In regard to this text, SPW also recommends reading Hakima Abbas’ article Aid, resistance and Queer power published at our Working Paper 7 as well as reading Sybille Nyeck’s article Stretching the Margins and Trading Taboos: A Paradoxical Approach to Sexual Rights Advocacy in Africa.
Listening carefully to the at times homophobic and hateful commentary about homosexuality among Africans, a social critique of the international community and the local elite is heard. Dislike of homosexuality is used to protest at the levels of inequality and how corrupt African leaders continue to be supported by the West. The white savior complex ruins rather than helps the cause of LGBTI rights in Africa.
This is the season for gay pride parades. Some have already been held in Uganda, Germany and Denmark among other places. This also marks the beginning of the annual criticism of the lack of equal rights particularly in Africa. Normally pieces on homosexuality and Africa focus on the idea that Africans are homophobic, and laypeople and journalists try to examine why. Meaning the conclusion is written before a proper analysis has even begun. It also buys into the idea that “we” are the good guys, and Africans are the bad, primitive ones “we” have to lecture. To put it mildly, this “methodology” is flawed, and ends up falling victim to confirmation bias and circular reasoning. So, instead, I will cast a more critical look on some of the factors behind the resentful comments on homosexuality by numerous Africans. Furthermore, a critical look at the Western world and how Western countries and people use homosexuality to fuel a flawed self-perception and narrative of themselves and the world.
This piece will be divided into four sub-headings:
- Condemnation of homosexuality by Africans has often little to do with homosexuality
- Why it is idiotic for Western leaders to threaten an African country for passing a bill criminalising homosexuality
- Western countries’ flawed self-image and the negative consequences
Condemnation of homosexuality by Africans has often little to do with homosexuality
The upsurge in hateful comments on this issue is fairly modern. In Ghana, the interest began to grow notably in the 2000s, likewise in Cameroon, Uganda and the Gambia, and a similar pattern can be detected on the African continent in general. The Ghanaian professor of philosophy and currently lecturer at Princeton University who is openly gay, Kwame Anthony Appiah, did not recall same-sex intimacy as newsworthy when he grew up in Ghana during the 1970s (Anthony, 2011).
Several things have happened in the last 20 years. With increased urbanisation, more and more people have access to phones, the internet, TV, and a liberalised media. Furthermore, democracy. When Nigeria became democratic in 1999, people believed it was the end of corruption, and that from then on things would turn to the better. Today, 50 to 66 per cent of all Nigerians are still poor, while nepotism and corruption (neo-patrimonialism) continue unchanged. During the 1990s, the economy began to recover in numerous African countries, but it predominantly favoured the elite, while the majority did not feel the positive effects of the economic growth to the same extent. The transition to democracy has failed a lot of Africans.
Generally speaking, we see a growing gap between people living in the rural areas compared to those living in the urban areas. We see a growing economic disparity, and we continue to see a worrisome group of disenfranched citizens, especially the youth, who cannot find work.
How is this important? According to Nguyen (2010:157-173), a moral barometer was invented in Côte d’Ivoire by the press. Homosexuality affects this barometer negatively, and it explains economic misfortunes. Homosexuality was understood as men sleeping with men for money. It happened because of a greedy elite. They sold their soul to sleep with men. Rich men only gave away money in return for sex. Hereby, wealth was only redistributed among gays. Morally strong men were punished for not accepting money in return for sex. Power, money and sex became increasingly intertwined.
Similar notions are to be found in Ghana, Cameroon and Uganda. Professor Nyeck notes that in Cameroonian papers, the media portrays the political elite as secretly gay. In one cartoon, a politician even wears a diaper. 
African leaders also misuse this to their own advantage big time. Gambia’s Jammeh, Nigeria’s Jonathan, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, Equatorial Guinea’s Nguema Mbasogo and Cameroon’s Biya have all to a certain degree misused the issue of homosexuality to hide their own failures. It is easier to blame gays.
This leads to perhaps one of the overlooked factors in the hatred toward homosexuals contained in newspapers, online, social networks and during conversations. Mistrust. The state has failed in redistributing wealth, and people can no longer trust their own patrons or social networks to re-allocate wealth. It is aided by urbanisation, where rural family members increasingly mistrust their urban-living relatives. People do not trust the politicians or each other; that paves the way for myths and conspiracies used to make sense of it all. That is where the moral barometer enters the equation. The negative side-effect of mythologising homosexuality is that it disenfranchises the people even further, since it almost deifies the rich, making them untouchable. It weakens the average (alleged) gay person, who faces the wrath of the people, but without the protection a rich person has. They have become an easy target and outlet for people’s frustrations. When the elite promise to fight homosexuality, they try to appear morally good by telling voters they will fight corruption, which they won’t.
