The Fight for Gay Rights in Africa and Developing Countries

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This article is part of Canvas’ LGBT History Month mini-issue.

Discrimination against LGBT people in developing countries has gained increasing saliency in the contemporary gay rights agenda. In our era of globalised communication and consciousness, violence and prejudice perpetrated against sexual minorities in non-Western countries has become an increasing concern for Western audiences. Nowhere has this focus been more prominent than Sub-Saharan Africa, where state persecution of same-sex practices have been numerous and well publicised. A 2007 survey commission by the International Gay and Lesbian Association indicated that homosexual practice is outlawed in 75% of African nations, with corresponding punishments which extend to imprisonment and even death, statistics which make the region stand out comparatively for its mistreatment of sexual minorities (Anderson, 2007, p. 126).[1]  Most people will be aware of cases of persecution that have gained particular saliency in the media and the literature of LGBT rights organisations. For example, the threat of legislation in Uganda which would see homosexuality punished with the death penalty, labelled “Kill the Gays Bill” in popular media discourse, and the case of Malawian couple Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, sentenced to prison in 2010.[2]

In defence of anti-gay rhetoric and policies, African leaders such as Robert Mugabe have often referred to homosexuality as an imperialist “insanity…part of the culture” of the West and the US.[3] Replicating discursive strategies deployed successfully during decolonisation, governments and officials of many former African colonies have argued that homosexuality is fundamentally ‘un-African’ and offensive to local tradition and independence.[4] Thus, for the Judge that convicted ­­Monjezza and Chimabalanga in 2010, homosexuality represents a “horrendous example” to a society unprepared “to see its sons getting married to other sons or conducting engagement ceremonies”.[5]

However it is important to note that the view of homosexuality as a Western construct is not only an argument made for prejudiced ends. A major concern underlying anthropology has been the idea that ‘homosexuality’, a definition coined in the West to categorise same-sex relations, has limited utility for cross-cultural investigation. Scholars that have looked closely at discourse surrounding sexuality have reported that homosexuality as a concept entered into discourse in developed societies as a result of the privileging of heterosexuality, and the labelling of its perversions (Foucault, 1990, p. 38).[6] Therefore, despite same-sex relations being found in African societies long before colonial rule, it is increasing accepted that the ‘homosexual’ was a term coined in the West and exported through colonisation. In such cases homosexuality was introduced as a negated identity, used by Christian settlers against those sections of society they perceived as contravening ideals of Western moral decency. Western colonists brought the influence of homophobia as much as homosexuality.

Likewise, it is evident that Western persons have had at least some role in the furore of homophobia present in Africa today. Certain Western Christian fundamentalists have lent their support and money to debates over homosexuality in Africa. At one series of lectures given in Kampala, Uganda, in 2009 three American religious leaders lent their “expertise”, reportedly describing conversion practices and the evil practices of homosexuality.[7] This influence has been repeated in Uganda and elsewhere, as evangelical groups have paid visits and delivered talks on homosexuality.

The claim to a universal gay identity has undoubtedly proved very useful for activists fighting for LGBT rights in non-Western countries, drawing on a blossoming human rights discourse in which gay rights are seen part of universal human rights. Organisations proudly calling themselves gay or lesbian can now be found in states all over the world, across Western and non-Western states. However, in order to problematize the claim that gay rights are Western and therefore imperialist, we must be prepared to argue for the rights of sexual minorities outside of the idea of a universal and monolithic homosexual identity. Anthropologists have consistently found evidence of same-sex sexual relations pre-existing in African and other non-Western societies long before Western influence and the formal emergence of homosexuality into discourse (Anderson, 2007, p. 129). Successful strategies for pushing for rights for sexual minorities have often involved showing the mutual inclusivity of cultural and sexual identities. For instance, in Tasmania gay protesters have often used slogans such a “TASMANIAN and GAY” to show this relationship (Stychin, 2004, p. 959).[8] Whilst the idea of a universal and stable ‘homosexual’ identity remains a powerful rhetorical weapon, it is clearly not the only strategy to push for the rights of the LGBT community across the world.

Written by Jack Gibson


1.       Ben, Anderson, “The Politics of Homosexuality in Africa”, Africana, Vol. 1 (2007), pp. 123- 135





6.       Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1 An Introduction (London, Penguin Books, 1990).


8.       Carl F. Stychin, “Same-Sex Sexualities and the Globalization of Human Rights Discourse”, McGill Law Journal, Vol. 49 (2004), pp. 951-968.









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