In Africa, homophobia is driving gays to speak out

Published: March 27, 2014

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — When South African airport officials threatened to send Dr. Paul Semugoma back to his native Uganda, he shook with fear.

Semugoma, an outspoken gay activist, was determined to remain in this country, where he has lived for two years, rather than be sent back to one of Africa’s most homophobic countries.
 
Held by immigration officers after returning to South Africa with an expired visa, he was allowed to stay only after an outcry from human rights groups mindful of new legislation in Uganda calling for life in prison for those who engage in repeated acts of gay sex.
 
The harshness of the law signed days later by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni — and similar strictures in more than three dozen African nations — is triggering a profound reaction in Africa.
 
For every repressive law, there’s an answer from African writers, intellectuals, politicians, doctors and activists. Despite the setbacks, gays and lesbians are increasingly coming out in countries where laws are not enforced, penalties are not as harsh or don’t exist.
 
In an open letter last month, former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano called on all African leaders to protect gay rights. Retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town compared Uganda’s anti-gay law to Nazi Germany’s repressions.
 
Renowned Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie chimed in with a powerful condemnation of her country’s anti-gay legislation, which was signed into law in January.
 
But the change was perhaps best illustrated by an essay by prominent Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, titled "I am a homosexual, Mum," penned partly in anger over laws in Nigeria and Uganda.
 
Wainaina said he had known he was gay from the age of 5. Placing himself back in his younger years, he said the recognition "comes every few months like a bout of malaria and leaves me shaken for days, and confused for months."
 
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