Last month when President Obama praised the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Section Three of the Defense of Marriage Act, he was standing next to the president of Senegal addressing a press conference. When reporters asked President Mackey Sall if he intended to improve gay laws in his country, he said, "We are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality," Sall said. "These issues are societal … We should not have one standard model that's applicable to all nations."
The president has a valid point in pointing out that Western laws, beliefs, and customs should not necessarily be applied to other far-off places that have completely and utterly different societal and historical norms and standpoints. However, it is still pertinent to point out the degree of discrimination faced by homosexuals in many nations in Africa. It is also important to try to understand which societal processes brought African homophobia to the level it is at today.
Out of 54 countries in Africa, 38 criminalize homosexuality. Homosexual Africans have, on numerous occasions, been denied access to health care, detained, tortured, and even killed, a trend fueled by fundamentalist preachers, intolerant governments, and homophobic politicians. There is a general consensus among a majority of the African people that homosexuality is wrong. In the last five years, South Sudan and Burundi have introduced new laws criminalizing same-sex relations. The parliaments of Uganda, Liberia and Nigeria have draft laws before them seeking to increase penalties. In Sierra Leone two months ago, a gay activist was beaten up and whipped by attackers after a local newspaper printed his photo and an article he had written for a foreign magazine in 2012 about his sexuality. There was a note which was left inside his car which said: "We know you people, we're coming after you, you bloody homosexuals." In Cameroon, people are regularly arrested after being denounced as being gay or lesbian because of their "appearance or conjecture, rather than evidence," Amnesty International says.
Moving on, it is important not only to highlight the plight of the homosexuals in the majority of African countries but also try to understand why a majority of Africans behave in this manner, in the light of their societal evolution and constructs. The roots of the situation can be found in the institutional norms that developed under colonialism. At the time, the rigorously-conservative social codes of the Victorian era were sweeping through Europe, particularly the United Kingdom; this included passionately-held and severely-enforced laws against homosexuality. The colonial powers, organizing their African colonies within largely arbitrary borders and writing constitutions from scratch, imposed these sodomy laws across the continent.
This ingrained a homophobic tendency among the masses. During the post-colonial era the problem only got worse, as politicians and anyone else seeking public approval furthered homophobic banter. Homophobia acts as recruiting tool for politicians and religious ventures alike.
Another possible reason can be identified in much of the African continent's tense relationship with the West in the post-colonial era. Anything that smacks of Westerners telling Africans what to do prompts instant bridling; it evokes a bitter history of colonialism and exploitation, which still reaps a terrible legacy of unstable states. The West's history of involvement Africa is riddled with atrocity and outrage for several centuries.
Gay and lesbian rights activists definitely face an uphill battle to change appalling conditions for homosexuals in Africa. While Africans may be correct when they say Western customs and norms cannot find applicability in such a drastically-different environment, surely it remains important to preach tolerance and at the very least make sure homosexuality is not a life-or-death choice in Africa.