African Values and LGBTQ+ Rights: What is “Un-African” about Homosexuality?

This past summer, during my internship at the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) in Ghana, I was asked to write a report on the state of human rights in the country. I used complaints that the Commission received as well as sources from international human rights organizations to detail rights of women, persons with disabilities, and numerous other marginalized groups – including LGBTQ+ rights. Homosexuality is illegal in Ghana – it is criminalized as “unnatural carnal knowledge” under the 1960 Criminal Offences Act – and this has contributed to violence and discrimination against members of the LGBTQ+ community across the country, therefore I chose to include a section on LGBTQ+ rights in my report. Surprisingly, I was asked by my boss to remove the section; Not because same-sex relationships were illegal – but because they were “unnatural”, “not Christian”, and most importantly, “un-African”. 

The author, Emma Sitland, with her co-workers at her internship over the summer.

Though members of the LGBT community in Ghana face are “very frequently victims of physical violence and psychological abuse, extortion and discrimination in many different aspects of daily life” due to their sexual orientation, by using the term “African values”, my boss (as well as countless Ghanaians I encountered during my stay) invoke a cultural protection for the discrimination and human rights abuses they are trying to justify. Homosexuality – and by extension advocacy for the rights of members of the LGBTQ+ community – is depicted as having been imported from the West and is therefore a threat to “African values”. Here, “African values” are a set of values constructed through discourse and shaped by social norms, morality and religion. This discussion reflects a broader academic debate surrounding whether or not human rights are universal, or rather Western values that threaten local cultures and values.

History of Homosexuality in Africa

The irony is that this debate wouldn’t exist if forms of homosexuality didn’t exist in Africa. From the Azande in the Congo, to the Nama in Namibia or the Langi in Uganda to the Hausa in Nigeria, in some of the countries that are now the most hostile towards members of the LGBTQ+ communities and the loudest when condemning same-sex relationships as Un-African, homosexuality has existed for centuries. For example, in Uganda, a country notorious for the homophobic rhetoric of its politicians, an openly gay King (King Mwanga II) was able to successfully rule the kingdom until the advent of colonialism.

Colonialism and Homophobia

Following the Berlin conference (1884-1885), imperial powers occupied the pieces of Africa that they had carved out for themselves and European colonialists and missionaries brought their values and religion to Africa as part of a ‘civilizing mission’. Therefore, colonial powers implemented laws based on a Christian and Victorian moral code that was based on patriarchy and heteronormativity, therefore denouncing any sexual activity that was not for procreation.

The Result? “African Values” Tied to Homophobia 

This process resulted in the development of a set of “African Values” that are tied to sexual morality and Christianity. Pre-colonial variations in sexual orientation and gender identity appear to have been forgotten as Christian sexual morals become hegemonic across most of the continent. This discourse was employed by my boss when I was told not to include ‘LGBTQ+ Rights’ in my report and in the countless conversations I had with Ghanaians on the subject. This discourse also dominates the media in the country. News articles describe how Ghana’s culture cannot tolerate homosexuality, comparing homosexual acts to bestiality and paedophilia, and claiming homosexuality leads to disease. 

Another recurring trend in these sources is the idea that the West is responsible for the increase in homosexuality in Ghana and that there is no room for homosexuality in African culture. By representing homophobia as part of African culture, this narrative argues that differences in LGBTQ+ rights between regions is cultural – and that there is no reason that Africa should give up their culture to adopt the West’s.

“African Values” have been constructed discursively in opposition to “Western values”. In this context values, “Western values” are the liberal, human rights-centered ideals propagated by most Western countries (though not homogenously – US Evangelical organizations are a notable exception to this) and international organizations, such as the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. 

LGBTQ+ Rights in Africa Today

Human rights activists, including international human rights organizations and select foreign governments, have taken a very strong pro-LGBTQ+ rights stance in recent years and have attempted to extend those beliefs to the Global South. Ban Ki Moon, the former secretary general of the United Nations, declared his support for LGBTQ+ rights when he stated very clearly that “where there is tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, rights must carry the day.” Human Rights Watch (HRW) is another international non-governmental organization that has strongly denounced laws criminalizing homosexuality in many African countries. HRW recently called upon the Ghanaian government to repeal the law criminalizing homosexuality, deeming it unconstitutional. However, when countries with repressive anti-LGBTQ+ legislation face external pressure to change these laws, it is often taken as an affront to sovereignty and national culture. For example, Speaker Kadaga of Uganda defended Uganda’s oppressive anti-gay legislation to the Canadian Foreign Minister by saying “Please respect our sovereign rights, our cultural values and societal norms.

Homophobia and Human Rights 

The outcome of this narrative has been widespread and devastating human rights abuses against members of the LGBTQ+ community in almost every African country. When sexual minorities are excluded from “African values”, they face discriminatory legislation that condones discrimination and physical violence. Those who are arrested for being suspected of being gay detail how police officers and doctors were physically and verbally abusive, and how dehumanizing and terrifying the experience was. Anti-homosexuality laws are also linked with extra-judicial and non-state sanctioned violence against citizens based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Just last year, a gay man in Nigeria reported being beaten by homophobes and being too scared to seek medical aid for his injuries due to the harsh laws against homosexuality in his country.

Looking for a Solution

Western countries should be cautious not to overstep when attempting to promote LGBTQ+ rights in Africa. Many leaders of Western countries have responded to homophobic laws and rhetoric in African countries by cutting off aid. The most recent example of this was in Tanzania, where Denmark withheld $9.8 million in aid after a Tanzanian government official called on the public to report gay men to the police. This response often provokes nationalist responses and contributes to the discourse that the West is trying to impose its values on African nations. 

It is increasingly clear that LGBTQ+ rights will not be imposed externally – they will emerge in various forms based on local struggles and context. A number of approaches have appeared in recent years. The Centre for the Development of People (CEDE) a human rights organization based in Malawi is dedicated to the promotion of the rights of sexual minorities and has been successfully exposing human rights abuses against members of the LGBTQ+ community. Meanwhile, some groups, such as the Uganda Health and Science Press Association (UHSPA), an organization committed to the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS treats LGBTQ+ activism as necessary in preventing global health crisis. 

Any meaningful resolutions will have to involve a discursive and cultural shift, as “African values” grow to include for allAfricans, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.

The views expressed in this article do not reflect the views of the editorial board of the Catalyst, the IDSSA, or McGill University.

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