The Right to Love The Fallacy of Homophobia in Postcolonial Africa

There are three drivers of contemporary African homophobia: the cultural, the religious and the scientific.

Somebody, your father or mine, should have told us that not many people have ever died of love. But multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour―and in the oddest places!―for the lack of it.’

— James Baldwin

On May 11 2021, Shakiro and Patricia, two transgender women in Cameroon, were sentenced to five years in prison and fined 200,000 CFA francs (USD $361) each for ‘attempting homosexuality’, an activity that contravenes Cameroonian legislation prohibiting homosexuality as an affront to public decency. The punishment for non-payment of these fines is an additional year in prison.

Shakiro and Patricia had been beaten after their arrest at a restaurant where they had met for a friendly chat. Their experiences are not uncommon in much of Africa. Homosexuality is legal in only 22 out of 54 African states with punishment for ‘gay proclivities’ ranging from a few years of imprisonment to life imprisonment, and even the death penalty. Homophobia in Africa is the norm rather than exception, and it is an attitude that is, arguably, not tempered by the continent’s young population or the popularity of sex. It is thus unsurprising that―as a recent article published in The Economist revealed―‘young Africans share the intolerance of their elders’ with regard to gay rights. Why is the right to love frowned upon in much of a continent where sex itself is considered productive, procreative and pleasurable? Is ‘African homophobia’ the consequence of fact, fiction, or the desire not to know?

THE UNIQUENESS OF ‘AFRICAN HOMOPHOBIA’

Whilst it is true that homophobia is not limited to Africa, ‘African homophobia’ is a distinct variant of global homophobia because it is based on unique theoretical foundations that blend prejudices imported from non-African (mostly Western and Islamic) contexts with sentiments derived from cultural and moral beliefs in the African continent. Such intellectual syncretism breeds an ideology of homophobia that some African societies uncritically accept and routinely tailor to their varied experiences of non-heterosexual sex. If ideologies simplify socio-political issues and provide programmatic pathways to address them, then ‘African homophobia’ must be considered a unique ideology as it is founded on overly simplistic explanations of human sexuality. To borrow an expression from Homi Bhabha, the Indian critical theorist, African homophobia is ‘almost the same, but not quite, and almost different, but not quite [either]’ to global homophobia.

THE THREE DEADLY ENEMIES

Lillian Faderman, American historian of LGBTQ+ issues, describes the ‘horsemen of homophobia’ in her book The Gay Revolution. Similarly, there are three drivers of contemporary African homophobia: the cultural, the religious and the scientific. These three deadly enemies of homosexuals are central to homophobic discourses and practices in Africa. They are also the bases of the legal sanctions on homosexuality.

The Cultural Horseman

The first enemy of homosexuals in Africa is the culturalist argument. This is usually framed in three ways: first, that homosexuality is against traditional African family values; second, that African culture has no notion of (and thus no language for) homosexuality; and third, that based on the first two premises, homosexuality is a foreign import from the West. In the culturalist argument, African culture typically emphasizes sex for procreation. To reject homosexuality, so the argument goes, is to preserve African culture by enabling reproduction.

To disarm the cultural horseman, what needs to be established is that Africa is not, and has never been, a country: it is a continent with a plurality of cultures, societies and peoples. Africa has over 3,000 ethnic groups and more than 2,100 languages are spoken on the continent. There is no such thing as a singular African culture, rather there are African cultures derived from the varied ethnicities and cultural practices that thrive in the African continent. Africa is a geographic expression of multiplicities. And just as there are African cultures, there is no single attitude to homosexuality that could be considered the ‘African attitude to homosexual tendencies’.

In precolonial Africa, some cultures had no concept of homosexuality at all, and so they did not have any attitudes—positive or negative—toward homosexuality. In the absence of this framing of sexuality, homosexuality flourished even though it was neither publicly acknowledged nor suppressed. Homosexuality is, in Africa as elsewhere, as old as humanity: the practice has existed since time immemorial. There are historical accounts of same-sex activity and relationships in Africa, including in Angola, Uganda, Cameroon, Nigeria and Kenya. These have been documented by social anthropologists such as Ifi Amadiume, Deborah P Amory and Stephen Murray regarding myriad forms of same-sex relationships in the African continent thereby disproving the popular refrain that ‘homosexuality is un-African’.

