Preaching hatred: US evangelicals and homophobia in Africa

As the crackdown on LGBT communities intensifies in many African nations, Konstantinos Chatzigeorgiou discusses the contribution of certain U.S. evangelical Christians and vote-hungry politicians to the continent’s attitudes towards homosexuality.


Ancestral Elders:  Decolonizing the Mind

Clipping from Out Magazine, 1990s. © Climbing Kilimanjaro/Creative Commons licence

On 13 January 2014, Nigerian president Jonathan Goodluck signed a bill condemning homosexuals to 14 years in prison, banning gay marriage as well as same-sex non-marital relationships and, lastly, prohibiting people from joining gay rights groups. One month later, Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni signed a similar bill, which goes even further by instituting life imprisonment and allowing the government to prosecute as ‘conspirators’ those who are aware of an individual’s homosexual activities but fail to inform the authorities.

By African standards these laws are not unique. In a continent where 38 out of 54 countries have outlawed homosexuality they might even seem like a natural progression. However, some view this recent escalation in legislation to be the result of an ever-increasing involvement of U.S. conservatives in African politics.

Political Research Associates project director Rev. Dr Kapya Kaoma accuses American anti-LGBT activist Scott Lively of bringing a ‘new narrative of the so-called international gay agenda’ to Uganda. Co-author of the controversial The Pink Swastika (which posits that the Nazi Party was run by closet ‘masculine-oriented male homosexuals’), Lively gave a series of supposedly influential talks in Kampala, in which he discussed LGBT issues from a conservative Christian perspective.

A short video taken from one of these conferences soon found its way onto the Internet. It sees Lively arguing that homosexuality derives from ‘sexual abuse’, ‘gender identity confusion’, and ‘rebellion against authority’. (However, in an interview with The Independent, Lively later claimed that the video ‘was selectively edited by a gay activist…It’s pure propaganda and not representative of my views’.)

Kaoma also identifies U.S. conservative evangelicals Rick Warren and Don Schmierer as having impacted Africa’s gender politics. Warren in particular enjoys ‘close ties to African religious and political leaders’, who often ‘quote him to justify discrimination against LGBT people’. Moreover, as a prominent figure in the development debate, his influence is said to be felt as far away as Rwanda, Kenya and Nigeria.

Kaoma maintains that these figures are representative of a wider trend of U.S. conservative organisations moving into Africa in a desperate bid for survival. This argument seems in agreement with Adelle M. Banks’ 2011 remarks that highlighted the declining influence of evangelical leaders in the U.S. while claiming that ‘their counterparts in Africa, Asia and Latin America are far more optimistic’.

2013.10.13 Blantyre

In Malawi, where this photo was taken, laws criminalising homosexuality have been suspended since 2012, pending review. © Travis Lupic/Creative Commons licence

But how can conservative organisations so easily influence the mindset of citizens and politicians? A 2010 Harvard International Review report called ‘Legislating Hatred’ suggests that in the case of Uganda, dire poverty limits information and awareness, leading to a number of misunderstandings about homosexuality. This confusion is evident in allegations of homosexuality as a contagious mental disease.

What’s more, given the past colonial status of many African nations, the debate has largely been framed on the basis of whether homosexuality is un-African or not. This insinuates that colonialists imported homosexuality to Africa, an anthropologically and historically incorrect position according to several commentators. On the contrary, Kaoma and others argue that, ironically, Europeans did not introduce homosexuality to the African continent, but homophobia.

However, some scholars offer alternative explanations. While homophobia is (erroneously, but) closely related to a general antipathy towards the continent’s colonial past, the problem itself is much more complex. Many Africans have become disillusioned about the ‘promises of development’ and so channel their disappointment into resentment towards an abstract ‘consumerist gay lifestyle’. Institutions like the family and the church are then viewed as a refuge against these delusions with the first ensuring a better chance at acquiring primary goods and the second advancing communitarian sentiments.

Halew McEwen, writing for the South African Daily Maverick, reinforces one side of this argument when discussing Kaoma’s 2012 report. According to her, what Kaoma failed to mention is that these conservative advocates are very often tied to organisations that promote, among other things, family values. Given Africa’s economic conditions and the traditional values that monopolise the continent, Kaoma might be missing the bigger picture here by emphasising the symptoms rather than the causes of homophobia.

Nonetheless, this realisation should not lessen the importance of the U.S. conservative involvement in the African political scene. By ultimately promoting hatred and intolerance, Western evangelicals arguably stand in the way of meaningful and substantial progress for the African people. In a continent devastated by centuries of colonial rule, it is surprising that colonial attitudes still exist. On the other hand, local politicians unable to meaningfully respond to their nations’ real issues choose to cement their position by advancing hateful legislation that is on par with an overly conservative population. International attention must be given to all aspects of these worrisome developments.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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