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Debunking Homophobia as an African Value: The Complexities

Abuja, Nigeria  — women, girls and children posing together taken by Muhammadtaha Ibrahim

As conversations regarding gender fluidity have been assimilated into Western culture and gained global traction, the African continent continues to maintain an anti-LGBTQ sentiment. While painted as a homophobic, unaccepting continent when it comes to the integration of sexuality into social and bureaucratic systems, is homophobia really an African value?

Delving Into History

To gain insight into our current context, it is worth considering the historic events that shaped the present. Around the 16th century, homosexuality was criminalized in the UK under the Buggery Act of 1533. Earlier in the 13th century, neighbouring country France instilled punishments for male homosexuality as part of their anti-sodomy laws. Similar laws were passed in parts of the West including the Soviet Union, United States, and Germany, whereby homosexuality was punishable by law, consequently creating a powerful vantage towards how homosexuality was viewed in these cultures. Today, almost a third of countries around the world criminalize homosexuality, of which half are in Africa. But this hasn’t always been the case.

Pre-colonial Africa was seen to possess a far more liberated approach to gender identity and sexuality. Dating back to 700 BCE, African civilizations like the ancient Egyptians showed impartiality and even esteem towards androgyny in what many mythologists refer to as a third gender in ancient Egypt. Sekhmet, goddess of war, as well as Atum, the sun god — amongst others, were portrayed with both masculine and feminine characteristics as a show of divine authority. In East Africa, the Nandi people of Kenya observed gender inversion rituals where young children underwent a transformative custom including clothing, hairstyles and adoption of behaviours. As a result, they gained knowledge and understanding of the multidimensionality of genders in different aspects of society. Other tribes in parts of Ghana, Angola and modern-day Uganda observed similar views towards gender and sexuality.

For centuries African cultures were seen embracing this idea of gender identity as a form of recognizing and accepting genders, so what changed?

Has a Once Cultural Fight, Turned into a Global One?

The uprise of legally enforced homophobia in the African continent began at the time of colonization when fanatic attitudes resulted in the loss of Africa’s culture and once impartial attitude. The ability to be tolerant changed as laws were written into constitutions, and being openly homophobic was enforced.

However, the modern-day labelling of Africa as a homophobic continent is quite multifold. Beyond gender fluidity contradicting the cultural values of many African cultures, pro-LGBTQ legislations are interlaced with neocolonialism, working against African nationalism. What was once a Western fight against combating intolerant attitudes, has now turned into a global fight with a continent that cannot fully relate to a similar narrative.

The tolerance we strive to achieve with regard to gender and sexuality has become a hierarchical implementation, working directly against everything the movement stands for — freedom of choice.

“Respect African societies and their values. If you don’t agree, just keep quiet. If we are wrong, we shall find out by ourselves, just the way we don’t interfere with yours.” Yoweri Museveni, Ugandan President

It appears countries in Africa want to make a choice for what seems right for their culture at this point in time by taking a nationalistic approach and learning from their experiences like other nations have had the opportunity to. Should the African culture take its own destiny, as other parts of the world once did, without scrutiny?


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