The idea that traditional African family values are antithetical to homosexuality is often linked to the concern that as same-sex unions do not biologically produce children, they will be the cause of human extinction. This argument is tied to the simplistic assumption that human societies devoid of biological reproduction naturally die. It sidesteps the progress of modern science, which has meant that homosexual couples can raise families, not just through foster care or adoption, but also through assisted reproductive technologies (including artificial insemination, In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), and third-party reproduction). Families with homosexual parents are as normal as those with heterosexual ones. While there is no denying that biological reproduction is central to our survival as a species, it is not homosexuality that will make human societies extinct. Human extinction lies in our viciousness as the most destructive species, killing one another through wars, savage terrorism, criminality, bigotry and destroying the environment, with dire consequences for future generations. This is perfectly expressed by the anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar:

Homo sapiens is the most destructive species, and vast amounts of this destruction are wreaked on other humans. Humans have killed one another since the origin of the species, but the scale (not rate) of killing has expanded (not least because there are now so many more humans to kill than there were for most of human history. The means by which many millions of humans have been killed have been dismally diverse. They include stabbing, hacking, slashing, hanging, gassing, poisoning, drowning, and bombing. Humans also visit other horrors on their fellows, including persecuting, oppressing, beating, branding, maiming, tormenting, torturing, raping, kidnapping, and enslaving.

The Religious Horseman

Religion is perhaps the greatest influence over attitudes to homosexuality in Africa, especially Christianity and Islam. Both religions are un-African, in the sense that they are the products of missionary conquest, trade, marriage and conversion. African Christians and Muslims tend to disagree about virtually everything: doctrines, values, and the nature of the divine, but they are united in their resentment of homosexuality as sin. This is the case with the current anti-LGBTQ bill in Ghana, which is supported by both Ghanaian Muslims and Christians. The bill criminalizes LGBTQ advocacy and advocates conversion therapy. The aim, Ghanaian legislators say, is the ‘promotion of proper human sexual rights and Ghanaian family values’. Despite churches in Western countries stripping themselves of homophobia by recognising the rights of gay people to be ordained ministers, to marry and to form families, the African branches of these churches are staunchly resistant to homosexuality. For example, the Nigerian branch of the Methodist Church has parted ways with its British counterpart, after the latter voted in favour of same-sex marriage. Are African Christians more Christian than their Western counterparts because of homophobia?

We can punch holes in the religious stance against homosexuality by highlighting the contradictions embedded in Christian and Islamic teachings. African Christianity often draws on and mirrors evangelism in Western countries. It is mainly based on the literal interpretation of the stories, myths and legends in the Bible. This literalism is linked to biblical inerrancy—the idea that the Bible is infallible—and these views are superimposed onto questions about the compatibility of homosexuality with Christian values.

Seven biblical passages are typically cited by African Christians in order to condemn homosexuality. These include Noah and Ham (Genesis 9:20-27), Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1-11), laws in Leviticus condemning homosexual relationships (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13), Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 1:26-27) and two words in the list of vices in the New Testament (1 Timothy 1:10; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Based on these texts, African Christians derive two conclusions: that gay people are spiritually possessed and in need of exorcism, and that homosexuality is sinful and an annoyance to God, who will punish the world for condoning obscenities. The fear of the wrath of God coupled with an aversion to demons leads African Christians to resist homosexuality with all their might. After all, who wants to go to hell and not make it to heaven?

The literalism of African Christianity often degenerates into ‘scriptural determinism’, which the philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, defines as the ‘claim that what’s in scripture will determine how members of a religion behave’. Scriptural determinism is unsound because religious people do not always behave in accordance with what is written in their scriptures. The bible is replete with passages that African Christians do not consistently live by. For example, Ephesians 6:5 says ‘slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ,’ but most African Christians would not endorse slavery. The dissonance between what the scripture says in principle and what African Christians do in practice means that literalism is not a sound approach. African Christians are selective in their use of biblical texts: inconvenient parts are waived while convenient passages are applied literally.

