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The Suppression of Homosexuality in Africa: A History Complicated by Colonization

Posted by Hadley Sachs on

The myth that homosexuality is absent or incidental in African countries is one of the oldest and most enduring myths about African society; it is also one of the most detrimental cultural myths to human rights movements as society progresses into the twenty-first century. The 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill is likely the starkest example of the homophobic and draconian attempts to implement legislation to criminalize same-sex relationships in modern Africa. While the statement that homosexuality is un-African is not completely false, the attempts by African leaders to purport that same-sex desire has not always existed in Africa is. “Homosexuality” and the concept of a “gay identity” actually are un-African because they are Western constructs, but this does not stop millions of Africans from identifying with them.


Many of the African politicians who are fighting for legislation to criminalize same-sex relationships are arguing that homosexuality should be illegal because it is Western and, therefore, un-African, but many of the arguments they are using against homosexuality are also Western constructs. These Western constructs involve Christianity and the static conception of “traditional” African culture as well as many of the outdated laws dating from colonial African society. “If Africa rejects ideologies brought from the West, then surely religion brought from the West cannot be used to reject something that is being rejected for its foreign roots.” The politics surrounding the criminalization of same-sex relationships have become about blatant homophobia, outdated colonial laws, and contradictions. Traditionally, viewing African society through a Western lens cannot provide an accurate portrait of the culture because the two are historically incompatible. However, Western society has been present in African culture for so long it is no longer possible to consider Western influences on African society to be “un-African.”

It is a gross understatement to say that Western colonization changed African society. When European settlers came to Africa they imported their religion, ideologies and way of life. They also used a Western framework in order to understand African life and because Europe and Africa function on two incompatible paradigms a lot of African culture was either lost or changed ‘in translation.’ “Traditional” African culture is a concept that was invented by European settlers in order to attempt to translate the myriad cultural phenomena they witnessed something they could understand and control. “Since so few connections could be made between British and African political, social, and legal systems, British administrators set about inventing African traditions for Africans. Their own respect for ‘tradition’ disposed them to look with favor upon what they took to be traditional Africa. They set about to codify and promulgate these traditions, thereby transforming flexible custom into hard prescription.” The colonists did not understand much of what they experienced in African society and, therefore, many of the ‘traditions’ they saw were inaccurate representations of the culture that really existed. One of the ‘flexible customs’ that was molded into a hard prescription was that of African sexualities. It is still a popular myth that traditional African societies did not include same-sex behavior, but in reality “it was European ethnographers who first declared that homosexuality was un-African, arguing that Africa was a sodomy-free zone.” This idea is completely false; same-sex desire and relationships have always existed in Africa throughout many different cultures.

The difference that existed is that same-sex desiring individuals engaged in same-sex relationships, sometimes even with public acceptance, but in traditional societies people did not publicly “identify” as same-sex desiring individuals. There are instances of ‘traditional’ African societies that acknowledged and even accepted same-sex-desiring individuals because the sexualities that existed within these cultures were normative in such cultures. “Issues of same-sex desire in Africa are complex and have not historically been ‘personified’ in the way that they have in the West. The vitriolic responses that we now witness from African leaders have to do largely with the ‘personification’ of the ‘gay’ identity.”

A popular claim amongst homophobic Africans is that homosexuality (or same-sex desire) is a Western import, that it did not exist before Western settlers introduced it. “African leaders seem intent on freeing Africa from this dreadful Western disease. These sentiments have been legitimized by leaders from Namibia, Zambia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and… Malawi and Uganda.” The attempt to deny that same-sex desire has always existed in African societies is pointless and even some of the notoriously homophobic African leaders like Yoweri Museveni have accepted that “homosexuals have always been with us and homosexuality has always been tolerated in Uganda – we just didn’t talk about it.” It is not that same-sex desire did not exist in ‘traditional’ Africa, it is that it did not exist in the way that it does today. Homosexuality and a gay identity really are foreign imports to Africa that are a result of globalization. In traditional societies, there were different words and descriptions of sexualities in almost every culture. “Africans have always seen sexuality in highly complex ways, which cannot readily be translated into the predominant Western sexual categories. Also, sexuality in one region in Africa cannot necessarily be compared in a meaningful way to another region.” In 2008 at the Global African Future Conference, Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola famously said, “in ancient African societies, we had what we call taboos – the don'ts – and if you break the taboos, there are consequences... And this taboo, in fact, the word homosexuality didn’t exist in our vocabulary. We don’t have any word for this in our language.”

