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Africa | East Africa | Southern Africa
Society | Gay - Lesbian | Human rights

Homophobia divides Africa

An openly lesbian couple in South Africa: Mapaseka Letsike and her partner Lesego Magwai

© F.Vilakazi/GenderLinks/afrol News
afrol News, 23 March
- Homophobic laws in Uganda and an anti-gay court case in Malawi are only two current examples demonstrating a conservative wave regarding sexual minorities in Africa. But in other countries, in particular South Africa, gays and lesbians are enjoying increased freedom.

There is a belt of current conservative reactions to homosexuality spanning from Zimbabwe to Ethiopia, including most of Southern and East Africa. One after another, countries in the region hit international headlines over homophobic actions.

International human rights groups are busy condemning what seems to be a wave of gay bashing in the region. Some northern donor nations, including the UK, Sweden and Norway, have included discrimination against homosexuals in their lists of unacceptable human rights violations, threatening to cut aid if the bashing goes on. Church communities are split in a north-south division over accepting homosexuals. It all looks like a war of values between Africa and Western nations.

But that is only at a superficial level. Indeed, the issue of gay rights in Africa is greatly advancing. Even repressive headlines, such as the Malawi court case against a gay couple accused of "unnatural offences", can be read the other way, as an advance for gay rights.

Malawi is an example of deeply conservative societies, where traditional religion is mixed with Anglican church values formed during the colonial era. In Malawi, a vast majority had not even heard about homosexuality before the young gay couple was arrested in late December. Homosexuality was a non-matter, it did not exist in Malawi, even the more educated people thought.

But now, homosexuality is the big issue of talks in Malawi. While the great majority of Malawians have found they do not approve of this "foreign" thing as it goes against their conservative values, some few indeed defend that homosexuals should not be discriminated. It is the first time this point of view has been heard in Malawi. With time, it may grow stronger.

In Namibia and Botswana, also conservative countries but with a longer tradition of being open to outside impulses and with greater middle classes, many organisations now openly defend gay rights against discrimination and the occasional homophobic statements by political and church leaders. Here, the taboo is about to be broken.

The great taboo breaking in Africa has already happened in South Africa, the first country world-wide to protect sexual minorities explicitly in its constitution. Here, same-sex marriages by now are allowed and increasingly accepted. Here, forceful organisations are based, fighting for gay rights across the African continent.

But interestingly, even South Africans remain conservative regarding homosexuality. A 2006 survey found that more than three-quarters - 78 percent - of South Africans felt that sexual relations between two adults of the same gender were "always wrong". Less than one in fifteen at a national level thought that homosexual relationships were "not wrong at all".

In practical terms, this means that homosexuals in South Africa are protected by some of the world's most liberal legislation. Meanwhile, gays and lesbians are among the many minority groups experiencing much hate crime. Although gay marriages are now legal, same-sex couples know they will have to choose where not to settle to avoid discrimination and violence.


Somali gay couple: Homosexuality in Somalia has become more taboo during the last years

© afrol News
among educated South Africans and among South African organisations, there is a clear sense of wanting to defend equal rights for homosexuals. Even the country's main church society, the Anglicans, are in favour of equal rights for homosexuals. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has frequently condemned persecution of gays and lesbians and even equalled homophobia with apartheid.

No wonder then, that South African organisations are leading the battle against homophobia in Africa. Only today, South Africa's main trade union COSATU joined the country's main AIDS activist group TAC in strongly condemning "homophobia in Africa." The two major organisations are "concerned about the inhuman and homophobic legislation being proposed in Uganda and a wider crackdown against gays and lesbians in other African countries."

The recent debate in Uganda about a draft bill to criminalise homosexuality through the implementation of the death sentence had "raised awareness around homophobia and homophobic legislation in the region," TAC and COSATU say, demonstrating the homophobia debate is reaching a pan-African level. They especially react against the Ugandan discourse that homosexuality is "against god's will" and "un-African", claiming this discourse is the root of the current African wave of conservative reactions against homosexuals.

"As a continent, Africa is failing to uphold the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex individuals," the South African groups hold. They demand the continent-wide "decriminalisation of all consensual sex between adults irrespective of sexual orientation," while also addressing hate crime and "corrective rape" against gays and lesbians in South Africa.

Especially COSATU is powerful outside South Africa, being the continent's most prominent trade union. And COSATU is contributing with its share to influence sister trade unions in other African countries to accept homosexual rights along with other human rights. Especially in Southern Africa, this campaign is beginning to show results, as most trade unions are against homophobic legislation.

But the most vocal campaigners against homophobia are national human rights groups. In Namibia and Botswana, these have totally embraced the principle of equal rights for homosexuals, making great efforts to change society attitudes. In Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia, national human rights groups first presented the issue to the public, trying to promote a positive discourse.

In East Africa and Malawi, this has been more difficult due to stronger conservatism and strong political and religious campaigns against homosexuality. All countries in the region - this year even Malawi - however have seen their first pro-gay organisations emerge within the small possibilities of legality that exist. Pro-gay voices therefore now exist in these countries, for the first time in history.

Homosexuality and homophobia thus is dividing Africa. The division is between conservative and liberal groups within each and every country where the discussion about homosexuality has begun. And it always starts with a conservative majority, but it may end with a liberal turn in time.

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