To sum up, it will be noticed when listening to the critique by many Africans that underlying their angry remarks on homosexuality is mistrust, economic inequality and social criticism.
Why it’s idiotic for the West to threaten an African country for criminalising homosexuality
First, it rightfully creates flashbacks to the colonial past, where colonial powers treated Africans as children. Today, when a Western country threatens an African country, Africans are once again scolded as misbehaved children. No one likes to be treated as a child. To use threats as well creates a space where local leaders promote themselves as true defenders of Africa fighting neo-colonialsm. Suddenly, to be against homosexuality has turned into a fight whether you support African independence, or you support (neo)colonialism. To be pro-gay is to be a traitor, and to be anti-gay provides you a platform to promote yourselves as a true pan-Africanist. Either you support us, or you support them.
This is also the reason why numerous African LGBTI organisations criticised former British Prime Minister David Cameron in an open letter when in 2011 he publically threatened to cut aid to Uganda, Malawi, and Ghana, if they did not adhere to proper human rights . Those who issue such threats also seem to forget the obvious: Homosexuals or perceived homosexuals live normal lives among their non-homosexual peers. If aid is cut, it will negatively affect everyone. Homosexuals do not live in a protected bubble. If a school or a road is not constructed, everybody gets hurt. Meaning, cuts harm the homosexuals too and risk turning them into scapegoats for the woes experienced by the surrounding communities.
But this is just one reason; there are other reasons why threats are at best worthless, but more often counter-productive.
One other issue is the feminisation of Africa. “An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest (…). We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness” (Conrad 1899:36-38)
Or this one by John Gunther from his book ‘Inside Africa’ from 1955: “Rhodes fell in love with the Matopos when he penetrated here in 1896 (…)” (Gunther 1955:609)
Africa was a woman, the White European man penetrated her. Africa was described as a naked, female virgin, just waiting for the white man to penetrate her with or without force.
When two men are together sexually, one is penetrated and one is the penetrator. The one being penetrated is referred to as the female, and the penetrator is the male. The male symbolises power and dominance, whereas the female is the submissive one. In relation to the feminisation of Africa, Western criticism feeds into this narrative. The West is the male and Africa is the female. Today, a lot of Africans have had enough being the one being penetrated. Dominated.
When Western powers air support for homosexuality, it is translated into a different narrative. In this narrative, the West wants to continue treating Africa as a woman it can dominate and penetrate as it pleases. The role of Africans is to bend over and accept penetration with or without force.
This narrative has a spillover effect in how African leaders react to criticism from one or multiple Western powers. Greed, power and sex come into play. If an African leader bows to pressure, he (or she) would prove he is the female and the West, the man.
If an African leader came forth supporting equal rights, he risks to being seen as a traitor, a puppet. But he also risks to be seen as one engaged in a homosexual practice because of an imagined endless lust for money demonstrated through predatory greed. African leaders accept aid from Western countries, making an African leader to be seen as being submissive to the West. It is a common conspiracy, where Western leaders are the homosexuals, and homosexuals are rumoured to only redistribute money to other homosexuals. Sex is a financial transaction, and if a leader supports homosexuality or refuses to renounce it, it must be because he is a homosexual himself, and he is part of this system, keeping the common man from getting access to ressources. Hence a critique of homosexuality is also a critique of the (imagined?) imperial West and a mistrust of the local institutions (Nyeck 2013:161).
Yes, it is nonsense when some Africans argue that homosexuality is foreign to Africa prior to colonialism. But if we remove the outer layer, the core of the critique cannot be as easily dismissed. Africans have good reasons to mistrust Western countries and local leaders. African corrupt leaders have enjoyed the financial support from Western donors. It is also true that several Western powers, it appears, have not realized that this is the 21st century, and Africans are not willing to bend over. They are neither children nor are Western countries their father. Africa consists of sovereign states and they demand equal respect. Africans, regardless of their sexual orientation, speak out against the negative consequences of threats; the LGBTI open letter is an example thereof.
If we listen to the at times homophobic and hateful comments on the issue of homosexuality among Africans, a social critique of the international community and the local elite is heard. People just tend to look at the wrapping instead of what is inside.
These first two parts of the article aim to show that the critique of homosexuality aired by average Africans is actually not about homosexuality. Homosexuality is used to understand the level of disparity, and how corrupt leaders continue to be supported by Western countries. Hence the cause is more likely found in growing inequality, mistrust of national and international actors, and growing divide and mistrust between the rural and urban population.
