A three-day summit of more than 40 African leaders with the United States kicked off this week in Washington, and human rights activists are pressing the Obama administration to take this opportunity to address the rights of LGBT people. Out of the 76 countries in the world with explicit anti-gay laws (to put that into perspective, those 76 countries represent an astounding 39 percent of world nations), 37 are in Africa.
So exactly how severe is the situation for gays and lesbians in the continent? Before looking at the harsh reality of the situation, a couple of points to address:
First off, as ludicrous as it sounds, it’s crucial to remember that Africa is not a country but a continent made up of no fewer than 54 distinct, sovereign states. In the same way that the Philippines is ranked as one of the most gay-friendly nations in the world while its neighbor nation Brunei instituted death by stoning as a punishment for homosexuality in April 2014, some African nations are much more tolerant than others.
Second, it would also be wrong to lump together all members of the LGBT community when discussing this topic. While all 37 nations criminalizing homosexuality in Africa have direct laws targeting gay males, as many as 10 of them have either legalized or do not specifically address relationships between females. Most importantly, transgender rights are absent from the legislation, making the “T” community essentially invisible in the eye of the law.
With that said, let’s dive into the actual text of these anti-gay laws, which are as disturbing as one would imagine with words like “abominable,” “detestable,” and “unnatural” to describe same-sex relationships. In my research, I found 12 African countries in which sodomy and bestiality were addressed in the same law. There are two sovereign states — Mauritania and Sudan — that have made homosexual acts punishable by death; some parts of Nigeria and Somalia have done so as well.
One thing that struck me is how incredibly similar the text of the laws was from one country to the next. For instance, defining unnatural offenses as any person who “has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature, has carnal knowledge of any animal, and permits any other person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature” shows up in nine instances. This might imply that policy makers are heavily influenced by what their neighbors are doing — apparently to the extent that some will exactly replicate portions of laws enacted in neighboring states. In addition to this, sodomy laws in most of these countries are derived from a single 19th century rule on homosexual conduct. Wouldn’t it make sense to revise this legal remnant of British colonialism?
Another was just how ambiguous some of the laws are. In the infamous 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda (known as the “Kill the Gays” bill, which was overturned last Friday), it is unclear if only one of the sexual partners or both will actually be guilty of committing an act of homosexuality.
The law in Mauritania specifically targets “any adult Muslim male.” While nearly 100 percent of the population is Muslim, are small communities of Christians exempt? In Mozambique, there is no law explicitly referring to homosexuality in the penal code, but there is one about “practices against nature.” Does this automatically infer that same-sex relationships are illegal in the country, even though it is regarded as one of the most tolerant toward the LGBT community in the continent?
Finally, what about homosexual propaganda laws? The Uganda Anti-Homosexuality act refers to punishment of a person who “aids, abets, counsels, conspires, or procures another to engage in acts of homosexuality”; Nigeria and Tanzania have similar laws, all three of which were enacted in 2013. The lack of clarity as to what constitutes “aiding” a homosexual makes it unsafe for anyone to even interact with LGBT people.
This brings us to an important reflection about the current status of LGBT rights in the continent of Africa. Looking at legislation is only one part of the story — and that part unfortunately might not even be the most telling one. In South Africa, even though gay men and women can get married and adopt children, a recent survey highlights that 61 percent of the population does not think society should “accept” homosexuals. In fact, corrective rape (the act of forcing women perceived as lesbians to have sex with a man) is still a common practice. There are no laws criminalizing LGBT people in the Ivory Coast, but you would be hard-pressed to find out and proud individuals from the small country, where recent widespread anti-gay protests have taken place without government condemnation. Popular opinion in African countries with anti-gay legislation is overwhelmingly in support of these laws. To the question “Should society accept homosexuality?” 98 percent of respondents in Nigeria and 96 percent in Senegal, Ghana and Uganda answered “no.”
What I hope the Obama administration emphasizes in the next three days are just facts. Without pushing any “Western agenda,” administration officials could still make a significant contribution simply by rectifying some basic misconceptions held by many leaders in those 37 countries. From “We don’t have gay people in our country” to “Being gay is learned and they’re trying to convert our children,” emphasizing objective truths is what is likely to trigger change. The president of Uganda, Yoweri K. Museveni, recently said in a CNN interview: “Respect African societies and their values. Let us manage our society, then we will see. If we are wrong, we shall find out by ourselves, just the way we don’t interfere with yours. ” This is probably the only point I can agree with this man on. However, it is important to point out that anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda was actually created precisely because of Western interference, with the support and influence of American fundamentalist evangelicals.
Instead of demonizing decision makers and pointing accusatory fingers at them, the Obama administration should invite experts and scientists to emphasize the following: Homosexuality exists everywhere in the world, it is not a disease, and it does not present a threat to society. Being confronted with these basic facts is the only solution that will lead to a fruitful discussion on the topic between African leaders — including President Museveni — and American ones in the next three days. It is also the first step toward understanding that the rights of the LGBT community are universal human rights, in line with the basic international standards that governments have agreed to under the Charter of the United Nations.
For more information on worldwide LGBT rights and advocacy, take a look at the work of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC).