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June 25, 2013

Report: Homophobia Rising in Sub-Saharan Africa

by Anita Powell

When Nthabiseng Mokoena announced she was getting married to another woman, her small South African community was scandalized.

“Pastors came together and started preaching to their own congregations that it’s the end of the world," recalls the advocacy coordinator for Pretoria-based Transgender and Intersex Africa. "'As you can see, one of our own is now going to marry a woman; it’s the end of the world!'"

According to Amnesty International, Mokoena's is but a milder version of a story told repeatedly by Sub-Saharan Africas who don’t conform to traditional gender roles, including those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.

For Mokoena, who identifies as intersex — meaning she was born with ambiguous genitalia — it is a rare privilege to openly call upon the key politicians and religious figures who often fuel the homophobia, and demand that they speak out for equality.

Documenting gays and lesbians in Cameroon who were imprisoned for years without trial or charge, and Kenyans who said police threatened them over their sexuality, the new report finds that members of Mokoena's wide demographic are facing an increasingly bold threat of attacks and harassment across much of the continent.

A crime in many nations

On a continent where many religious figures preach that homosexuality is a sin, the attacks, Amnesty says, are also fueled by an increase in anti-gay laws and prominent politicians who promote them.

Largely a reflection of public attitudes, homosexuality is illegal in 38 of 54 fully recognized sovereign African nations, where such laws appear set to remain on the books or get stronger. Uganda, for example, is set to again debate a law that in its original form mandated the death penalty for gays, while late last year government officials in Malawi backtracked on a plan to scrap anti-gay laws in response to pressure from religious groups.

According to Amnesty, in the last five years alone, South Sudan, Burundi, Liberia and Nigeria have made attempts to further criminalize homosexuality.

Jackson Otieno, spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, says if governments pave the path toward acceptance, people will follow.
 
“I’d like to use this analogy: Picture a handicapped person on a wheelchair trying to get on a bus. ... You cannot make it the obligation of every passerby to put this person onto the bus if there’s no ramp," he says. "You cannot force them unless they want to do it. You’ll get people who want to do it and others will just ignore it because they have no time to do it. But it’s the obligation of the bus company to ensure the bus has a ramp to get this person on the bus."

For some activists, however, even new tolerance laws aren't enough. According to Mokoena’s organization, at least seven people were killed in what appeared to be attacks targeting sexual and gender orientation over a five-month period last year in South Africa — the continent's only nation to permit homosexuality and gay marriage.

Mokoena, who says more education is helping to change attitudes, chose to speak directly to the very pastors and congregants who condemned her sexuality and gender.

"How can it be the end of the world just because I’m getting married?" she recalls asking them. "Does my marriage have so much power that if I say ‘I do,’ apocalypse is going to come down on us?

"People will really start to really analyze that it’s all propaganda, and it’s all things they’ve been taught," she adds. "And so once we begin to be more visible, once we begin to voice our opinions ... somebody, somewhere, will listen. They always say reach out to ten thousand and touch one."

That’s the basic message activists say they now hope to spread across Africa. Being different, they say, is not the end of the world. Maybe it’s the start of a world fuller of love and acceptance for everyone.