A hermeneutical approach (known in theology as exegesis) considers the combination of text and context for analysis and interpretation. Taking this approach to assess the passages commonly used by African Christians to condemn homosexuality shows that none of them directly refer to or condemn homosexuality between two loving, free adults. No one does biblical exegesis better than the theologian, Robert Gnuse, who has shown that the story of Noah and Ham (Genesis 9:20-27) refers to rape and incest, not homosexuality. In the story Ham has anal sex with his drunken father, Noah, whilst the latter was asleep, an act which engendered the curse of Ham. The narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1–11) is similar to another passage (Judges 19: 15-28), as both passages refer to rape or attempted rape and sexual violence, rather than homosexuality. The injunction that ‘man must not lie with man’ (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13) is about cultic prostitution which was frowned upon: the context is that Israel was being encouraged to maintain its unique purity. In the New Testament, pederasty (the act of older men sexually exploiting young men) and male prostitution are condemned, but not homosexuality (1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10). Paul’s letter to the Romans is a fragment of a broader criticism against the idolatry associated with the Isis cult and excessive lust (Romans 1:26–27). None of these biblical texts explicitly or directly condemn homosexuality between free consenting adults.

There are, of course, different interpretations of these texts. While African Christians may endorse homophobic interpretations, the original texts of the Bible were not written in any language widely spoken or understood by modern-day Christians. What we have today are translations from Koine Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic into European and African languages which African Christians read, write, and comprehend. Translation is patently political, as a translator can consciously or unconsciously infuse a text with their biases to communicate their subjective beliefs, rather than the exact meaning of the text. As a result, many expressions and literary forms are lost in translation, especially when a translated text is not framed within its cultural context. There is no such thing as perfect translation.

Besides the issue of translation, African Christians hold Jesus as a central model for emulation. His command is to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. On this basis, the homophobia of African Christians falls short, as it is an attitude based on hatred and resentment of those around us who love differently.

The Scientific Horseman

The scientific argument embedded in the ideology of African homophobia is that homosexuality is unnatural. Three arguments are central to this take. The first maintains that no human is born gay, the second posits that non-human animals do not demonstrate homosexual behaviour, and the third claims that homosexuality is a neurotic or genetic disorder; a deviation that should be medically corrected. This aversion to homosexuality frames homophobia as a biological concern. Adherents to this view contend that homosexuality is an abhorrence resulting from choice or nurture, rather than nature.

The supposed scientific basis of homophobia is more a reflection of historically accumulated prejudices than of science. These presuppositions are not rooted in biology, but in ‘folk biology’, the community-derived understandings that ordinary people utilise in their everyday life to make sense of the natural world.

Understanding homosexuality requires moving beyond folk biology to accept scientific consensus. In 1993, Dean Hamer discovered a link between the Xq28 genetic marker and male sexual orientation, which showed that human sexual identity is determined by a combination of genes, although the specific genes that cause homosexuality are yet to be determined. This is why in The Gene: An Intimate History, the American physician and biologist, Siddhartha Mukherjee, concludes his discussion of sexual identity by asserting that ‘several determinants that influence sexual identity are part of the human genome, and as geneticists discover more powerful methods to map, identify, and categorise genes, we will inevitably find some of these determinants.’

Additionally, homosexual behaviour has been observed in non-human animals including Japanese macaques, fruit flies, flour beetles, Laysan albatross, bonobos, bottlenose dolphins and domestic sheep. The scientific horseman is flawed ab initio because it infers an erroneous ‘ought’ from a misguided ‘is’. The supposed ‘scientific’ facts used to draw conclusions on the immorality of homosexuality are actually unscientific.

GAY RIGHTS AS HUMAN RIGHTS

The appeals to false interpretations of science, culture, and religion all inform the legal horseman in Africa: anti-gay legislation. These legislations are not based on any facts about homosexuality. Nor are they based on fiction, as there is no attempt to conceive of homophobia as an idealization―as an ‘as if’. African homophobia is the direct consequence of crass will-not-to-know. Philosopher, Appiah, often makes a distinction between rationality and reasonability.  Rationality is an objective notion of truth―that is ‘the cognitive and practical procedures that are likely to be successful, given the way the world is.’ The rational person makes decisions based on the way the world is with attention to facts and evidence. Reasonability, by contrast, involves ‘procedures that a normal human being in a society has no reason to doubt will be effective, whether or not, in fact, they are’. The reasonable person makes decisions based on how they think the world is, even when this is contrary to reality.

African homophobia could be considered reasonable but irrational, as it is founded on false presuppositions about science, religion and culture. Today, the preservationist rhetoric of an Africa that was and is naturally homophobic must be discarded in favour of views that reflect and embrace the gender and sexual heterogeneity of the continent’s inhabitants. It is rational to believe that gay rights are human rights, that homosexuals are not neurotically or genetically abnormal, and that homosexuality is part and parcel of what it means to be human. Gay rights affirm the right to love and to be loved

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