Of the 76 countries that still criminalise same-sex relationships and behaviour, 38 are African. Recent surveys also show that the overwhelming majority of people who live in Africa strongly disapprove of homosexuality. This is even the case in South Africa, the only country on the continent that has legalised same-sex marriage.
Last month, socially conservative Ireland voted convincingly to legalise same-sex marriage. It became the first country where the people, as opposed to the courts or parliament, decided to legalise same-sex marriage. Ireland is now one of 20 countries globally that permit gay marriage. Fifteen years ago, such marriage was not legal anywhere in the world.
What the science is saying
Africa’s strong anti-homosexuality sentiment, harsh laws and active discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people warrant exploration.
A report by the Academy of Science of South Africa reviews recent science about human sexuality and sexual orientation and challenges attitudes that are common in many African countries. The report also provides some explanation about the attitudes and laws prevalent in Africa.
It outlines how global science has steadily demonstrated that gay people are not “sick” nor do they have “conditions” needing treatment. This research, from the 1950s to the 1990s in particular, encouraged professional organisations to remove homosexuality from diagnostic manuals.
Contemporary science does not support thinking about sexuality in a “binary opposition” of hetero/homosexual and normal/abnormal. Rather, it favours thinking about a wide range of variations in human sexuality.
The report finds that:
Variation in sexual identities and orientations has always been part of a normal society, [and] there can be no justification for attempts to ‘eliminate’ LGBTI from society.
A growing public appreciation of this new science has been important in shifting public attitudes and laws globally.
The effect of colonialism
An understanding of the moralities that appeared in 19th-century Europe, entailing missionary-driven assaults on African social and sexual customs and practices such as polygamy, and sex before or outside of marriage, is key to unpacking the current state of affairs in Africa.
Dozens of studies show that same-sex practices in pre-colonial Africa were not generally taboo in the way that colonial administrations codified them. Many traditional societies in Africa, and elsewhere, developed ways of ordering and tolerating same-sex attractions and behaviour.
Many tolerated some same-sex relationships among men, particularly in age-related cohorts or military units. Large numbers of men practised some same-sex activities while asserting their heterosexuality in other spheres of life.
Among women, many different African societies record marriage or other kinds of recognised relationships between women, as well as different forms of cross-dressing and role-swapping. These include societies and cultures in Kenya, Sudan, Cameroon, Nigeria, Lesotho, South Africa and many others.
Only during the height of colonisation were precise definitions of sexual orientations developed and proscribed behaviours punished. The British in particular brought in legislation because they thought “native” cultures did not punish “perverse” sex enough.
Like so many other colonial era laws based on Victorian prejudices, these laws should have been repealed as part of the decolonisation process. But, on liberation, most English-speaking colonies did not repeal colonial-era “sodomy” or “crime/vice against nature” laws.
There has been some progress. For example, Mozambique, which celebrates 40 years of independence this month, will officially rescind “vice against nature” legislation in a few weeks time.
In more recent times
But attitudes and laws about homosexuality are not purely a colonial import. Since independence, other factors, including political populism, have driven anti-LGBTI attitudes. More recently, some of the impetus behind new laws has come from conservative and often racist organisations based in the US.
In the last 15 years, the Christian right, primarily charismatic right-wing churches from the US, has been very active in driving anti-homosexuality sentiment in parts of Africa, like Uganda.
These groups have supplied their African allies with discredited junk science to bolster what is ultimately a narrow, imported set of ultra-conservative values. Similarly, the growth of a more conservative set of Islamic customs in some parts of Africa has seen the erosion of indigenous belief systems that have been historically more tolerant of non-heterosexual orientations.
Attempts in Uganda to impose new, tougher laws has drawn global attention and opprobrium. In 2014, President Yoweri Museveni ordered the establishment of a Presidential Scientific Committee on Homosexuality to advise his government on whether on not to pass a controversial anti homosexuality law.
The medical academics involved concluded that:
- Homosexuality “is not a disease”;
- Homosexuality is not an “abnormality”;
- Specifically that “homosexual behaviour has existed throughout human history, including in Africa”; and
- Homosexuality existed in Africa way “before the coming of the white man”.
Despite receiving this report, Museveni signed a law that contained harsh new punishments for “homosexual acts” and for what it calls the “promotion” of homosexuality. Implementation of that law is currently suspended by the Ugandan Constitutional Court.
The impact of this type of legislation is severe on LGBTI individuals and communities as well as on public health services.
A particularly dangerous aspect of new laws in some parts of Africa is that they are designed to criminalise those who advocate for LGBTI rights or campaign for better access to public health facilities. This impedes the work of NGOs and activists and wider dissemination of new science about sexual orientation.
The report aims to make recent science more accessible to African policymakers so that policy can be based on good evidence, not social prejudices. Same-sex attraction is neither “un-African” nor a colonial import. Between 350 million and 400 million people globally are not heterosexual, about 50 million of whom live in African countries.
It is time to transform the continent’s laws, and its societies, informed by a rapidly evolving, and ever more convincing, science of sexual orientation.