President Obama is in the midst of a long-overdue trip to the continent of Africa. Starting in Dakar, Senegal, he’ll travel to Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania before finishing in South Africa. Because of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the issue of gay equality has suddenly been thrust front and center.
Take the example of Senegal, where homosexuality is a criminal offense. In a joint press conference with President Obama, President Macky Sall said, “We are not ready to decriminalize homosexuality” but that fact “does not mean we’re all homophobic…we are tolerant.”
Differing views on the definiton of "tolerance" aside, here are five things you probably don’t know about homosexuality in (certain parts of) Africa.
Hopefully you already knew that, but it’s worth reminding those who still refer to Africa more as a single, homogeneous country than as the extremely heterogeneous continent that it is. Containing 54 – 56 countries (depending on whether you count the Western Sahel and Somaliland as countries) and over one billion people, Africa is home to hundreds of active languages, remarkable ethnic diversity, and unbelievable geographic diversity.
No one lumps together the United States, Canada, Mexico, and all of Europe together as one entity. Let’s not do it to the African continent either.
In two-thirds of African countries, it's a crime to be gay, according to a timely report from Amnesty International.
The penalties vary by country. In South Sudan, “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” can land you in jail for 10 years, while in Burundi, you’d just be subject to a fine of 100,000 francs (about $70). In Nigeria, a bill currently being debated would hold “accomplices” who assist gay couples liable, too, with a sentence of up to five years in prison.
Uganda (where I am now, incidentally) has one of the most anti-gay governments in Africa. In 2009 (and again in 2012), a bill was introduced that “would impose the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’, and would impose life imprisonment for the ‘offence of homosexuality’, for attempting to commit ‘aggravated homosexuality’ and for entering into a same-sex marriage.” (In case you’re curious, “aggravated homosexuality” is being caught three times in same-sex sexual conduct or having same-sex sexual contact while HIV-positive.) The bill has not passed, but not for lack of trying.
As the Amnesty International report outlines, other areas under Sharia law — Mauritania and parts of Nigeria, Sudan, and Somalia — also have the death penalty in place.
South Africa banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1996 — the first country in the world to do so in its constitution — and passed a bill allowing same-sex marriage in 2006. It was the fifth country in the world to do so, and the first in Africa.
Also, it’s instructive to note that South Africa has allowed gays to openly serve in the military since 1998 — a few months after DOMA was signed into law by President Clinton.
We’re used to seeing attitudes on homosexuality soften over time in Western nations, with our generation being typically more accepting of homosexuality than our parents' or grandparents' generations.
According to the Pew Research Center’s June 2013 “The Global Divide on Homosexuality,” which surveyed 39 countries around the world, that’s far from uniform.
Two in Africa, Uganda and Nigeria, have Boomer generations that are more accepting of homosexuality than their Millennial generations. The chart includes all of the countries in Africa surveyed in the report with adequate data, and it isn’t missing anything. Nigeria’s millennial population was surveyed at 0% accepting of homosexuality*.
*The survey’s margin of error in Nigeria and Uganda was, respectively, 4.0% and 4.3%, so don’t take these figures as gospel. They’re meant more for illustration.
Again, from the Amnesty International report, which quotes Dr. Basile Ndijo, a senior academic at the University of Douala in Cameroon:
“From a historical perspective, prior to colonialism, which fundamentally changed the sexual imagination and practices in Africa, most African traditional societies were characterized by their sexual tolerance and openness. Contrary to received ideas, what Western colonialization brought into African colonies was homophobia and not homosexuality, which was part of a variety of social practices. The colonial administration only extended through anti-sodomy laws the moralistic view of the church, which perceived same-sex relationships as an expression of cultural primitivism and then encouraged African natives to move towards the so-called modern sexuality; that is, exclusive heterosexuality.”
Monocausal explanations are boring and usually wrong, and this shouldn’t be construed as one. Many other factors come into play, and it's a complicated topic. Still, it seems fair to say that Western influence is part of the reason why anti-gay attitudes are so prevalent in much of the African continent
This also is not meant to excuse intolerance — merely to provide some historical context to present-day concerns.