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Africa: Political and State-Sponsored Homophobia on the increase in the last decade

Linda Baumann & Rowland Jide Macaulay are Pan Africa ILGA board members, African representatives on ILGA’s World Board. \n

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

7th August 2013 16:02

Alessia Valenza


Over the last ten years, the focus on equal rights, law reforms, community cohesion, diversity, families and migrations for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex (LGBTI) Africans has gone from bad to worse. The possibility for legal liberation on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity has been further thrown into chaos. This assessment is a universal representation of the lives of LGBTI people in Africa, including South Africa with its enviable constitution on same-sex rights.

Human Rights defenders across Africa have faced serious threats to their lives, and many have fled the continent to safety in Europe and America. Many of those who represent “the face of the faceless and the voice of the voiceless” are scattered abroad. This bears painful consequences for activism in Africa and for activists in the Diaspora.

Thirty-six countries in Africa have laws criminalizing homosexuality, some with the death penalty, and many more with harsh jail sentences. By far, it’s the continent with the worst laws on the books when it comes to homosexuality and other sexual minorities, a phenomenon which is in part rooted in bad colonial-era laws and political situations, religious autonomy, strong negative belief in cultural and family values, and the evil of patriarchy.

Politics and State-Sponsored Homophobia

More than 50% of African governments have taken action and steps to formally criminalise same-sex unions. There is an increased awareness of homophobia in the continent with many African media adding to the furore. Nonetheless, anti-gay laws in Uganda are now weakened due to human rights opposition and Malawi witnessed the presidential pardon of a gay couple.

In March 2011, at the second recall at the United Nations Assembly in Geneva on the Joint declaration to decriminalize homosexuality, the number of African countries who signed rose from six to eleven including Gabon, Sao Tome and Principe, Mauritius, Central Africa Republic, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Angola, South Africa, Seychelles, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, thirteen countries abstained and twenty-eight opposed Joint Statement on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI).

The popularity of gay rights and advocacy for the social status of same-sex relationships have provoked politicians and governments in Africa to react. Recent cases of criminalisation of same-sex relationships have worsened a situation already characterized by harassment, humiliation, extortion, arbitrary arrests, judicial violence, imprisonment, torture, hate crimes and honour killings on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity all over Africa. These abuses are happening whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not. Every year, there are numerous cases of hate crimes towards LGBTI people and LGBTI advocates working to deliver more justice. The abuse is escalating.

African LGBTI Asylum seekers

In the last five years, there has been a sharp increase and terrible concerns for many fleeing persecution in their own countries, the number of LGBTI migrants fleeing to foreign countries have increased, and the attitude towards asylum seekers based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in some cases have largely been shameful. Many have been met with many challenges and horrendous outcomes. Attention is drawn to people fleeing Cameroon, Senegal, Nigeria, Gambia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Tanzania (to mention just a few) due to the nations’ political leaders and the forceful introduction of anti-gay legislations and failure to repeal discriminatory laws. We are dealing with cases of African LGBTI seeking asylum as far as Australia, North America and Western Europe, we believe that the international community on migration equality could foster a better reception under international law and give credence to the cases of those marked with discrimination based on SOGI.


Homosexuality in Africa has been blamed on Western European influence and colonialism. It has also been blamed on the radical intervention of technology, but homosexuality has been present in the African culture throughout history. In many African societies, it is not uncommon to acknowledge same-sex relationships. Unfortunately, modern sceptics are ignoring factual history. African leaders believe that behaviours deviating from the normal gender roles are phases that the children encounter and can be addressed only through ensuring regulatory laws to prevent the unknown and unacceptable sexual behaviours.

Historically, Africa has always been the friendliest and most tolerant continent, homosexuality and same-gender behaviours dating back to time before colonialism and the intervention of religion. The arrival of colonialism contributed to the mass hatred and also the influence of religious fundamentalism has contributed to the debased argument for homophobia. Christianity teaches a faith that encourages "Love thy neighbour as thyself"; sadly, this concept has been abandoned for the sake of “hate missions” propelled by the religious leaders, such examples can be found in many places in Africa: Botswana, Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi, where the Churches, Mosques and other popular religious communities are aiding and abetting their governments to pass laws that would criminalise homosexuality and some as far as the death penalty.

The LGBTI African communities have defied oppression and discrimination both at home and abroad, in the last 12 months alone, there has been a public celebration of the first African Zulu gay wedding in South Africa, another gay couple of Ugandan origin married in Sweden, gay men and women continue to step out in politics as in the case of David Kuria in Kenya, LEGABIBO is Botswana is currently challenging its government in the court of justice and more African gay men took part in the Mr Gay Africa competition 2012.

Social network has played a crucial and formidable role in enhancing visibility for the Africa communities. Pan Africa ILGA and several other institutions collaborated to represent Africa on SOGI issues at Oslo Human Right conference 2013 with a catalogue of SOGI breach and contravention on the continent.

Implications for Sexuality, HIV/AIDS & Health

The struggle against HIV/AIDS is also undermined by criminalization of same-sex relationships. The Human Rights Committee has noted that laws criminalizing homosexuality “run counter to the implementation of effective education programmes in respect of HIV/AIDS prevention” by driving marginalized communities underground. A finding supported by UNAIDS: Former president of Botswana Festus Mogae and UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa Elizabeth Mataka have spoken out firmly and forcefully against criminalization of homosexuality in Africa. African LGBTI people have been struggling to have access to public health services, the level of double discrimination faced being fuelled by state-sponsored homophobia.

Over the past twenty years, there has been a growing recognition of the relativity of sexual norms and of the difficulties of accepting Western conceptions of sexuality in Africa, including gay rights and public recognition of same-sex families.

  • An implication in our view is that homophobia is “deep-rooted” in culture, religion, music and law. Expressions of homosexuality are repressed by condemning homosexuals, their families and friends.
  • Mocking, shame, ostracism, scorn, violence and prayers for salvation are reported means of keeping homosexuals in the closet or making them “normal.” Some homosexuals respond to this stigmatization by moving away from their countries, communities, families; others build supportive networks outside their communities; while others struggle to keep it a secret by “pretending to be heterosexuals”.
  • Same-sex loving people often lead multiple secretive lives, men or women on the Down Low, also known as DL. Men who have sex with men (MSM) often do not admit they are gay or bisexual; these are largely married men.
  • Homosexuality is often aligned with occultism.
  • Many African governments have no mandate or projected plans to include Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans in sexual health provisions and services.
  • Inaccurate media publications, unethical reporting, dubious and negative publicity on matters of HIV and homosexuality in Africa need to be addressed to change attitudes.

The Way Forward/Recommendations

  • Legal and policy reform is urgently needed on all these fronts to legally reinforce same-sex relationships, the legal status of same-sex love and the full protection of human rights in the context of HIV/AIDS.
  • Address underlying prejudices and discrimination through education programmes in schools and community dialogue to help create a more supportive environment for same-sex unions
  • Promote media training, explicitly designed to discourage attitudes of discrimination and stigmatisation towards sexual reproductive health and rights and same-sex relationships, especially in respect of HIV/AIDS. Encourage the media to adopt ethical rules of conduct that prohibit disclosure of confidential patient information.

We hope that in sharing this brief overview, we give a clear understanding of the issues of same-sex relationships, LGBTI human rights in Africa and their implications for sexuality and HIV/AIDS.