klinken should be commended for the range of voices they represent in their volumes, particularly their intentional inclusion of a number of African scholars who use ethnography, history, and queer theory to critically interrogate the relationship between sexuality and religion. As they recognize, the inclusion of scholars from Africa itself works to challenge the narrative of anti-gay activists who would claim that research on homosexuality is solely a Western-driven intellectual agenda. These volumes prove that African intellectuals are deeply invested in these debates, and that Africans do not hold homogenous views when it comes to sexual diversity and sexual rights.

Reading the various case studies, not only from Uganda, but Nigeria, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Côte D’Ivore, Liberia, Senegal, Zambia, Cameroon, and South Africa, I was reminded again how deeply postcolonial dynamics shape conversations about religion and sexuality in Africa. Increased homophobia, Chitando and van Klinken note, comes at a time when many African elites are deeply invested in an aspirational view of Africa as a “rising continent.” This raises the fundamental question of why many Africans tend to link progress—political, social, economic, and spiritual—with the enforcement of heterosexual morality. This pairing, I believe, has everything to do with the fact that religion has been, and continues to be, a potent sphere where Africans can articulate postcolonial desires for historical agency and global influence. This postcolonial dimension, while so

Ezra Chitando and Adriaan van Klinken, eds. Christianity and Controversies over Homosexuality in Contemporary Africa, Routledge, 2016, 212pp., $149.95

metimes acknowledged by outside observes, rarely gets probed at a deeper level.

As Chitando and van Klinken emphasize, scholars have long noted the blurring of the material and the spiritual as a fundamental characteristic of African religions. This blurring often leads to an intermingling of political and religious power, and many argue it also contributes to the visible presence of religion in Africa’s public sphere. Thus, recent efforts by African religious leaders to legally enshrine heterosexual morality can be seen as yet another expression of this merging of political and spiritual power. The editors also recognize that for many Africans, modernity, taken and understood as a project of social, political, and moral transformation, has rarely been conceived as outside of or inimical to spiritual forms of power. This is due in part to deeply embedded associations between modernity, progress, and Christianity, which I believe helps explain why discourses around Christian morality and social transformation have become deeply entangled with ideas of progress in postcolonial Africa. At the same time, numerous anti-colonial and postcolonial movements have drawn on the power of religion to reinforce “African” social ideals vis-à-vis the West. They often do so in the name of resurrecting indigenous African culture and/or in the name of defending authentic Christianity and Islam from corrupting influences. In this way, religion is used to publicly define the borders between Africa and the West, including shifting power relations between “Western Christianity” and “African Christianity.”   

These two volumes effectively illuminate the nuanced ways that postcolonial concerns in Africa are expressed through discourses on religion and sexuality. Throughout the volumes, individual authors explore the connections between religion, homophobia, and postcolonial issues such as HIV/AIDS, structural adjustment, and Western dependency. Yet, I believe more explicit reflection and synthesis on the postcolonial remains necessary in order to understand the debates around homosexuality in Africa. While Chitando and van Klinken set out—and succeed—at showing the context-specific nature of homophobias in Africa, I would argue they do not go far enough in addressing how a shared postcolonial condition deeply informs the “politicization of homosexuality” in Africa and its entanglement with religion, leaving it to individual readers to note similarities between localized responses and ponder the implications. While the editors rightly place emphasis on challenging a monolithic picture of African homophobia, the choice to foreground particularity (a “plurality of homophobias”) blunts broader reflection on the obvious connections that can be made between local contexts and the theoretical implications of these connections.

Nearly every author describes how local movements for LGBTQI rights in Africa have been portrayed by local religious and political leaders as a Western import designed to threaten national stability, undermine cultural sovereignty, and facilitate spiritual corruption. Further, leaders often charge that international human rights campaigns supporting LGBTQI Africans are simply the latest phase in a series of attempts to impose Western moralities on them as part of a “civilizing” project. Such rhetoric is fairly ironic, given that colonial powers were often the first to institute laws criminalizing homosexuality in many parts of Africa.

At the same time, understanding the politics of homosexuality in Africa requires taking African skepticism toward transnational moral interventions seriously—especially those aimed at sexuality. In his seminal text On the Postcolony, Achille Mbembe argues that “Africa is never seen as possessing things and attributes properly part of ‘human nature.’” For much of Africa’s history after European contact, Africans have been accused of sexual deviance by colonialists, anthropologists, and missionaries who sought to save Africans by changing their sexual behavior. Identified with “primitiveness” and “all that is incomplete, mutilated, and unfinished,” Africans have been associated with the beastly, the strange, the monstrous, brutality, sexual license, and death. This racist colonial legacy perhaps explains why postcolonial elites tend to assert their agency in heterosexual terms that emphasize sexual normativity, fertility, and patriarchal authority—what Mbembe calls “phallic domination.” Such assertions of power, which depend on the linking of humanness with heterosexuality, and deviance with homosexuality, nonetheless remain deeply harmful to LGBTQI Africans.