Western countries’ flawed self-image
Western countries seem stuck in the 20th century, especially in relation to the “white man’s burden”, a phrase popularised through Kipling’s poem bearing the same name. Africans have been portrayed as backward, primitive, brutal and ignorant, whereas whites are portrayed as modern, civilised and well-informed. The burden of the white man was that he should help the primitive black African to become a civilised, white man. Today, when scrolling through Facebook or you turn on the media, these notions still come into play, where Westeners themselves use hateful language against Africans framing them as savages, when commenting on the issue of homosexuality and Africans. This is rooted in a falsely perceived idea, that Africans are primitive. It is a circular reasoning, offering nothing but self-confirmation reaffirming a supriority complex.
This understanding activates the white saviour syndrome. “We” in Europe tend to feel intellectually superior, due to the imagined intellect and the lack thereof among Africans. “We” have to save the poor homosexuals from the savage Africans. This syndrome reduces Africans to voiceless and hapless victims. Africans become pawns and this tale helps no one. It makes everything worse.
It also reduces the debate to a discourse revolving around two agents, Africa vs. the West. Two monolithic voices. It serves two purposes. First, it is nice to tell oneself you are the good guys, whereas the other side is wrong. It feeds into the formerly mentioned superiority complex. This also somehow makes everyone suffer from acute amnesia. I will return to this in a minute. Secondly, this important human rights issue loses nuances. Neither the West nor Africa is a country.
To return to the promised acute amnesia: It is amplified when the West is depicted as gay-friendly and inherently gay-loving because of their level of maturity and intellect, whereas Africans as gay-hating because they are primitive. This is to summarize most Facebook opinions and general coverage by people in Western countries.
Historically, until recently homosexuality was outlawed in many Western countries. Until 1981 it was a mental illness in Denmark. If we move to several African countries, it was not frowned upon in some countries, even encouraged until colonialism took hold. Colonial powers wrongly believed homosexuality was alien to Africa. In reality, same-sex acts can be dated back thousands of years, as a cave painting of two men engaging in sexual conduct at Guruve, Zimbabwe, shows. To portray one side as gay-loving and one as gay-hating is evidently false.
As mentioned, neither Africa nor the West are countries. By creating an “us” vs. “them”, nuances are completely forgotten, making it easier to lampoon the other side for their shortcomings while forgetting your own. In reality, Western countries are like African countries. They are heavily divided on the gay issue. Several Eastern European countries have a terrible record when it comes to upholding and securing equal rights for sexual minorities. The USA is acting schizophrenic. In several American states you can marry one of the same gender Saturday, but when you return to work Monday, you can be legally fired for being gay.
Even in the gay-friendly considered country Denmark, 2/5 homosexuals still fear been open about their sexual orientation .
If we turn to Africa, numerous African countries are passing laws not banning homosexuality but laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Such laws have been passed in South Africa and Botswana among other countries. These countries are more progressive than most American states on this subject. At least 10 African countries have signed the UN declaration on sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2015, Mozambique took it one step further; it decriminalised homosexuality completely. In Nigeria and Ghana we see movies challenging the negative stereotypes of homosexuals. In some movies, homosexuals are portrayed as normal people.
By reducing Africa and the West to two countries, we forget how divided the Western and African countries are within. By reducing Africa and the West to two countries, it becomes much easier to make one superior and the other inferior. That can be used by political actors to hide their shortcomings.
As aforementioned, African leaders airing homophobic rants have been criticised for using homosexuals as scapegoats to cover their own incompetence and failures. But how are Western leaders any different? When Obama, then British Prime Minister Cameron, and other Western leaders threaten an African country over anti-gay bills, are they not doing the exact same thing?
It is easier to talk about an African country’s flaws than talking about your own problems. It is easier for Obama to condemn Uganda than to talk about the continuation and deep racial problems within the American society. It is easier for Cameron to criticise Ghana than to talk about Britain’s complicity in the lack of proper reforms by continuing meddling in the affairs of African countries. Do I even have to mention structural adjustment programmes? It is a free ride condemning an African country, while it costs money to solve domestic issues or to address structural inequality favouring Western countries. When condemning anti-gay laws, Western leaders are not talking to an African leader or audience, they are talking directly to their own voters, trying to promote themselves as defenders of human rights.
Here comes the big hypocrisy demonstrated by Western leaders that continues to provide oxygen for conspiracies driving anti-gay movements across Africa. Why is it that an African leader can be corrupt, place huge amounts of money in Western banks, allow blatant violence, rig elections, and beat protesters, and Western leaders do not say a word? Suddenly, when an African leader supports an anti-gay bill, Western leaders immediately sound the trumpet of all-encompassing and compassionate human rights defenders! It is no wonder some Africans believe in the myth that there is a linkage between homosexuality and power!
