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Confronting homophobia: a response.

In my February column, I tackled a sensitive question: the rise of state-sponsored homophobia in several African countries. I knew what I had to say would displease some New African readers. This month I respond to those who took the time to share their views. I hope this marks the beginning, rather than the end, of an important dialogue we, as global Africans, need to have amongst ourselves about homosexuality and homophobia

I want to begin by making one thing very clear: contrary to Femi Akomolafe's letter (NA, March), I did not write my February column from the perspective of an "Africanist" scholar. Yes, I am a trained historian who has studied and written about Africa's rich and complex past, but I shared my thoughts in "Confronting Homophobia" from my perspective as a black woman, an African, and a Pan-Africanist. For those who might be perplexed by this, I suggest that you read my May 2009 column entitled "Why do you call yourself black and African?"

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It was of signal importance to me that I participate in a dialogue about homosexuality and homophobia within the global African community that is New African's readership. My column could have found a much happier audience in The New York Times or the UK's Guardian, but that wasn't my purpose. I have no interest in pandering to Western stereotypes that portray Africans as rabid homophobes. Rather, my intention was to draw our attention to the alarming rise in state and church-sponsored homophobia in several African countries. When the basic human rights of individuals are being violated because of their race, colour, creed, gender, or in this case sexual orientation, those committed to justice and equality cannot remain silent.

In "Beasts of No Nation", the legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti decried the hypocrisy of animals "dashing" humans rights to people. The animals he so trenchantly sang about were of course politicians disguised in human skins. While the song also lambasted the United Nations for its total lack of unity and equality between member states, Fela's central point was that human rights were already his property and therefore the "beasts of no nation" could not gift him his property.

I raise this because for me the fundamental issue at stake in the rise of state-sponsored homophobia in several African countries is the threat it poses to the unassailable nature of human rights. Human rights are not, as New African reader Kwame Kwakye claims, "conferred on a people by the state taking into consideration the socio-cultural environment of the people." Human rights, as the very name suggests, belong to all human beings regardless of the state they live under. A state can protect or deprive people of their human rights, but as Fela says you can't give someone what is already theirs.

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Voicing my objection to legislation that prescribes harsher penalties, including the death sentence, for homosexuals than for heterosexuals certainly does not emanate from a "lack of respect" for Africans, as Akomolafe suggests. To do so would be to disrespect myself. And as far as I can tell, there has never been an international uproar about the fact that African countries, excluding South Africa, do not permit gay marriage. As I indicated in February, most countries in the world do not allow same-sex marriages. Thus, the current outcry is not about the refusal to extend marriage rights to gay people, but is rather directed at draconian laws that criminalise sexual orientation in ways that unfairly discriminate against gay people.

Let us take the component of the Ugandan legislation, proposed by David Bahati, which stipulates the death penalty for homosexual sex while infected with AIDS. It is a well-known fact that in Africa HIV/Aids is predominantly spread through heterosexual sexual activity and that it is women who are often the unknowing partners of HIV/Aids-infected men. If we are talking about a "lack of respect", I think it speaks volumes that men who give women HIV/Aids might get a slap on the wrist, at best, while the comparatively miniscule number of men who infect other men with the disease could face the death sentence. The same thing goes for the disparity in punishments for sex with minors. I am quite sure that if older men knew they could be sentenced to death for sleeping with underage girls, that practice would be curtailed to the delight of many concerned parents.

The proposed legislation in Uganda also levies fines and jail terms for people who do not report homosexual activity. In this case the state is literally mandating citizens to become the sex police. Isn't it bad enough that the state is trying to police what goes on in people's bedrooms without having your neighbours looking in too? There is no end to the kinds of abuses that this provision could potentially engender. This point leads me to the larger implication of state and church-sponsored homophobia: it can create environments in which hate and violence against gay people are not only acceptable, but also encouraged. Indeed, the ripple effect of the controversy in Uganda has spread to neighbouring Kenya, where Kenyan gay rights activists have reported a rise in violence against homosexuals.

