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Gay Rights in Africa Move Slowly, Cautiously Forward

Malawian Tiwonge Chimbalanga (R) shares some of her experiences with Charlie Takati, outreach officer at the local charity Gender Dynamix, a gay rights organization, at their offices in Athlone, 15 kilometers from Cape Town, South Africa.
Gay rights activists in Africa are watching the proceedings of the U.S. Supreme Court as it considers measures that could ensure marriage rights for same-sex couples in the United States. The activists acknowledge gay marriage is not a possibility at this time in most African countries - but say a heated conversation on gay rights is well underway.

In Washington, the High Court is hearing two landmark cases that could protect rights for gays and lesbians to get married and to be treated equally in the eyes of the federal government.

In Nairobi, meanwhile, gay rights activists are still fighting against laws that make their sexual activity criminal. Under Kenyan law, homosexual acts are punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Rigid views persist

Staunch opposition to the gay rights movement remains strong across much of Africa.

In Uganda, a bill proposing the death penalty for homosexuals once again has resurfaced.

In Cameroon, two men were sentenced to prison by a judge who said the suspects appeared gay, in part because they ordered Bailey’s Irish Cream at a bar. The sentence was later overturned.

This resistance to gay rights across the continent, though, actually may be a sign the movement is starting to gain some momentum, according to Neela Ghoshal, an LGBT Researcher for Human Rights Watch, based in Kenya.

“We know that this backlash demonstrates that we’re making progress. If the governments weren’t getting a little bit nervous, if religious leaders weren’t finding it necessary for them to speak out and say homophobic things, it might be because the movement hadn’t advanced enough,” he said.

Gains for gay rights

Ghoshal said civil society groups in Africa are getting stronger, and becoming more open and less afraid to promote gay rights.

South Africa was one of the first nations to approve gay marriage, which it did in 2006. It is the only country in Africa to have done so, though being openly gay can be challenging in more traditional communities.

Mbuyiselo Botha, a spokesman for the Sonke Gender Justice Network, said his experience with apartheid in South Africa has influenced his view of the issue.

"Well, we think that it is indeed a civil rights issue, as it is human rights issue. And separating the two would, in fact, conflate, confuse issues. Our view is that gay marriage should, in fact, be elected, should be a constitutional matter, and be approved and protected," said Botha.

The argument about same-sex marriage is a non-starter in many African countries where the concept faces massive popular resistance. Even activists say the marriage issue is not on their agenda.

Incremental steps

Stephen McGill is the executive director of Stop AIDS in Liberia, a group that works primarily with gay men. He said most gay Liberians are more concerned with ensuring they have fair access to housing, employment and health care, and that the gay marriage debate is only brought up by lawmakers looking to score political points.

"I think it's just individuals and politicians wanting their will to be done, and having people who are uneducated about these things use an issue that is of universal discourse in the world," he said. "Because every country in the world, around the globe, is talking about issues like this, but what is the significance to our own reconstruction and development in Liberia at this time?"

The opponents of gay rights in Africa often accuse western nations of trying to impose their pro-gay values on Africans.

Ghana’s Chief Psychiatrist Akwasi Osei argued in a newspaper column last month that homosexuality goes against nature, but should not be criminalized.

He said “avoiding persecution is not the same as legalizing or recognizing homosexuality, which is what the West wants.”

While the gay rights movement is becoming more vocal in Africa, so are its critics. Crackdowns on activist meetings continue across the continent, and politicians are quick to denounce homosexuality in almost any context.

But the conversation is well underway, and those on both sides of the argument are more charged than ever.

Robbie Corey-Boulet and Anita Powell contributed to this report.