The reason there isn’t a word for ‘homosexuality’ found in African languages is that there are so many different words that describe so many different same-sex relationships and ways of life; it was never a static identity. “When Ugandans say that same-sex loving is a Western import, what they really mean is that ‘flaunting’ it is a Western import, since talking about any kind of sex, sexual practices, or sexuality is a Western phenomenon that many Africans are still clumsily trying to grapple with.” Homosexuality and gay identity are two social constructs that were born in the West and involved uniquely Western political and identity crises, yet now that Africans identify as homosexual and gay, the meaning is changing. Embracing these gay and lesbian identities is a foreign concept to many traditionalist African citizens, which has led to a backlash in policies trying to prevent and deter people from participating in same-sex desire or behavior.

In Uganda and other African societies that have recently experienced social movements leading to increased human rights, there has been a correlation between minority groups pushing for rights and governments attempting to make laws to restrict those same rights. In her article, “The Problem with Freedom: Homosexuality and Human Rights in Uganda,” Lydia Boyd considers “how a Ugandan homophobic discourse has emerged in response to a neoliberal sexual subjectivity that is predicated on the embrace of personal rights and ‘freedoms.’” In her studies, she encountered many people that felt that the freedoms associated with modernization and neoliberalism were negatively impacting society and pulling people away from their roots and traditional values. Globally, gay rights movements encourage same-sex-desiring individuals to ‘be who they are’ and to be proud of their sexuality, which leads them (and others) to be free to talk about sex in a way that is not in line with the social norms of many African countries. “For Ugandans, the sex they don’t hear talked about – gay or straight – doesn’t happen. In other words, to push people to talk openly about sex between men and men, when they don’t even talk about sex between men and women, is to them morally unconscionable.” To many people, freedom symbolizes a loss of control and the abandonment of cultural norms. Talking about sex openly can be viewed as just another Western import or a step into the twenty-first century but it can also be viewed as an abandonment of culture.

Uganda and other African countries are traditionally sexually conservative, “in Uganda, homosexual sex, like all sex, is thought to have spiritual consequences, for oneself and for others to whom one is related.” In traditional Ugandan society, kinship and the continuation of bloodlines through the production of children are immensely important, and another popular myth that endures in many African societies is the claim that homosexuals cannot have children. Because it is believed that same-sex-desiring individuals cannot have children they are often seen as abandoning their families and choosing sexual freedom over the “constraints and expectations of kin,” in favor of a new life. Traditionalists view same-sex relationships much in the same way that they view pre-marital sex, as giving in to lust and the inability to control one’s desires. In Uganda, same-sex relationships are viewed as a ‘freedom from cultural norms’ and represent renouncing familial and other culturally specific ‘traditional’ values. One such culturally specific value that leaders feel is being degraded by homosexuality is the Ugandan term “ekitiibwa” which means honor or respectability. In pre-colonial Buganda and in other surrounding cultures ekitiibwa was how a person’s social status and worth was measured.

Boyd also notes, “concerns about sexuality and freedom may be especially shaped by the changing status of women and their relation to men in the present era.” Moving forward into the new age and fighting for freedoms associated with human rights movements means moving away from traditionalist societies where minorities are oppressed and persecuted. In these traditional Ugandan societies, for example, a woman’s ekitiibwa was measured in terms of her bridewealth and ability to produce children. In new age societies women (gay or straight) the power structures are changing and women do not need to be with men in order to be successful. Vasu Reddy points out that “same-sex desire can be threatening to those institutions of power, such as the family and the state, that assumes that heterosexuality is a natural, as opposed to a cultural phenomenon.”

Anti-Homosexuality bills like the 2009 Uganda bill are seen by some as “necessary to promote a distinctly ‘African’ way of life from the encroaching, morally suspect, influences of Western culture and its attendant ‘freedoms.’” It has been pointed out that many aspects of the ‘traditionally African’ way of life that are being defended are also morally suspect and perhaps not worth preserving. For example “the local Ugandan heterosexual family may also include child brides, forced marriages, cross-generational Sugar-Daddies or Sugar-Mummies, honor brides forced to marry a spouse because of unplanned pregnancies, sexual – and gender-based violence, and marital rape.” Even for people working under the conception that homosexuality is immoral and unnatural, it would be very difficult to justify that just because these relationships are heterosexual they are worthy of protection.

