Challenges to the rights of sexual minorities in Africa

Pro-gay Ugandan Catholic priest analyses the rise of homophobia

London, UK – 5 August 2014

Father Anthony Musaala writes:


Among the many challenges facing Africa is the integration of diverse racial and ethnic groups (3,000) into functioning nation-states: the challenge of nationalism.

Sexual minorities within Africa (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex–LGBTIs) who have a stake in this project of nationhood, increasingly self-identify as a distinct group struggling for the right to live, love and be free within developing African states.

Thwarted by civil or religious laws which are formally discriminatory, or the informal discrimination of family, clan and tribe, sexual minorities all over the continent are becoming more visible and eager to declare their position with regard to their own basic rights to be who they are.

World-wide change in attitudes 

Within the last fifty years many progressive countries in different parts of the world have abolished laws which criminalize homosexual acts.

There has been a shift in attitudes from moral idealism, which seeks the ‘perfection’ of human nature by acts of free or divine choice, to a realism which discovers numerous forces and contingencies behind every ‘free choice’ .

A scientific view sees ‘moral choices’ taking place not in some rationalistic vacuum of moral idealities, but being conditioned by many ‘non-moral’ factors, including physiology, society and the environment.

The phenomenon of homosexuality is an empirical reality, an immutable datum. Homosexuality is properly understood as a variant type of sexuality or orientation not a ‘deviant’ one.

Moral arguments which ignore this are in denial of these facts. Acceptance of them has led to the reconsideration of past legal prohibitions of homosexual behaviour and to the enunciation of the rights of sexual minorities including equal treatment before the law.

The African case for ‘exceptionalism’

Some states in Africa are espousing a counter-trend to this, in which notions of rights for sexual minorities are rejected, and amazingly, some of the scientific premises on which they are based.

An emerging trend towards criminalizing homosexual acts even more than before is becoming a new source of ‘pride’ for some African nations.

In this dispensation, a kind of ‘heterosexual totalitarianism ‘is espoused to craft an African identity for today. It enlists heterosexuality as critical to African identity…without reservation.

Thus, enacting laws to suppress other kinds of sexual orientation is eschewed as an effective defence of ‘Africanness’ from the encroachment of ‘western values’.

Why this is so?

Some reasons for this are as follows:

  • persistence in ‘taboo’ mentalities with regard to sexual matters (often, it seems, to the point of absurdity);
  • incredibly misguided and frequently pharisaic religious argumentation, plus an almost obsessive ‘moral indignation ‘against any non-religious positions;
  • nostalgia for an Africa that never was or cannot be remembered, plus idealistic notions of African culture;
  • the blissful almost invincible ignorance of both the educated and the uneducated in matters of sexuality from a scientific point of view, with resultant deep insecurity and ambivalence about sexuality and sexual identity;
  • the mischievous opportunist politicians and other ‘leaders’ who exploit ignorance and disaffection to divert from unaddressed social and political challenges.

All these and others conspire to short-circuit reason or reasonableness with regard to the homosexual debate in Africa.

Punitive laws are thus being enacted in several African states, largely on the basis of ignorance and prejudice heralding a new wave of persecution and human rights abuse of this discrete group of minorities.

New ‘old’ legislation and its impossible goals

The legislation being used to target sexual minorities in Africa is ironically, hewn from the quarry of archaic colonial laws still found on African statute books but now recycled as ‘African’.

Before they became ‘African’ these laws were the opposite. They were colonial laws targeting Africans. If there was no homosexuality in pre-colonial Africa, why bother to include laws criminalizing it, unless to target those who were practising it?

It is hardly surprising therefore that African countries with these outmoded nineteenth-century laws are now leading the way in anti-gay persecution.

It is of interest that ‘Francophone’ and ‘Lusophone’ countries in Africa have little or no legislation against homosexual acts.

Uganda and Nigeria, both ‘Anglophone’, have already enacted stricter laws than the colonial ones, with life-sentences for homosexuals in Uganda. There is no foundation in customary law for this kind of legislation, nor any Africa-wide oral tradition condemning gays.

