Human Rights vs Homophobia: Who is winning Africa's cultural wars

Last October, I sat in the medieval gilt-and-velvet chamber of the House of Lords listening to an historic first-ever debate on LGBT issues in the British parliament.


June 20th, 2013

Last October, I sat in the medieval gilt-and-velvet chamber of the House of Lords listening to an historic first-ever debate on LGBT issues in the British parliament.

The gay Conservative Peer, Lord Lexden, used his privileges “to ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the treatment of homosexual men and women in the developing world.” Perhaps it is a function of the House of Lords’ irrelevance that this remarkable debate went unreported; but what was really remarkable about it was that it was not a debate at all. There was absolute consensus, from all participants – to the left and to the right of the Speaker’s scepter – that the United Kingdom should advance and protect the rights of homosexuals globally.

In perhaps the strongest statement on the subject ever made by a leader of the Anglican Church, the Bishop of Leicester noted that in many parts of the world, “people are suffering horrendous abuse and even death for being who they are and loving who they love.” The Labour Party’s Lord Smith of Finsbury – formerly Chris Smith, the first openly-gay British cabinet minister under Tony Blair – spoke of the “huge progress” made in the UK over the past fifteen years “in securing the rights and liberties of lesbians and gay men. We have recognised, thank goodness, that the love of one man for another or one woman for another does not make them any less valid or human.”

Lord Smith spoke of the irony of this not being true in much of the rest of the Commonwealth, where homosexuality remains illegal in 42 of the 54 member-states. “The continued existence of discrimination, violence and criminalisation in so many Commonwealth countries is particularly shaming,” he said. “There is a bitter irony… in that most laws in these countries have been inherited from us. I believe that that gives us a special responsibility to do whatever we can to help to change things.”

Speaker after speaker referred to this ‘special responsibility’ – to such an extent that it seemed like a form of ‘white man’s burden’: because Britain had brought homophobia to the developing world, it was Britain’s responsibility to take it away. There is no gainsaying the sincerity of these Peers of the Realm; no doubt, too, that an assertive and sensitive British foreign policy would play its role in advancing the rights of sexual minorities globally, much as Dutch and Nordic policies have for decades. Still, I left the Lords that evening wondering whether those brave Peers had learned much from the colonial experience: they were still adopting the missionary position.


Eight months later, in June 2013, the Peers voted – after two days of heated debate – to approve a same-sex marriage bill for the United Kingdom, after it had been stormily passed in Commons. Just a few weeks previously, France had become the sixteenth country in the world to permit same-sex marriage, an act which precipitated huge right-wing protest, and shortly afterwards, the United States Supreme Court repealed the Defence of Marriage Act, which means that the federal government is compelled to recognise same-sex marriages from states which permit them.  

According to an infographic I saw recently, 8.6% of the world’s population now live in countries where same-sex marriage is permittted. With the exception of 53 million South Africans, all of these 607-odd million people are from Europe or the Americas. Conventional wisdom has it that as the liberal west becomes more progressive about the rights sexual minorities, the rest of the world – and particularly Africa and the Muslim world – becomes more intransigent, often as a form of backlash against what is perceived as a form of Western cultural imperialism.

Is this a fair assessment – and, if so, what is causing the provocation?

The Reverend Kapya Kaoma is an Anglican priest from Zambia who researches religion and sexuality, who speaks of how the “culture wars” have gone global. “Culture wars’” is an American term, which expresses the conflict over social policy in the US between the socially-conservative ‘red state’ right wing and the socially-liberal, ‘blue state’ left wing. Kaoma and others have demonstrated how American right-wing Christians have exported these wars to other parts of the world – perhaps, the Zambian cleric says, because “they felt they had lost the battle in the US, and so they see themselves now as defending Global Christianity from liberal or demonic forces.”

Kaoma is a Zambian Anglican priest who has written two ground-breaking reports for the American organisation Political Research Associates on the extent of American right-wing Christian sponsorship of homophobic policy in Africa. In the first, entitled , he went undercover to expose the role that American right-wing evangelists, such as Scott Lively and Scott Warren, had played in developing anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda. In the second, , released last year, he plotted the way right-wing Christian organisations are influencing politics and policy in several countries by claiming to defend ‘African traditional values’ against a neo-colonial assault. “The fundamentalist American Christian Right,” he says, is exerting “every bit as much influence on Africa as the colonial Christianity of the last century.”

Kaoma, like Lord Smith of Finsbury, has pointed out the irony of this, given that British colonisation, with its Victorian Christian values, brought statutory homophobia to the rest of the world via the anti-sodomy laws of the Penal Code. Kaoma cites the anthropologist Marc Epprecht, that traditional African culture “was de facto more tolerant of sexual diversity than modern literalists recognize”; Europeans, Kaoma writes, actually “imported the homophobia now touted as African culture.”

