CHALLENGES TO THE RIGHTS OF SEXUAL MINORITIES IN AFRICA.

6 Aug
Facebook Picture of Fr. Anthony Musaala

Facebook Picture of Fr. Anthony Musaala

Anthony Musaala

Among the many challenges facing Africa is the integration of diverse racial and ethnic groups (3000) into functioning nation-states: the challenge of nationalism.

Sexual minorities within Africa (lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, intersexuals–LGBTIs) who have a stake in this project of nationhood, increasingly self-identify as a distinct group struggling for the right to live, love and be free within developing African states.

Thwarted by civil or religious laws which are formally discriminatory, or the informal discrimination of family, clan and tribe, sexual minorities all over the continent are becoming more visible and eager to declare their position with regard to their own basic rights to be who they are as African nationals.

World-wide change in attitudes

Within the last fifty years many progressive countries in different parts of the world have abolished laws which criminalize homosexual acts.

There has been a shift in attitudes from moral idealism, which seeks the ‘perfection’ of human nature by acts of free or divine choice, to a realism which discovers numerous forces and contingencies behind every ‘free choice’ .

A scientific view sees ‘moral choices’ taking place not in some rationalistic vacuum of moral idealities, but being conditioned by many ‘non-moral’ factors, including physiology, society and the environment.

The phenomenon of homosexuality is an empirical reality, an immutable datum. Homosexuality is properly understood as a variant type of sexuality or orientation not a ‘deviant’ one.

Moral arguments which ignore this are in denial of these facts. Acceptance of them lead to the reconsideration of past legal prohibitions of homosexual behaviour and to the enunciation of the rights of sexual minorities including equal treatment before the law.

African ‘exceptionalism’

Some states in Africa are espousing a counter-trend to this, in which notions of rights for sexual minorities are rejected, as well as some of the scientific premises on which they are based.

An emerging trend towards criminalizing homosexual acts even more, is becoming a new source of national pride and cultural ‘uniqueness.’

In this model, ‘heterosexual absolutism’ is espoused as the ‘sine qua non’ of African identity. Heterosexuality, or opposite-sex attraction is enjoined as critical to Africanness, although there is no historical or cultural frame of reference for such a notion.

The capricious attacks on homosexuality or transgender exist because even without articulating anything, these orientations threaten the ideation and ideologization of culture which appears in ascendancy even as equitable socio-economic development stagnates.

Enacting stricter laws to suppress non-heterosexual orientations is a kind of ‘last stand’ against the supposed total encroachment of western values which must somehow be subtracted from development goals.

Some underlying causes

Some of the present underlying causes for this position may be the following:

• persistence in ‘taboo’ mentalities (considered ‘African’) with regard to sexual matters, often to the point of absurdity.

• the almost invincible ignorance of both the educated and the uneducated in matters of sexuality from a scientific point of view, with resultant deep insecurity and ambivalence about sexuality and sexual identity.

• incredibly misguided and frequently pharisaical religious argumentations and intolerance of non-religious positions.

• nostalgia for an Africa that never was or cannot be remembered, plus idealistic notions of African culture;

• the blissful, invincible ignorance of both the educated and the uneducated in matters of sexuality from a scientific point of view, with resultant deep insecurity and ambivalence about sexuality and sexual identity.

• the mischievous opportunist politicians and other ‘leaders’ who exploit ignorance and disaffection to divert from unaddressed social and political challenges

All these conspire to short-circuit reason or reasonableness with regard to the homosexual debate in Africa and are to be well noted.

Punitive laws are being enacted in several African states, on the basis of ignorance and prejudice masking as ‘African culture’ and heralding a new wave of persecution and human rights abuse of African LGBTIs.

New ‘old’ legislation and its impossible goals

The legislation being used to target sexual minorities in Africa is ironically, being hewn from the quarry of archaic colonial laws left on African statute books after independence, which were originally anti-African, but which are now being marketed as ‘African.’

Presumably the British colonial government legislated against ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature’ in their colonies, because it existed. The legislation was targetting extant variant sexual behaviour (such as that of Kabaka Mwanga of Buganda).