Other Anglophone states, such as Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe are also toying with the idea of such laws. Some other non-Anglophone states such as DR Congo, which had no overtly anti-gay laws, have had individual legislators calling for such laws to be enacted.

It is difficult to see these laws as anything other than ‘colonial-hangover’, used by bad leaders in Africa to maintain repressive regimes. (Other such colonial era laws are the ‘idle and disorderly’ and ‘illegal gathering’ laws.)

The aim of these laws is, allegedly to ‘prevent homosexuality taking root in Africa’–though it has always been there and this cannot be somehow undone by enacting laws.

The real result of these laws is harassment, blackmail, being ostracised from one’s home, dismissed from work, beaten, killed, imprisoned, or having to seek asylum.

The new laws also hope, by their severity, to deter homosexual acts in a way that the older ones didn’t, which is of course highly unlikely. In fact they increase the resolve of sexual minorities to be who they are, no matter what.

‘African cultural norms’: an excuse for anti-gay laws

The reason of choice for opposing homosexuality in Africa is its alleged contrariness to ‘African cultural norms’.

This widespread view is gullibly held even by the educated, despite the fact that there is not the slightest anthropological evidence for it and that a number of studies easily prove the contrary. (For one such see, Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexuality’s, Ed. Will Roscoe and Stephen Murray.)

In any case, any definition of ‘African cultural norms ‘can only be imprecise. They are by no means accurately defined or universally subscribed to by all Africans in the entire continent, as one might believe – hence the inverted commas. The notion itself seems more the creation of African philosophers and politicians, who have been part of a political class that has failed to deliver goals for a truly ‘independent Africa’. Whatever their enunciations ‘African cultural norms’ so far contain no obvious substantial or meaningful affirmation of existence for the masses of the African people.

Let it be reiterated that there is no known single or monolithic canon of African cultural laws about homosexuality (or anything else) whether prohibiting or affirming, nor is there anybody of thought or scholarship, accepted throughout Africa, from which ready conclusions can be drawn about African sexual mores in every part of the continent.

Africa is undeniably culturally heterogeneous. Although a ‘monolithic ‘system of African values may yet appear, its inclusion of repressive measures against any group would suffice to discredit it.

One only has to consider the barbarism of a ‘monolithic’ American, European or even Chinese system of values which wants to be contrary to the rest of the world, and what that would imply.

Even though ‘African cultural norms’ is still very much a pending concept, this has not prevented it from being the cause of baseless assertions about the un-Africanness of homosexuality.

The religious ‘spike’

Many Africans oppose homosexuality on religious grounds. This is a more complex entanglement due to the diversified nature of religious beliefs in Africa today. This will therefore have to be treated at some length.

First, one must note that the word ‘culture’ in Africa has spiritual connotations. Culture and religion are never far away from each other, so African cultures include several spiritual beliefs and vice versa. A purely aesthetic notion of culture, such as in Europe, does not always find parallel in Africa, even among the ‘westernized’ unless they are avowedly atheist.

The first consideration regarding religious beliefs in Africa is what J.S.Mbiti calls ‘African traditional religions’. Traditional pre-colonial African religions invoked God as creator or originator; also gods, with varying degrees of natural and supernatural powers; ancestors and other spirit-beings who are in league with higher powers and who are also closely related to every aspect of human life.

The total intersection and compenetration of the spirit and human worlds is a key to understanding African traditional religions.

It is believed that health, peace, prosperity, social and world order depend on one’s relationship to the order in the spirit world. Sickness, death, misfortune and family conflicts all have their origins in the spirit world which can be disturbed by human beings who disconnect themselves from it.

Traditionalist religious Africans who negatively evaluate homosexuality will tend to ascribe imbalances in the spirit-human world and resultant social problems to the ‘disordered’ sexual behaviour of homosexuals.

An example of this is the issue of bearing children, which traditionally in Africa tends to be non-negotiable, and is still very often the case today. Homosexuals are perceived as ‘refusing’ to have children who have a ‘right’ to be born.

This injury to the unborn upsets the continuum of life which includes the unborn, the living (born) and the ‘living-dead’ (born in the hereafter, or ancestors).It is understood that this results in catastrophes and misfortunes for everyone but especially for the living.

