The Jamaican artist Max Romeo’s song “one step forward two steps backward” summarizes the state of LGBTQIA rights in Africa.
Many countries in Africa have poor reputations when it comes to LGBTI rights. Queer folks are treated as deviants or aberrations. The most absurd of course being that they are “un-African” even though as I have written and argued extensively homosexuality is as African as the boab tree.
The latest opposition of course is from anti-gay groups from the continent, who, while in the gazing international arenas have made it obvious that gay rights have no place on the continent.
LGBTQIA folks have proved a great diversion from the most pertinent issues that bedevil the continent such as poverty, unemployment, corruption, and disease.
If history is anything to go by the scapegoating of vulnerable groups by those at the locus of power is as old as time take for example the Jews in Nazi Germany, South Africans while in economic crises turn to ‘black foreigners’ blaming them for the high unemployment rates and in colonial Uganda the British always turned to Muslims as the main impediments of progress.
The rights have in recent times attracted local and international headlines with more calls for their reversal than their recognition hence earning our dear continent the moniker “homophobia land”.
This is despite a legion of historical and anthropological evidence of many societies that had elastic and plural gender systems. It’s against a colonial background that homophobia was mainstreamed through the teachings of some faiths and later imported legislation such as the Penal Code Act that made it an offence for a man and a man to engage in sexual intercourse by introducing ‘unnatural offences.
Against all this fire and brimstone activists on the continent have always held forte by strongly defending LGBTQIA rights even when the homophobes raised the cost.
For some like my comrade and pal David Kato they paid with their lives and some especially, lesbians that have been subjected to “corrective rape”. Our houses have been broken into and our property vandalized, family rejections and social rejection are just part a part of this nasty cocktail.
We struggled to repeal the Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda when the Constitutional court struck it as being unconstitutional. In Botswana, Court of Appeal ruled that the penal code provisions outlawing “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” were unconstitutional as they violate the right to privacy, the right to liberty, security of person, and equal protection under the law, and the right to freedom from discrimination.
Botswana High court had in 2019 said that these archaic laws belong “in the museum or the archives”. In Kenya, the courts quashed the NGO Board’s decision of rejecting to register a queer NGO. Boldly queer people have found and earned their place at African fashion and pop-culture industry such as Sauti-sol’s Willis Austin Chimano among others. Maybe these successes fooled us into thinking we had reached without arriving.
The continent’s homophobic leadership from all its four corners seems to be singing and shouting “kill the gays” anthem in unison. After all the attacks on the queer community are not unique to undemocratic states but also in those that tick freedom house’s variables such as Ghana and South Africa that has queer protections enshrined not only in statute but also in the constitution.
Back home, the major queer community civil society organization that I head has been closed for no crime but because we support gay people. The closure of SMUG is nothing but a tip of the iceberg. If we are to celebrate Human Rights Day, we must first celebrate humanity for all and not pay lip service to the plight of the queer community.
Happy Human Rights Day.
The author is a peace and human rights advocate.