From colonialism to 'kill the gays': The surprisingly recent roots of homophobia in Africa

Published: June 27, 2013

When President Obama praised the Supreme Court’s decision this week to overturn a law that had forbidden the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, he just happened to be in Senegal, standing alongside the country’s president. Naturally, reporters at the event asked Senegalese President Mackey Sall whether he might improve gay rights as well, albeit from a very different starting point, by rolling back his country’s law banning homosexuality. Sall no doubt knows that the Obama administration has long pushed African nations to improve gay rights. But he didn’t hedge: The answer, he said, is no.

“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.” He added, though, that Senegal is “very tolerant” and that “This does not mean we are homophobic.”

Sub-Saharan Africa has an infamously poor reputation for LGBT rights. Out of 54 countries in the continent, 38 criminalize homosexuality. A global Pew study on attitudes toward homosexuality found that surveyed African countries tended to be among the least likely to agree that society “should accept homosexuality.” The more comprehensive World Values Survey yielded similar results. And, as gay rights improve in much of the world, they’re getting worse in Africa. As The Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan wrote in 2010, LGBT Africans “have been denied access to health care, detained, tortured and even killed,” a trend of growing persecution “fueled by fundamentalist preachers, intolerant governments and homophobic politicians.” And the Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting wrote, also in 2010, “There is consensus among the vast majority of Africans that homosexuality is wrong.”  Just on Tuesday, Amnesty International released a lengthy report detailing what it says is worsening and “dangerous” homophobia across much of Africa.

The story of how and why things got so bad is complicated and disputed, not least because it would be impossible to generalize across dozens of countries, a much wider array of cultures and a physical area three times the size of Europe. And there is at least one very important exception: South Africa, which in some ways is more progressive on gay rights than many Western countries (more on this later). But Africa’s poor record on gay rights would seem to be too broad a trend to be coincidence; surely there must be some common factors. Academic study of the region has identified a few themes and trends that, while certainly not definitive of every African society, help to broadly identify some of the roots of homophobia in Africa.

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