The ‘traditional’ Africa that these legislators are trying to protect is also a heteronormative, patriarchal system that oppresses diversity and subjugates minority groups. “Sexuality and sexual activity, regardless of the society, are intricately linked with the exercise of power.” Trying to control the rights of sexual minority groups is trying to keep power in the hands of heteronormative power structures. The Zambian President Chiluba said that “homosexuality is the deepest level of depravity… that homosexuals are free to do as they please in the West does not mean they must be freed to do the same here. There will be no end to the demand for rights as soon as they are permitted.” The view that homosexuality is an embodiment of “depravity” is popular amongst politicians and other anti-homosexual-rights citizens. It is also considered to be satanic, unnatural, un-African, out of line with political and national identity just to name a few of the arguments made against same-sex desire. No matter what the argument is, politicians and religious groups seek to keep equal rights and equal freedoms out of the hands of citizens who they believe will threaten the patriarchal hegemonic power structures that have always existed.

Christianity is another patriarchal power structure that is popularly used against homosexuality in many African societies. Christianity is another Western import that has been present since colonization that is used to oppress and try to delegitimize same-sex-desiring individuals Many of the most adamant groups opposing same-sex relationships are Christian churches, particularly the “born again” Christians in Uganda. Their arguments against homosexuality often come from the Bible, which is very obviously Western. “In colonial and post-colonial Uganda, organized religion has [always] played a critical role in national politics… [the only difference now is that] religious institutions appear more significantly in the present than in the past.” Many African countries are extremely Christian today and it appears that their extremism is increasing as well. As many other areas of the world like Europe and the United States are moving away from organized religion, it seems to be getting more popular and more literal in many places. This is true in Uganda; today “Ugandans are attending church in record numbers… It is a country in which no one bats an eyelid when a married man publicly beats up his mistress for looking at another man, and onlookers blame the mistress for flirting.” Because of the church’s negative feelings towards homosexuality, this means that there are a large number of Africans who are now anti-homosexuality just by virtue of their faith. Many African Christians also claim that Christianity is an aspect of ‘traditional’ African society, which only serves to reinforce the notion that colonists created much of ‘traditional’ society. Because Christianity has played such a major role in many African societies since its introduction it is obvious to say that Christianity has become a part of African cultures – why then, is it so difficult for homophobes to accept that the construct of homosexuality has also become Africanized?

Lastly, there is a homophobic mob mentality that is used in politics against same-sex-desiring individuals. Many African politicians vote in favor of anti-homosexuality and run on anti-homosexuality campaigns because such large portions of populations in many African countries are homophobic as well that there is public support to be gained for striking down gay rights. Even David Bahati’s infamous 2009 Uganda Bill would have passed if it had gone to a vote in Parliament. He stated that it would “pass with an overwhelming majority in Parliament. [and] Everyone in Uganda knew this to be true because no Ugandan parliamentarian was going to oppose an anti-gay bill in a country where, largely due to ignorance and misinformation, there was palpable political capital to be gained from endorsing the death of homosexuals,” and there is political capital to be lost by voting in favor of promoting gay rights.

Overall, there are many varying arguments being used in African societies to promote anti-homosexuality legislation. Many of them are outdated, almost all of them are contradictory and they are all oppressive anti-human rights arguments that serve to reinforce and prop up oppressive patriarchal neocolonial systems of government that seek to subjugate women and other minority groups. Unfortunately, legislation isn’t the only thing that needs to be changed – in countries like South Africa where legislation serves to protect and promote the rights of gay individuals there are still hate crimes occurring against them. It is the attitudes of African citizens that need to change because until that happens the laws that are put in place are only a formality. Richard Ssebbeggala says, “the war for public acceptance will unfortunately never be won in our lifetimes because it hasn’t yet been won in Western countries where far more liberal attitudes are underpinned by excellent education and protective laws.” This shows that grass-roots organizations and education programs really are beginning to impact public attitudes and that our new generation of young people contains many more progressive, open-minded individuals who will be able to work together to promote equal rights for all citizens.

This article was written by Hadley Sachs, an Occidental graduate who studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, and is a fan of "writing in quotes."


While we strive to credit the exact sources of a paper, we were unable to attain an official works cited page. We are working to locate it, but the information in the article was collected from the following authors. 

• Mbisi,
• Nyanzi
• Ssebagga
• Boyd
• Reddy

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