How therefore could such legislation have been originally‘African’ ? Rather it was part of the colonial ideology of domination ,which involved the control of both private and public actions.

It is therefore unsurprising that mainly ‘Anglophone’ countries with this out-dated legislation are leading the way in anti-gay persecution.

Uganda and Nigeria, both Anglophone have already enacted stricter laws than the colonial ones, with life-sentences for offenders in Uganda (since repealed). There is no foundation in customary law for this legislation.

Other ‘Anglophone’ states, such as Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe are also toying with the idea of such laws.

The aim of these laws is, allegedly to ‘prevent homosexuality taking root in Africa’ – which is disingenuous since it’s already there!

The new laws also hope by their severity, to deter homosexual acts in a way that the older ones didn’t, which is of course highly unlikely.

‘African cultural norms’: an excuse for anti-gay laws

The reason of choice for opposing homosexuality in Africa is its alleged contrariness to ‘African cultural norms’.( We shall see why inverted commas are necessary.)

This widespread view is gullibly held even even the ‘educated’, despite the fact that there is not the slightest anthropological evidence that homosexuality and ‘African norms’ are contrary.

In any case the ‘Africa cultural norms’ are nebulous. They are by no means defined or universally subscribed to by all Africans, as one is led to believe, hence the inverted commas.

The notion itself seems more the creation of ‘neo-African’ philosophers and politicians, who not unsurprisingly, are not very African at all in their lack of solidarity with the poor of Africa.

Other than that there is no known single or monolithic canon of African cultural laws about homosexuality (or anything else) whether prohibiting or affirming, nor is there any body of thought accepted throughout Africa from which ready conclusions can be drawn about African sexual mores from the whole continent.

Africa is undeniably culturally heterogenous.

Although a ‘monolithic’ system of African values may yet appear, its inclusion of repressive measures against any group would suffice to discredit it.

One only has to consider the barbarism of a ‘monolithic’ American, European or even Chinese system of values which wants to be contra to the rest of the world, and what that would imply.

Even though‘African cultural norms’ is still very much a pending concept, this has not prevented it from being the cause of baseless assertions about the un-Africanness of homosexuality.

The religious ‘spike’

Many Africans oppose homosexuality on religious grounds. This is a more complex entanglement due to the diversified nature of religious beliefs in Africa today. This will therefore have to be treated at some length.

First, one must note that the word ‘culture’ in Africa has spiritual connotations. Culture and religion are never far away from each other, so African cultures include several spiritual beliefs and vice versa.A purely aesthetic notion of culture, such as in Europe, does not always find parallel in Africa, even among the ‘westernized’ unless they are avowedly atheist.

The first consideration regarding religious beliefs in Africa is what J.S.Mbiti calls ‘African traditional religions’.Traditional pre-colonial African religions invoked God as creator or originator;also gods, with varying degrees of natural and supernatural powers;ancestors and other spirit-beings who are in league with higher powers and who are also closely related to every aspect of human life.

The total intersection and compenetration of the spirit and human worlds is a key to understanding African traditional religions.

It is believed that health, peace, prosperity, social and world order depend on one’s relationship to the order in the spirit world. Sickness, death, misfortune and family conflicts are all alleged to have their origins in the spirit world which can be disturbed by human beings who disconnect themselves from it.

Traditionalist religious Africans who negatively evaluate homosexuality will tend to ascribe imbalances in the spirit-human world and resultant social problems to the ‘disordered’ sexual behaviour of homosexuals.

An example of this is the issue of bearing children, which traditionally in Africa tends to be non-negotiable, and is still very often the case today. Homosexuals are perceived as ‘refusing’ to have children who have a ‘right’ to be born.

This injury to the unborn upsets the continuum of life which includes the unborn, the living (born) and the ‘living-dead’ (born in the hereafter,or ancestors).It is understood that this results in catastrophes and misfortunes for everyone but especially for the living.

It is for this reason that homosexuals are accused of ‘bringing curses’ and have been ostracized from their families and communities. They disrupt the natural order, by not having children. They are the cause of misfortune and are best cut off from everyone else, or so it is is thought.

