Where Do the Lies About LGBTIs in Africa Come From?

08/20/2015 05:48 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2016

Shocking legislative developments have focused Western media attention on the gay rights situation across Africa like never before. Many of the column inches dedicated to Uganda's Anti Homosexuality Act have demonstrated an awareness of the complexity of the social and political landscape for African LGBTIs. The colonial provenance of the penal code provisions which outlaw same-sex intercourse has been explored. The claims that "homosexuality is unAfrican" have been shown to be false, thanks to a wealth of anthropological evidence to the contrary. The incoherence of using a religion imposed on Africa by proselytising European missionaries to decry same-sex attraction as unAfrican has not gone unnoticed. In short: on the issue of LGBTI rights in Africa, analysis has (largely) been surprisingly nuanced.

What is generally lacking from Western media, however, is an understanding of some of the most pernicious lies about LGBTIs in Africa -- and relatively few people have asked the question, 'where do the lies come from?'

One such lie is the idea that declaring you're gay, or even pro-gay, opens up the floodgates to foreign money. African LGBTIs are therefore not really gay; they're just in it for the money. And in a country like Uganda, where the GDP per capita in 2013 stood at just $572 USD, the (fictitious) idea that decadent, wealthy Westerners are using poverty to coerce Ugandans incites a nationalistic defensiveness, galvanising public opinion against LGBTIs and their supporters. "The team of homosexuals is very rich," Ugandan former Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi was reported to have said. "They have money and they will do whatever it takes to make sure this vice penetrates Africa...[they want to] lure people into their club." Indeed, the idea that LGBTI is synonymous with money is so embedded that Ugandan legal scholar, Professor Sylvia Tamale, recently told an audience at the London School of Economics that after she spoke out against the treatment of LGBTIs in her country, she received a text message from a friend, congratulating her on becoming a millionaire.

The trope of the wealthy gay man using his financial clout for nefarious purposes did not originate in Africa, however. In the early 1990s, voters in the US state of Colorado narrowly approved an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting the recognition of LGBTIs as a protected class -- effectively making discrimination against LGBTIs legal. Opponents of LGBTIs, such as the Colorado Coalition for Family Values, propagated the notion that "homosexuals" were not a persecuted minority, but were in fact politically powerful, incredibly wealthy and enjoyed enormous influence on American cultural life. As scholar Mariana Valverde points out, "[t]he similarity between these beliefs and...anti-Semitic propaganda about Jews...is striking."

The migration of the trope from North America to Africa can be explained through the influence of US neoconservative organisations, such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). According to a report by the think-tank Political Research Associates, the IRD is "one of the main organizations promoting homophobia in both Africa and the United States over the last decade." The report claims that while mainstream Episcopal church funding in Africa is directed towards visible projects -- and therefore requires accountability on how money is spent -- "conservative funding pays the salaries of archbishops and their staffs," concluding that "archbishops' offices have become mouthpieces of U.S. conservatives."

The threatening spectre of the 'gay agenda' is further sustained in the African context as it allows governing authorities to exploit frustration at socio-economic conditions by redirecting public anger at a common enemy -- the mythical, wealthy, privileged, powerful 'homosexual'. Western donors unwittingly played into this trope when they threatened to pull development aid in response to poor treatment of African LGBTIs. The former Minister of Ethics and Integrity in Uganda, James Nsaba Buturo, commented: "I have been pressured by some donors to allow homosexuality, but I have told them they can keep their money and the homosexuality because it is not about charity at the expense of our moral destruction."

While the situation for LGBTIs across Africa is far from uniformly pessimistic, any judicial victories will be diluted by the extreme social hostility fomented by these toxic beliefs and by the American religious fundamentalists who sustain them. What is needed is a brighter spotlight shone on the role that foreigners have had in stoking anti-LGBTI hatred in Africa by co-opting postcolonial politics for their own ends. The notion that money flows from abroad to fund a 'homosexual agenda' needs to be countered forcefully with the indisputable truth that foreign money is flooding from the US to fund an insidious neoconservative agenda. The lies told about LGBTIs in Africa need to be exposed as such.

The most effective way to counter lies is to tell the truth again and again: African LGBTIs are not awash with money. Declaring yourself pro-gay does not incite a tidal wave of Western cash to come your way. LGBTIs are not a foreign contagion.

US neoconservatives are behind these lies. Right-wing American religious fundamentalists do not care about Africa, no matter how much they may attempt to co-opt the postcolonial political debate. Only once these truths begin to uproot the lies that are so deeply embedded will the American neoconservative grip around the necks of African LGBTIs finally begin to loosen.