We all know about the horrors of outright persecution, too often with the collaboration of some Catholic bishops. For many, there’s a strong feeling that “We must do something”. But, ill-considered interventions from outside can be dangerous and counter-productive. For those wanting to make a constructive contribution to change in Africa, a prudent course is to work with the indigenous LGBTI rights movement. In the view from outside the continent, there’s not nearly enough awareness of Africa’s own LGBTI movements, and the progress they are making.
This is true even in the Catholic Church. While far too many of Africa’s bishops have openly supported calls for criminalization or harsher penalties, a striking feature of the foundation conference for the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics was the number of groups and individuals from Africa either present in Rome, or who had attempted to attend, but were denied visas. (A case of discrimination applied by Italy, not by African governments?). Many LGBT responses to Pope Francis’ “Amoris Laetitiae” have expressed disappointment that its insistence on respect for gays and lesbians and its clearly stated opposition to discrimination and violence, were not accompanied with a direct condemnation of discrimination and violence in Africa. But a respected African theologian sees it differently. Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator S.J., a Nigerian theologian based in Kenya, believes that African bishops will read Pope Francis’ words, and realise the direct implications for the Church and LGBT people in Africa.
There is progress also in politics, and in law. Much of the reporting on LGBT rights in Africa has focussed on moves to criminalize homosexuality, or to increase the penalties. But getting much less attention has been moves in the opposite direction.
On May 22 2014, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights did something wholly unprecedented. It committed an emphatically gay- and lesbian-friendly act. It adopted Resolution 275. This condemned violence and other human rights violations against persons on the basis of real or imputed sexual orientation or gender identity. The historic importance of this resolution cannot be overstated. It is the first time that an Africa-wide body has taken a stand for LGBTI rights and protection.
-Justice Edwin Cameron, in Mail and Guardian
Last year (2015), homosexuality was decriminalized in Mozambique – which introduced protection against employment discrimination in 2007. Also in 2015, courts in both Botswana and Kenya gave some limited protection for LGBTI rights, requiring the governments of both countries to register LGBTI NGO’s.
We should also remember that for some African countries, decriminalization is not necessary – because homosexuality was never criminalized – unlike Europe, and the rest of the world in the colonial period. There is a popular but false claim by African opponents of LGBT equality, that homosexuality is foreign to African culture, and was a European import. The truth is the exact reverse. African and other historians have been compiling mounting and impressive evidence that same-sex relationships have always been part of African culture, just as they have been in every society and every geographic region. As awareness of the real African gay history spreads, we should expect further progress towards LGBTI rights in Africa.
It remains a long, hard struggle ahead – but to help most effectively, outsiders should aim to work with Africans themselves.