Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, Paranoid Homophobe, Needs a History Lesson

Gambia's president, Yahya Jammeh, who had previously referred to same-sex relations as both "anti-human" and "anti-Allah," again attacked LGBTQ individuals in his address to the United Nations General Assembly. In it, he called homosexuality the "biggest threat to human existence," and declared that "gays are more deadly than all natural disasters put together."

Jammeh took it to the next level earlier this year, when he said that "allowing homosexuality means allowing satanic rights.” He even lamented the international pressure to decriminalize homosexuality.

There seems to be little point in chewing over rhetoric loaded with paranoid prejudice, but it is necessary to challenge publicly accepted discourse on the continent, which is rooted in massive, manipulative historical inaccuracies.

While I recognize that my perspective here is that of a heterosexual white woman, my academic training in African and African-American Studies and research in decolonial studies makes me question the heteronormative justification of the homophobic discourse that is not only incomplete but inherently misleading. 

The homogeneous image of "Africa" as a monolith has been historically perpetuated by European colonialists. Its contemporary rendition in itself is an investment in the colonial way of thinking. It does not only silence queer African voices who are outside of  the acceptable framework of gender and sexual "normalcy," it is historically void. 

Unfortunately, anthropological literature of the colonial era is our main source of information regarding diverse sexual practices in pre-colonial Africa. This literature, however, features variety of reports on "native conceptions and native practices of male homosexuality in many societies across every region of the continent."

Numerous examples, of same-sex practices include "boy wives" of the Azande in the contemporary Sudan and Congo, the gender-crossing queers of the Hausa bori culture in today's Nigeria, the third gender subculture of the ashtime among the Maale people in southern Ethiopia, the pre-marital homosexual play among the Nyakyusa of the Tanzania, and so on. The use of penis-shaped objects was documented in same-sex practices among women in southern Africa, namely in Namibia and Angola, according to Marc Epprecht in Hungochani: The History of a Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa. Women's same-sex relations were also prominent among co-wives in polygynous marriages in Southern Sudan around the nineteenth century, according to Saskia Wierange in Technologies of Sexuality, Identity and Sexual Health.

Let me be clear: the institutional understanding of gender as a static identity that can be only male or female, and sexuality as exclusively heterosexual, is a modern colonial project imposed throughout African continent, and the Global South at large, through institutionalization of colonial norms. 

President Jammeh is not the only leader guilty of homogenizing "African" sexuality. A number of other leaders have continuously mirrored his sentiments, treating homosexuality as alien to local culture, often citing religious beliefs as the primary reason for rejection of legalization of same-sex relations. As widespread as Christianity is on the continent today, it might well be that, historically, homosexuality is more "African" than Christianity, a colonial legacy.

Nevertheless, the ideological clash over the "legitimacy" of LGBTQ rights on the continent continues to be framed as a matter of western cultural imperialism. The Ghanaian Chronicle published an article titled "Forcing Africa To Embrace Homosexuality." 

"The new push by the West for homosexuality in Africa can be opposed on grounds of culture, sovereignty, the Westerners own journey regarding gay rights and our priorities," the author, Arthut Kobina Kennedy, writes. "After centuries of colonialism followed by a fragile independence, Africans are very wary of anything that smacks of our former colonial masters dictating to us." 

We cannot belittle the implications that colonialism and white supremacy hold in the contemporary continental realities — except,  rather than homosexuality, it is homophobia that is a product of European colonialism dictated to the colonized peoples of the South. 

"An irony that bypasses homophobic leaders such as Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, is that anti-sodomy laws on their countries’ statute books were first designed and implemented by the former colonial powers now accused of exporting homosexuality," Eusebius McKaiser writes in a blog for Open Society Iniative for Southern Africa. "Should former colonial masters not rather be accused of teaching Africa how to codify homophobia?"

An international study of legal prohibition of homosexuality in Africa featured on Foreign Policy found that "countries that inherited their legal systems from British common law were far more likely to have laws against homosexual behaviour" and that "criminalization of gay sexual activity is that of the export of the Common Law system that criminalized buggery in Great Britain in 1533."

Sodomy laws were legally institutionalized throughout the colonies by the colonial powers along with colonial ideas of what "barbaric" practices entailed. The immorality of same-sex relations has been largely a consequence of what Dr. Kristen Cheney calls "missionary erasures of sexual diversity," not to mention the accusations faced by the American evangelical Christians in promoting Christian-right values in the post-colonial landscape of the continent. 

Heteronormative assertions about what it means to be "queer" or "African" are not only widespread; they sustain distinct power hierarchies that give the authority to define meanings behind these gendered identities in the hands of those with massive political influence over public opinion.

The urgency is such that these sentiments are not simply public announcements. They inevitably have the power to ignite the transformation of immediate realities for members of LGBTQ communities on the ground, leading to real social consequences for real people. In the words of Frantz Fanon, a Martinique-born philosopher, prolific thinker, and an icon of anti-colonial liberation, "imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well."