THE BLOG

How to Approach the Issue of LGBT Rights in Africa

10/16/2013 08:18 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

The rights of the LGBT community are a very sensitive topic in Africa, and despite the fact that there has been a lot of repudiation of the draconian laws that apply to LGBT Africans by the African LGBT community itself, its allies within the larger African community, and the international community, very little has changed. If anything, the laws are becoming stricter, the rhetoric of African leaders is becoming more strident, the culture of the African community is becoming more homophobic, and, despite the debate and the amount of information being provided on this topic, the people are becoming more ignorant.

LGBT issues in Africa must be approached from multiple angles: political, social, legal, and cultural. For a long time, and even today, the African community has been alienated from telling its own stories by the West. Many of the things understood about the African community, even by some people within the African community itself, are understood through the lens of a culture that was redefined by the West. In my opinion, this, understood jointly with colonial and postcolonial tensions that are experienced by the African community, is the best way to approach the issue of LGBT rights within African society.

Homosexuality predates colonial Africa and was present as a way of life during the precolonial times. Homophobia became a part of the lives of Africans when colonization began, because that was when the spread of Christianity began. The message of the Bible was imperialistically imposed on the people of Africa because their own religion was seen as barbaric and blasphemous. Of course, with Christianity came the spread of homophobia, which was and still is reflective of people's inability to read in context. By imposing Christianity on the African people, colonial powers alienated the African people from their religion and their culture, and that was the birth of homophobia. When this is considered alongside the strong, nationalistic distaste for the West in today's postcolonial world and the loss of our precolonial culture due to cultural imperialism, homophobia can be readily explained, because now Africans believe that homosexuality was never a part of their culture; they believe it to be exclusive to Western culture, something that they are not too keen on adopting.

The religion that was imposed on Africa during colonial times is what controls our political, social, and cultural life. Religion explains a lot of the violence that happens throughout Africa today. A solution to this problem? The obvious answer seems to be secularism, a separation of church and state. But how do you explain secular principles to a people whose lives and identities are so intricately connected with religion? People do not understand how to read the Bible in the context of our contemporary times. There are a lot of anachronistic values found in the Bible, including condoning slavery, making a woman marry her rapist, physically abusing one's children, rejecting homosexuality, etc. And yet people cannot seem to recognize that the Bible is not to be taken literally but as historical fiction with symbolic value when considered within the context of our present time.

The first step toward addressing the issue of homophobia is preventing the West from controlling the narratives of African life in this age where neocolonialism seems to persist. A lot of Western religious groups are now in Africa promoting their homophobic propaganda because it is not working as well for them in their home countries. They call Africa "ground zero" for their homophobic culture war and perpetuate a culture of hate and violence against the LGBT community for their own selfish financial and egoistic gains, without actually considering how their narrative is affecting the political and sociocultural experience of the LGBT community in Africa.

The next step toward addressing this culture of homophobia is changing the cultural narrative, and the only way to do that is by facilitating a culture of coming out, and a culture of protest. Being part of the LGBT community in Africa is very dangerous, but if the existing LGBT community were able to carve out as safe a space as possible for more and more people to come out, both as LGBT and as allies of the LGBT community, then a coming-out culture could be engaged. This culture of coming out and recognition of LGBT Africans would help confront the political tensions between the LGBT community and their allies on the one hand and the present cultural landscape on the other. By proving to people that homosexuality is not an anomaly but a natural variation of human nature and sexuality, we can hopefully force them to think about how they define culture, and how that narrative affects the political and social realities of the LGBT community.

The Nollywood film and literary culture has been a very important means of propelling and documenting the cultural identities of people and groups within the African community. A few films and literary works in these present times have shown LGBT people as part of the larger African context and story. I commend films and literary works that capture LGBT culture in a positive light, and I would hope that movies and stories within the film and literary culture in Africa continue to prompt a discussion of how the LGBT community fits in the African narrative. People feel like they're part of a community when they see themselves reflected in the culture that that community consumes, but also when others see those reflections as well.

Taking small steps like this would hopefully change the political and sociocultural narrative of the LGBT community in Africa, change that would translate into legislative policies and rights for LGBT people in Africa. Let us approach this task before us with courage, because though this might be a dangerous road to travel, what is that weighed against the survival of the LGBT community as a whole and the need to give them equity and justice and weave into the African narrative the lives of the LGBT community as a whole? Think how much better off we would be when our culture changes from one of homophobia and discrimination to one of acceptance, equality, and fairness.