It might sound like anti-gay bills, hate crimes and human rights violations shall be swept under the carpet. They shall not! I am only saying that Western countries and people tend to want to help either for the wrong reasons or in such a way that is actually counter-productive.
It is necessary that organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and local NGOs criticise laws hampering human rights. This has a preventive effect because authorities know they are monitored. It also protects alleged or real homosexuals when interrogated by the police or are imprisoned. An eye is watching. This is life-saving. Hopefully, laws might even be amended for the better.
The problem, however, is, threats and ignorant comments from Western leaders overlook some of the problems where Western leaders are partly blamable for lack of proper reforms in several countries fuelling the mistrust and growing inequality. Furthermore, these threats and comments overlook that not all African countries and Africans adhere to an anti-gay agenda. Even in countries known for their anti-gay bills like Nigeria, Uganda and the Gambia, we cannot conclude that people hate homosexuals before we have examined what exactly the people express dissatisfaction about. I argue that the expressed homophobia is multilayered, where homophobia is not rooted in backwardness or an imagined primitivism, it is a reaction to modernity which in several African countries has led to increased inequality and mistrust.
Furthermore, the white saviour syndrome prevents real change. Strong voices and forces within Africa are completely forgotten or, worse, Westeners do not feel they need them, since they know best. When looking at the African continent, an active civil society consisting of lawyers, academics, clergy and laypeople fighting for equal rights is present. The white saviour syndrome takes ownership of a battle that does not belong to Westeners, and is not fought by them, but fought by locals.
Of course the fight for equal rights is a global one, but it can only be won locally by locals. Danish homosexuals fought for their cause in Denmark; that fight could not have been done by outsiders. In America, Serbia, Finland likewise. The fight for equal rights in Ghana, Uganda, Kenya and elsewhere cannot be fought or won by outsiders. It is a fight we should all support by supporting local voices.
Criticism should be done behind closed doors by Obama and other Western leaders. When Cameron criticised then Ghanaian President John Atta Mills in 2011, Mills was forced to condemn homosexuals in public, even he had tried to defy the subject. When Obama criticised Ugandan President Museveni in 2014, Museveni had to sign the anti-gay bill to avoid being seen as a Western puppet.
The fight for equal rights is a global one, but has to be fought and won locally. Expressed homophobia is tied to mistrust and economic inequality. Therefore, combating homophobia is closely intertwined with combating corruption and support for the demands for transparency.
Westerners need to be aware of their colonial past, where the stereotypes produced during this era are still alive and still influencing how Africa and Africans are perceived and perceive themselves, including the homosexuals themselves.
This piece is meant as a general comment. To understand expressed homophobia in Africa, we have to understand each particular country. The Gambia is different from Cameroon; that again is different from Uganda. We also have to include the importance of the British Common Law, which was adopted by former British colonies when said countries gained independence, and how the Common Law continues to hamper progress in terms of equal rights.
Lastly, I would like to thank Toyin Ajao for taking her time to read and comment on the draft. All remaining errors are my own.
* Mathias Søgaard holds a Master’s degree in African Studies from the University of Copenhagen. This article is based on field research conducted in Ghana for his thesis.
 The popular idea is that men having sex with men wear a diaper, because anal intercourse destroys your anus and leads to anal leakage. This myth also infantilises alleged or real homosexuals, depriving them of dignity. It is also a powerful tool to humiliate a political opponent.
2) 2011, An Open Letter to David Cameron: http://africanactivistarchive.blogspot.dk/2011/11/lgbti-activists-say-no…
3) 2014, 4 ud af 10 LGTB’ere tør ikke være åbne på deres arbejdsplads: http://www.altinget.dk/arbejdsmarked/rssitem.aspx?id=1292351
Appiah, Kwame Anthony, 2011, Ghanaians like sex too much
Conrad, Joseph, 1899 , Heart of Darkness – and the complete Congo diary, Alma Classic
Gunther, John, 1955, Inside Africa, Hamish Hamilton
Nguyen, Vinh-Kim, 2010, The Republic of Therapy- triage and sovereignty in West Africa’s time of AIDS, Duke University Press
Nyeck, S.N., 2013, Mobilizing against the Invisible: Erotic Nationalism, Mass Media, and the “Paranoid Style” in Cameroon in Sexual Diversity in Africa by (ed) Nyeck and Epprecht, McGill-Queen’s University Press