The Sexual Minority of Africa Should Also Be Heard

By Edwin Cameron, Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa

Posted on: 11 April 2014 | Voices

A destructive wave of hatred against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender persons seems to be gaining force across Africa.

In this groundswell of hate, Nigeria this year enacted punitive laws that criminalise not only same-sex marriages but belonging to gay rights organisations.

And Uganda now has a like-minded law imposing harsh sentences for same-sex acts, including in some cases life imprisonment.

Voices of reason and goodwill must speak out against this hatred and irrationality.

There are 38 countries in Africa that deem homosexuality criminal. This is based on laws introduced during colonialism.

But in Nigeria and Uganda, political pressures are causing tremendous further damage. The new laws are instilling terror among the gay and lesbian community as well as their friends, families, colleagues and acquaintances.

But the laws have a further effect. They put at risk all minorities, all Africans who are “different”. And Africa is a continent rich in diversity and difference.

The refusal to celebrate this diversity has led to unspeakable conflict, grief and death on our continent. The wave of gay-hating laws threatens the same kind of destructive horror.

The presidents of both Nigeria and Uganda, Goodluck Jonathan and Yoweri Museveni, have said that in signing the Bills into law, they are protecting Africans from exotic and outlandish mannerisms.

Another African president, Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh, has promised to fight to exterminate gay people in his country like malaria-causing mosquitoes. This follows Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who likened gays and lesbians to pigs and dogs.

A poisonous myth

In each country, it seems politically popular amongst some groups to vilify and threaten gays and lesbians. It is even more popular to label homosexuality a colonial import from the West.

What Africa has in fact imported from the West is homophobia.

And it is ironical that some African leaders don’t see that their hatred of gays and lesbians mirrors the vilification the LGBTI community has faced in many Western countries

It is a poisonous myth to say homosexuality is “unAfrican”. Homosexuality is as African as humanity is. But the political leaders targeting the LGBTI community are peddling untruths to gain support.

By doing so, they are subjugating human beings. That these laws may be popular amongst some, does not make them right. And criminalising and discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people exacts grave costs. 

Across the world, men who have sex with men are disproportionately affected by HIV. If Africa is serious about managing the disease – and it is now fully manageable – it cannot afford to isolate, alienate and vilify men who have sex with men.

Segregating them drives them further away from counselling, testing and treatment. This in turn means that the virus cannot be managed properly – which harms Africa as a whole. Everyone is exposed to additional risk.

There is good evidence that the HIV epidemic hits harder where anti-gay laws and prejudice exist.

To deal effectively with HIV, Africa has to protect the basic human rights of all. The plain public health imperative is for Africa to respect everyone’s rights, including those most at risk of HIV.

This includes men who have sex with men and other sexual minorities.

The more we demonise and isolate gay people, the more we hurt everyone. A society built on ignorance and hatred is an injured society, with no hope of flourishing.

In my country, South Africa, the release this week of a thoroughly conducted household survey of HIV has given us much to worry about. HIV may be resurgent.

Stupid and wrong

All Africans should be working together to counter the epidemic with rational principles of justice and evidence-backed public health strategies. Instead of propagating hatred, ignorance and prejudice, our continent should be encouraging and enabling marginalised groups to live full and dignified lives.

The notion that sexual minorities and same-sex relationships are not African is stupid and wrong. All over Africa, LGBTI persons proudly proclaim the truth.

This is the only positive aspect of the current wave of hatred – that it is a response to unprecedented openness by African lesbians, gay, bisexuals and transgender persons.

We will not be silenced. And we will not become invisible again.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, our continent has more than enough wars, famine, bad governance, tyranny and injustice to worry about. We shouldn’t worry about how adult people express their love for one another.

What is unAfrican is this: the criminalisation, persecution, prosecution, imprisonment, rape, torture and killing of adults whose only crime is to love one another. We should actively speak out against these harmful actions. And we should remember a poignant truth: it is not so much the deeds of our oppressors that serve to injure us, as the silence of good people.

Africans of goodwill must raise their voices. The right to justice of LGBTI people is the keenest civil-rights issue at present. We who love our continent must not collude with oppressors by remaining silent in this wave of grotesque abuse. Instead, we must join to affirm African values of humanity – and rejoice in our diversity as humans.

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