African traditional religious beliefs are of course far more complex than the sketch given here, but this is just to show that homophobia can find a ‘spiritual root’ in indigenous beliefs as much as in ‘world religions’.

The second consideration is the role of imported world religions– Christianity and Islam – which arrived with (or around the time of) colonialism.These have been embraced by Africans fairly enthusiastically, but can be twisted to any campaign.

Scriptural texts and doctrines decrying homosexuality are used liberally and non-contextually from these religions to justify persecution of homosexuals.
Select, emotively charged words such as ‘abomination’, ‘sinful’, ‘ungodly’, ‘haram’, etc. are used to arouse deep ‘spiritual’ hatred of homosexuals who are profiled as being in rebellion to God. This ‘fear of God’ tack effectively short-circuits logic or scientific arguments, which are considered inferior to it.

A third consideration is the complex phenomenon of ‘parallel beliefs’; in which traditional religious beliefs are held alongside those of one or more of the‘world religions’ in a syncretistic mesh.

This results in a multi-pronged religious attack on homosexuals by all religious forces at once. By appealing to several religious beliefs together, or in series, even when those beliefs have little or nothing in common, the anti-homosexuality movement is able to achieve the total demonization of homosexuals.

Africans, who may tend to over-spiritualize things anyway, will in equal measure ‘un-spiritualize’ them, when required. For this reason homosexuals are vengefully‘un-spiritualized’ and frequently portrayed as ‘godless’ and ‘evil devil-worshippers’, by otherwise very spiritual persons.

Conclusion

The new ‘anti-homosexual’ laws in African countries have a complex background and context. They can be seen and understood as emerging against the backdrop of developing nationalism ,cultural transition and irresolution.

The social and political upheavalsof the last fifty years in Africa as well as globalization,call forth questions of African identity.

The notion of the rights of individual members of sexual minorities or even LGBTI groups (now a common feature of globalization) seem to ‘up the ante’ in the quest for authentic African identity.Rights of sexual minorities appear to run counter to a goal of ‘African values’which are as yet not clarified, but which must determine the apparently longed for, ‘African identity’.

Any ‘clarifying discourse’ about African values threads into considerations about nation-statehood or socio-economic existential questions.These in turn become framed by the reality of tensions due to the nature of existing ethnic and religious identifications, which are also in a state of flux.

The hermeneutic of multiculturalism, polyculturalism, globalization and science can not abide the prejudices of an anti-homosexuality discourse, however populist and incontestable.

Dialectically then, anti-homosexuality in Africa represents an ‘antithesis’ to the globalization of the ethic of human rights which is ever rolling out – and which constitute the ‘thesis’- symbolized by International Declarations and Human Rights Charters, to which African states have already subscribed.

The resolution or ‘synthesis’ which is bound to emerge, will not only be due to internal contradictions arising from law, but also due to the presence of many homosexuals within African society, who will be increasingly visible and vocal and who may yet find new allies within Uganda.

This will play out on the political scene in perhaps a surprising and unique way. The gay factor may become the unknown, the X-factor on the political stage.

Challenges to the rights of sexual minorities in Africa will continue for some time, but as in other places, those rights will eventually be reconsidered as a matter of realpolitik;African states needing to position themselves globally and maximally for any number of advantages.

About the author

Anthony Musaala is a Catholic priest and gospel artiste of the Archdiocese of Kampala in Uganda. He was born in Dublin in 1956 to Ugandan parents and studied theology at Allen Hall Seminary in Chelsea,London before being ordained priest in 1994.

Fr Anthony pioneered outreach work to the LGBTI community in Uganda since 1999, swimming against the tide of church and state.

In March 2013 he wrote a paper discussing married clergy, the abuse of female minors by African clergy, the general failure of celibacy in Africa and the large number of children fathered by African priests who go uncared for.

This paper earned him an indefinite suspension from priestly duties without pay.

Father Anthony now lives in London.

phone + 44 7808079258 email fathermusaala@ymail.com

 

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