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Let me pause here to note that African-led gay rights organisations, like Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) and Malawi's Centre for the Development of People, give the lie to assertions such as Akomolafe's that the struggle for gay rights in Africa is a "cultural imposition from the West". And the very fact that we are talking about the rights of gay Africans suggests that Ifa Kamau Cush's contention, seconded by Kwame Kwakye, that there is "nothing African about homosexuality" is also wrong. Kwakye ends his letter by quoting Mugabe's 1995 homophobic tirade in which he called homosexuality sub-animal behaviour. To this I say, it sounds like Kwakye and Mugabe are perfect for one another.

In Julius Karimi's letter (NA, March), he rejects the idea that anti-homosexual views are a form of discrimination. While he gives no rationale to support this assertion, he claims that American gay rights advocates often liken anti-gay discrimination to racism in order "to silence the general anti-homosexual views in the [USA]." I disagree strongly with this. The reason that the comparison is made is because racism is the form of discrimination in America that is most familiar to people. Sexism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, ageism, and classism could all stand in as substitutes when trying to drive home the point that discrimination in whatever form it takes is wrong.

Karimi also argues "there is no ethnic group in the USA more anti-homosexual than African-Americans". In the unabridged version of his letter he noted that large numbers of African-Americans in California turned out to vote Barack Obama into office while simultaneously voting in favour of Proposition 8 banning gay marriage. A recent study, however, revealed that exit polls grossly exaggerated African-American support for Prop 8. Rather what findings show is that support for Prop 8 is more closely associated with religiosity than race. In fact it was the predominantly Catholic Latino/Hispanic community in California that cast the greatest number of votes in favour of Prop 8.

It is true however that by a margin of 9%, African-Americans outvoted whites in support of Prop 8. For me this was disappointing precisely because we have fought long and hard for civil rights and equality. We have also shown our hypocrisy in embracing figures such as the luminary writers James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Octavia Butler; the great Harlem Renaissance poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen; "Mother of the Blues" Ma Rainey; and choreographers Bill T. Jones and Alvin Alley, to name just a few, while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge their full humanity as gay people.

Karimi goes on to tell us that the reason South Africa legalised gay marriage is not because it understood the importance of equality and justice for all, but because the country "is not yet uhuru" (free). According to this logic, South Africa's freedom will come when "the majority blacks ... have control of the economic levers of the country" and use their power to deny gay South Africans the right to marry. Let's hope that when economic apartheid in South Africa is finally dismantled that the country's energies and resources are directed at improving the living standards and life chances of its citizens rather than depriving its gay population of the right to marry.

I would be remiss if I did not return to Femi Akomolafe's letter in which he makes the following misleading statement when referring to my belief that homosexuality is universal: "... many elder Africans, still unexposed to Western influences, still do not understand what she is talking about when she tells us that for some 'irrationally developed people' (apologies to the Bolivian president Juan Evo Morales), homosexuality is not only an acceptable way of life but, by law, homosexuals should be allowed to marry."

I never used the phrase "irrationally developed people" in my column. Adding insult to injury, Akomolafe quotes Evo Morales completely out of context. Morales used the phrase "irrational industrialisation and development" during a summit on climate change; he never used it in reference to gay people. I don't mind being challenged on what I do say, but to have words imputed to me that I never said and that are equally a mischaracterisation and misuse of another person's words, is bad practice on Akomolafe's part.

I don't expect all of us to think uniformly about homosexuality and homophobia. We may have to agree to disagree on some issues, such as gay marriage and the origins of homosexuality, but we cannot afford to remain silent while our gay brothers and sisters are unfairly persecuted for the simple act of loving someone of the same sex.
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Title Annotation:Lest We Forget
Author:Ray, Carina
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6UGAN
Date:Apr 1, 2010
Words:1636
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