The spread of HIV/AIDS combined with the weakening of the postcolonial state, has undoubtedly contributed to the increased power of local religious leaders in shaping public discourses on sexuality in Africa. As governments buckled under the dual pressures of structural adjustment and stagnant growth in the 1980s and 1990s, international aid donors turned their attention toward faith-based organizations (FBOs) as an alternate means of delivering social services. FBOs were also seen as an asset in strengthening civil society, spreading democracy, and conflict resolution. In the United States, the election of George W. Bush ensured a clear moral dimension to humanitarian aid in line with conservative evangelical funding priorities. As a result, starting in 2004, Pentecostal and evangelical FBOs in Africa became attractive conduits of Bush’s PEPFAR funds (President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief), due to their emphasis on sexual morality as the primary means of addressing HIV/AIDS.

Against this transnational backdrop, extreme anti-gay pastors like Martin Ssempa in Uganda positioned themselves on the frontlines of the fight against HIV/AIDS, which led to greater external funding, international recognition, and increased public influence (see chapters by Bompani; Lee; Valois;).One might even go so far as to argue that PEPFAR gave Pentecostal pastors lucrative incentives to publicly assert homophobic positions regardless of personal belief. But these dynamics were also present Muslim contexts. In Senegal, Muslim NGOs leveraged involvement in HIV/AIDS prevention, and international funding, to promote anti-homosexual policies and surveil citizens (Broqua). At the same time, HIV/AIDS treatment campaigns opened up space for frank discussions of sexuality and increased public awareness of sexual diversity (Broqua; Chitando and Mapuranga). As LGTBQI Africans became more visible, the stage was set for their targeting.

The volumes also draw attention to additional ways the rise of Pentecostalism has shaped the politics of homosexuality in Africa. Such attention is important because outside observers often fail to grasp the theological currents within African Pentecostalism that are currently fueling public hostility towards gays and lesbians. Admist continued disappointment tied to the failures of the postcolonial state and globalization, many contributors describe how Pentecostal Christians increasingly understand procreation to be foundational to national prosperity, (Bompani; Currier and Cruz; Kaoma; Ukah). While procreation was also central to traditional religious systems, what is new is the degree to which LGBTQI people are understood as a national secrutiy threat by virtue of the challenges they pose to heteronormative ideas of reproduction, order, and stability. Such threats, the logic goes, must be eliminated for the sake of a future flourishing nation.

All of this contributes to a particularly Pentecostal notion of Christian citizenship, which posits self-governance as the key to transforming the nation-state. The struggle against homosexuality begins with one’s own behavior and by keeping a close eye on others. An emphasis on sexual morality further gives individuals a concrete role to play in a divine mission to save their nation and the world from demonic forces (Bompani; Lyonga; Ukah). Due to symbolic divides between the West and Africa, this spiritual vision places the formerly oppressed at the center of a grand narrative of postcolonial Christian redemption, foregrounding African agency at a time when many citizens long for a more prosperous future and bemoan Western dominance (Muwina; Valois). It also offers moral credibility to postcolonial leaders who position themselves as defenders of Africa against the West, shifting attention away from their own forms of oppression (Manyonganise).   

The theme of postcolonial purification becomes all the more interesting when considering how many of the countries covered in the volumes, such as Uganda, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, and Kenya, recently underwent periods of political conflict that hinged on the mobilization of ethnic, racial, and religious divides. As African political leaders have sought to manage numerous social tensions within a postcolonial environment of scarcity, sexuality has emerged as an alternate terrain where questions of national belonging are being worked out. Perhaps because of the need to dampen the racial, ethnic, and religious fault lines produced by postcolonial inequality, heterosexuality has become, for now, a key marker of social inclusion and citizenship in Africa. Joseph Hellweg offers a particularly compelling theorization of how these dynamics have manifested in post-conflict Côte d’Ivoire.

As many of the authors show, the politics of homosexuality have often had a coalitional effect (however temporary) that leaders capitalize on and manipulate. For example, opposition to homosexuality has emerged as a means of uniting Muslims and Christians in Nigeria (Oguntola-Laguda and van Klinken), Côte d’Ivoire (Hellweg), and Liberia (Currier and Cruz), countries which have a history of deep religious conflict. Anti-gay campaigns have also been used to unite fragmented Pentecostals in Uganda (Bompani) and to improve the marginal status of Rastafarians in Zimbabwe (Sibanda). Religious and political leaders also use anti-gay rhetoric to establish patronage networks, allowing for a mutually beneficial “sacralization of politics and a politicization of religion” (Mawina).

Just as often, however, homosexuality has been used to tarnish political and religious rivals in the face of increased competition (Broqua; Kaoma; Ndlovu). Contributors to both volumes give numerous examples of how accusations of homosexuality are used as potent weapons, whether by President Mugabe to delegitimize political opposition in Zimbabwe (Manyongaine) or by Pastor Ssempa in Uganda to smear a competing Pentecostal pastor (Valois). Anti-gay politics are also entangled with class resentments. In Cameroon, for instance, charges of homosexuality have been directed at Catholics and other elites who seem to have occult-like access to resources and power in a context of extreme inequality (Lyonga; Nyeck). Anti-gay Liberians have warned of a “gay for pay” scheme where youth are being preyed on by Westerners to promote LGTBQI identities in exchange for money (Currier and Cruz). The association of homosexuality with nefarious schemes of enrichment, including witchcraft, are reinforced by Pentecostal discourses that understand homosexuality as demonic.

Ultimately, these volumes demonstrate that debates about sexuality remain inseparable from postcolonial anxieties and aspirations. The public nature of these debates speaks to the power of religion in shaping political and moral imaginations in Africa, as well as the intense competition between various groups to assert their claims to the nation. Finally, anti-gay rhetoric reveals the precarity of peacebuilding and national reconstruction projects in many parts of Africa. Those in power must continually seek out new strategies for building social cohesion or asserting their hegemony.

In their attention to religious and political homophobias in Africa, these volumes expose the myriad of threats facing LGBTQI Africans. For this reason, the chapters that stand out are those that show how LGBTQI Africans are resisting erasure and finding ways to navigate religious spaces, even if these spaces are dangerous (Homewood). LGBTQI Africans, as several contributors show, often draw on religious resources to assert their dignity and reject demonization of their sexuality (Muparamoto; Phiri). In other cases, LGBTQI Africans have found ways to queer religion through fashioning alternate systems of meaning (Muparamoto; van Klinken). Hassan Ndzovu offers insight into tolerance of some homosexual practices among coastal Muslims in Kenya, though these practices, along with Kenyan LGBTQI organizations, face extreme religious backlash. For these reasons, such counter-stories need further study, documentation, and theorization if the narrative of a homophobic Africa is to be contested and local spaces of freedom further opened.

By far the most promising path to resisting homophobia seems to be for LGBTQI Africans and their allies to contest how individual societies are constructing notions of authentic humanness and defining African culture and religion. Some of the contributors point out that this can be accomplished through creating spaces for reflective dialogue and by framing African identities in ways that do not rely on dominant religious discourses but instead recognize the vulnerability of certain bodies within specific socio-religious contexts. It may also mean recognizing that Western modes of activism, particularly the application of external political pressure, may not be as effective in African contexts and might even exacerbate violence towards LGBTQI populations. For these reasons, Kapya Kaoma argues, African advocates of same-sex rights should turn their attention to repurposing religious-cultural frameworks within the context of African community life.

The terrain covered by these volumes could not be more urgent or relevant. The volumes provide necessary clarity to an issue often misunderstood. The variety of case studies presented, especially the chapters that focus on the lived experience of LGBTQI Africans, paint a complex picture that troubles Western notions of Africa as monolithically homophobic without denying difficult realities. Anyone looking for deeper understanding of the various factors impacting social transformation in Africa will find rich material to learn from here.

Struggles over sexuality in Africa speak to what anthropologist Kevin O’Neill calls “transitional time,” a condition impacting so many around the globe. Most regions in Africa are emerging from periods of intense violence and instability that have been characterized by racial, ethnic, and religious divides. They have also been subjected to immense losses of life and productivity due to the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In contexts marked by death, destruction, and generalized insecurity, it is no surprise, anthropologically speaking, that there would be a hyperfocus on social order, reproduction, and the protection of youth who represent a symbol of the future. But postcolonial desires for national stability, security, prosperity, health, agency, and self-determination—desires so often expressed through the language of religion—come at the immense cost of homophobic violence and queer erasure in Africa.

Religious leaders have proven particularly adept at channeling grassroots desires for stability into anti-homosexual politics, allowing them to appear as national reformers and public healers who can bring postcolonial societies back into alignment through the purging of forces of death, destruction, and corruption. Of course, the increased power of religious groups to enforce their moral vision in the public sphere is not only a trend within the Global South; it is also found in the Global North. In both contexts, religious actors and organizations increasingly refuse to accept a marginalized role within a secular state and market economy. Indeed, African clergy have found growing wealth and influence, in part, because they have been seen as vanguards of morality by conservative religious actors in North America and the United Kingdom. Through transnational circuits, conservative African churches position themselves as leaders in the fight to “decolonize” religion through opposition to homosexuality.

The historical and anthropological archive makes clear that Africa has been marked by diversity in expressions of gender and sexuality. These volumes demonstrate that this diversity still survives, even if under intense pressure. If African elites and their respective communities are truly serious about decolonization, they might consider learning from, rather than working against, more flexible understandings of gender and sexuality, many of which are pre-colonial in their origins. At the same time, the counter-trends presented in these volumes raise the unanswered question of whether trajectories of political/economic vulnerability, spiritual insecurity, and competition over resources will only continue to exacerbate violence against LGBTQI Africans. It certainly seems likely, given that those perpetuating homophobic hostility have the most to gain.

Rachel Schneider is a visiting research associate at the Center for Religion and Public Life at Rice University. She holds a doctorate in Religion from Rice University with a specialization in the anthropology of religion and global Christianity. Her current research, based in South Africa, focuses on how religious commitments shape ethical and political practice as well as inspire social change.

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