Pride versus Prejudice – RAS meeting on the criminalisation of homosexuality in Africa
Jide Macaulay is an Author, preacher and the founding Pastor of House of Rainbow Fellowship, a Christian Fellowship with groups in the UK, Nigeria and Ghana. Its vision is to assist sexual minorities on the journey to reconcile their Christian faith and sexuality.
Jide spoke of how African churches do not normally tie in with the experiences of gay people. He described his experience of coming out in Nigeria, how he was ordained as a pastor in 1998 and was not able to practise as an openly gay man.
Jide argues that millions of people in Nigeria, and across Africa need to hear the inclusive message of the House of Rainbow. In 2008 undercover journalists “˜outed’ the church to national media, and Jide decided to return to the UK. Since then the church has expanded into Ghana and Lesotho. In particular, the group based in London is growing very fast.
When Jide was “˜outed’ by the Nigerian media as a homosexual pastor, he was portrayed as an outsider – a product of his partial upbringing in the UK. Jide strongly disagrees with the view that homosexuality is not African. He works closely with local people (particularly in Nigeria) and finds that they are much more tolerant of sexual minorities than is often suggested.
Jide argues that it is not the fault of religion that people are homophobic, it is the people who propagate these views using religion as a means of furthering these views. Scripture must always be put in historical context.
Godwyns Onwuchekwa is Co-founder and coordinator of Justice for Gay Africans Society.
Godwyns campaigns for a proactive peaceful dialogue between sexual minorities and African communities. He states that sexual minority groups should not always be viewed as protesting or at gay pride. They need to be seen as normal people, with normal lives that can be an example to others.
Godwyns finds the Bible and Koran useful, but problematic as a model for how to live a good life. However, it cannot be denied that it [the Bible] does say some bad things about gay people. Christianity and Islam have created too much uniformity within Africa where there have historically been many different attitudes towards homosexuality across a large and diverse continent.
Godwyns argues that “˜families understand first’ ie it is at the local level that change will occur. Gradually, people who are homophobic will realise that gay people are normal, and live normal lives. Visibility can help the cause of gay people, but visibility of the right nature.
Dr Oliver Philips framed the discussion in the language of rights, asking “˜how useful are rights in the discussion of homophobia in Africa?’
In the mid 1990s when South Africa was ratifying its new and notably liberal constitution, Robert Mugabe was vocalising high homophobia. This was perhaps a political reaction against the Rainbow Nation by highlighting Mugabe and ZANU-PF’s distinct “˜African values.’ Homosexuality was associated as being a white “˜disease.’ Whiteness being in cahoots with the political opposition – an immoral and depraved movement against the liberation generation.
Homophobia has become, in many African contexts, a way of distancing oneself from Western values, which can seem like a corrupting influence from outside. Thus has developed a politics of cultural authenticity. It is notable that sexual orientation (in contrasting styles) has been drawn to the centre of citizenship in both South Africa and Zimbabwe. The criminalisation of homosexuality took place through colonial law. However, there existed a great deal of diversity of African views towards homosexuality pre-colonially.
It can be argued that homosexuality is socially disruptive in Africa. For example, marriage and bride wealth remain important organising forces in society. However, the disruption of these practises only occurs in the same manner that female social equality tends to break down such traditions. It therefore must be recognised that the LGBT struggle and the struggle for women’s rights are closely connected. In this context, it must be noted that lesbians often seem to suffer the most violent responses eg “˜corrective rape’ – which is a reaction against the assertion of female choice that does not comply with pre-existing social or familial traditions.
Rights are generally claimed on the basis of identity (whereas law is conducted on the basis of acts.) However, identity in African societies is not always claimed on the individual basis that Western European enlightenment thinking dictates. It has been argued that “˜rights’ in African societies often issue from the social body, so the claim of individual rights is a less convincing argument.
The battle for sexual rights is often portrayed as being between “˜traditions’ and Western-style modernity. However, “˜traditions’ are often imposed by powerful metropolitan elites and do not necessarily correspond with the local beliefs or practices of a large and too easily stereotyped continent. It is necessary to understand what the nature of opposition to sexual minorities is by engagement with people, rather than making sweeping pronouncements from either perspective.
By Magnus Taylor