It is for this reason that homosexuals are accused of ‘bringing curses’ and have been ostracized from their families and communities. They disrupt the natural order, by not having children. They are the cause of misfortune and are best cut off from everyone else, or so it is thought.

African traditional religious beliefs are of course far more complex than the sketch given here, but this is just to show that homophobia can find a ‘spiritual root’ in indigenous beliefs as much as in ‘world religions’.

The second consideration is the role of imported world religions– Christianity and Islam – which arrived with (or around the time of) colonialism. These have been embraced by Africans fairly enthusiastically, but can be twisted to any campaign.

Scriptural texts and doctrines decrying homosexuality are used liberally and non-contextually from these religions to justify persecution of homosexuals.
Select, emotively charged words such as ‘abomination’, ‘sinful’, ‘ungodly’, ‘haram’, etc. are used to arouse deep ‘spiritual’ hatred of homosexuals who are profiled as being in rebellion to God. This ‘fear of God’ tack effectively short-circuits logic or scientific arguments, which are considered inferior to it.

A third consideration is the complex phenomenon of ‘parallel beliefs’; in which traditional religious beliefs are held alongside those of one or more of the ‘world religions’ in a syncretistic mesh. This results in a multi-pronged religious attack on homosexuals by all religious forces at once. By appealing to several religious beliefs together, or in series, even when those beliefs have little or nothing in common, the anti-homosexuality movement is able to achieve the total demonization of homosexuals.

Africans, who may tend to over-spiritualize things anyway, will in equal measure ‘UN-spiritualize’ them, when required. For this reason homosexuals are vengefully ‘un-spiritualized’ and frequently portrayed as ‘godless’ and ‘evil devil-worshippers’, by otherwise very spiritual persons.


The new ‘anti-homosexual’ laws in African countries have a complex background and context. They can be seen and understood as emerging against the backdrop of developing nationalism, cultural transition and irresolution.

The social and political upheavals of the last fifty years in Africa as well as globalization, call forth questions of African identity.

The notion of the rights of individual members of sexual minorities or even LGBTI groups (now a common feature of globalization) seem to ‘up the ante’ in the quest for authentic African identity. Rights of sexual minorities appear to run counter to a goal of ‘African values ‘which are as yet not clarified, but which must determine the apparently longed for, ‘African identity’.

Any ‘clarifying discourse’ about African values threads into considerations about nation-statehood or socio-economic existential questions. These in turn become framed by the reality of tensions due to the nature of existing ethnic and religious identifications, which are also in a state of flux.

The hermeneutic of multiculturalism, polyculturalism, globalization and science cannot abide the prejudices of an anti-homosexuality discourse, however populist and incontestable.

Dialectically then, anti-homosexuality in Africa represents an ‘antithesis’ to the globalization of the ethic of human rights which is ever rolling out – and which constitute the ‘thesis’- symbolized by International Declarations and Human Rights Charters, to which African states have already subscribed.

The resolution or ‘synthesis’ which is bound to emerge, will not only be due to internal contradictions arising from law, but also due to the presence of many homosexuals within African society, who will be increasingly visible and vocal and who may yet find new allies within Uganda.

This will play out on the political scene in perhaps a surprising and unique way. The gay factor may become the unknown, the X-factor on the political stage.

Challenges to the rights of sexual minorities in Africa will continue for some time, but as in other places, those rights will eventually be reconsidered as a matter of realpolitik; African states needing to position themselves globally and maximally for any number of advantages.

About the author

Anthony Musaala is a Catholic priest and award-winning gospel artiste of the Archdiocese of Kampala in Uganda. He was born in Dublin in 1956 to Ugandan parents and studied theology at Allen Hall Seminary in Chelsea, London, before being ordained priest in 1994.

Fr Anthony pioneered outreach work to the LGBTI community in Uganda since 1999 swimming against the tide of church and state.

In March 2013 he wrote a paper discussing married clergy, the abuse of female minors by African clergy, the general failure of celibacy in Africa and the large number of children fathered by African priests who go uncared for.

This paper earned him an indefinite suspension from priestly duties without pay.

Father Anthony now lives in London.