But there have been interesting – and provocative – responses to Kaoma’s work from other socially progressive Africans. Joel Nana, from Cameroon, heads up AMSHeR, the Johannesburg-based NGO that advocates against human rights violations against sexual minorities. Nana speaks of his own personal growth and development as a human rights defender, through a career at US-based organisations, which contributed to the formation of his own ideas about the protection of human rights in Africa. Is he, he asks, any more or less ‘authentic’ than Pastor Martin Ssempa, the notoriously homophobic Ugandan pastor, who is the beneficiary of so much of the American religious right’s largesse?

Nana worries that if you treat homophobia as a western export, you are viewing Africans once more as the passive receptacles of Western ideas. “If we truly believe that Africans are human, we should also be able to understand that they can make their own decisions,” he says. “These decisions may be influenced by the need to protect or to violate rights, for real or perceived personal or collective good, but they remain African decisions. They are owned and defended. Denying them the agency that allows them to do that is similar to stripping them of their humanity."


If the culture wars have gone global, then, as in all wars, there are two sides, two competing agendas. At the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, the world appears to have divided into two camps: those who believe that human rights discourse should be extended to explicitly protect the rights of sexual minorities, and those who believe that such an agenda is a neo-colonial project, and an affront to the cultural sovereignty and ‘traditional values’ of individual member states. South Africa, very bravely, leads the ‘human rights’ camp, along with Brazil, but the rump of this camp is the ‘global North’. Russia has assumed the leadership role of the ‘traditional values’ camp in an attempt to recast the Cold War in ‘moral’ terms: ranged behind it is the Islamic world and most of Africa. Both camps have their armies: the Nordic and Dutch development agencies, the international foundations and the global LGBT rights movement on one side; the religious right – Evangelist, Catholic, Orthodox and Islamic – on the other.

In Africa, sometimes it seems that a proxy war is being fought once more, as during the Cold War years, by these two foreign armies. This was most clear – and most uncomfortable – for those of us who align ourselves with the ‘human rights camp’ when David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, said foolishly in 2011 that British development aid should be conditional on countries’ decriminalisation of homosexuality. Cameron was playing to his domestic gallery, attempting to cast himself as socially progressive but he had given little thought to the effect of his words on the ground in Africa: the backlash was extreme, as African homophobes blamed gay people for potentially cutting off vital development aid.

Still, we should always remember that to understand these ‘globalised culture wars’ exclusively as ‘proxy wars’ is to deny the agency of Africans themselves: Martin Ssempa is as much an African as is Joel Nana. Desmond Tutu is an African, and so is Robert Mugabe. Similarly, ‘human rights’ are as much an African concept as ‘traditional values’ are. Both concepts, of course, are syncretic, and elastic, and defined by the kind of global exchanges that characterise our world: nothing is essentially African, except perhaps the baobab tree.

The challenge, for those of us who are African and in the ‘human rights camp’, is to find ways of recasting the battle so that it is no longer that of the ‘West versus the rest’. Clearly, South Africa’s leadership of this camp plays its role – but South Africa itself is too often seen, in the rest of Africa, as having been contaminated by the West. Vitally important, too, are the efforts of Festus Mogae and Kenneth Kaunda, the former presidents of Botswana and Zambia respectively, who have taken it upon themselves to persuade today’s African leaders to come to terms with the ‘gay issue’.

Similarly, the discourse shifted in Kenya a few years ago because of the appointment of a liberal new Chief Justice, Willie Mutunga, on record as being supportive of the rights of sexual minorities. The Kenyan experience is instructive: there, the mainline churches campaigned against Mutunga’s appointment, on the basis of his previous work on behalf of LGBT causes – and the earring in his ear. Most Kenyans just laughed, and his appointment was confirmed: he was the right man for the job. The religious right had not learned its lesson: the previous year, the churches campaigned against the new draft constitution, claiming that it would open the door to abortions and gay marriage. Despite the fact that Kenya is a very religious society, the majority of voters chose nonetheless to ratify the constitution: it promised reform, and a way out of the (church-sanctioned) tyranny and corruption of the past.

Perhaps Kenyan voters understood that if they were going to vote into existence a new human rights regime, this would have to include the rights of all people, including gays. Or perhaps not: maybe they were just not willing to throw the baby of legal reform out with the bathwater of gay rights.

That is how it should be. When Africans see that there are more pressing issues facing them than whether two men or two women should be allowed to marry each other, the ‘traditional values’ camp will find itself toothless, and evaporate. Politicians will have to deliver, rather than creating diversionary moral panics around the bogeyman of ‘gay rights’.

International solidarity for the rights of sexual minorities remains essential, in a world where these rights are violated so brutally, and so carelessly. But Africans are, ultimately, going to change their own societies, for better or for worse.


  • 1 Hood Avenue/148 Jan Smuts; Rosebank, GP 2196; South Africa
  • T. +27 (0)11 587 5000
  • F. +27 (0)11 587 5099