Why are sub-Saharan Africa and Russia undergoing a wave of anti-gay attacks, arrests and legislation?
Two reasons are frequently cited:
- Politicians’ use of anti-gay rhetoric and anti-gay legislation to deflect attention from their nations’ problems;
- Encouragement from anti-gay Christian fundamentalists.
But another explanation for the anti-gay crackdown is that it is a conservative reaction to activists’ successes in raising the issue of justice for LGBT people. The Toronto Star reports:
“It’s a backlash against an increased visibility and activism throughout sub-Saharan Africa that we have seen over the last 20 years,” says Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT group for Human Rights Watch.
“There’s been an emergence of an African LGBT movement and it’s much more visible and much more vocal. So I think . . . there’s a link between the two.”
“[Bruce Knotts, director of the Unitarian Universalist office at the United Nations,] agrees, recalling an interview with a Ugandan minister who repeated an often-heard opinion on homosexuality in Africa: that it is an import from Europe and the West.
The interviewer didn’t accept that position, Knotts says, and forced the issue. Finally, the man acquiesced.
“And what this particular minister said was, ‘Yes. OK, fine. We know they’ve always existed but they’ve never asked for their rights before.’ And I think that’s what the African leaders are seeing,” Knotts says.
Journalist Mark Gevisser provides the same explanation for Russia’s new laws against “gay propaganda.” In a commentary last month in The New York Times, he wrote:
One often-ignored cause for this homophobic surge is perhaps the most obvious: backlash. Whatever else it is, Russian homophobia is a direct, even violent, reaction to the space created by a minority that has only come into the open over the last decade.
This is certainly the case in Arkhangelsk, where Rakurs [the city's LGBT advocacy group] was denied registration as a nonprofit organization in 2010 on the grounds that it promoted ‘extremism.’ Rakurs managed to get this judgment overturned, but soon after, the “gay propaganda” ban was passed.
In Africa, anthropologist Patrick Awondo says, the increasing prominence of African LGBT rights activism is a reason for the continent’s increasingly open homophobia. In a 2012 interview with Eric Lembembe, the Cameroonian journalist/activist who was murdered last year, Awondo cited:
“… the emergence of a social and political group that claims its homosexual identity as a political identity. By demanding rights based on sexual practices, they make homosexuality a political issue. This emergence of a homosexual identity is marked by a social lifestyle and identification with the ‘gay culture’ that developed first in the United States in the late 1960′s and then in Western Europe.
“Yes, identification with this lifestyle to some extent may be ‘Westernization.’ But, let us be clear, this is a ‘Westernization’ as one might say that democracy is ‘Western,’ since its present form emerged from a specific location is the West, or at least part of what we call the West. But the principle of the pursuit of liberty is universal.”
Early last year, in an overview of African activism, LGBT researcher Neela Ghoshal of Human Rights Watch suggested that anti-gay hostility was a measure of progress toward gay rights. At that time, anti-LGBT legislation was under discussion but had not passed in Uganda and Nigeria, Zimbabwe had just voted for a new constitution that prohibits same-sex marriages, but Zambia had not yet issued its call to citizens to report homosexuals.
The Voice of American article “Gay Rights in Africa Move Slowly, Cautiously Forward” described Ghoshal’s position:
“This resistance to gay rights across the continent … may be a sign the movement is starting to gain some momentum.
” ‘We know that this backlash demonstrates that we’re making progress. If the governments weren’t getting a little bit nervous, if religious leaders weren’t finding it necessary for them to speak out and say homophobic things, it might be because the movement hadn’t advanced enough,’ she said.
“Ghoshal said civil society groups in Africa are getting stronger, and becoming more open and less afraid to promote gay rights.”
It remains to be seen whether those groups can remain strong. The new law in Nigeria, for example, outlaws gay rights groups. The offices of anti-AIDS, pro-gay-rights groups have been destroyed by anti-gay mobs in Ivory Coast and Cameroon. LGBT rights activists have fled for their lives from Cameroon and Sierra Leone.
In Russia, too, anti-gay violence and repressive laws have affected LGBT rights groups. In Arkhangelsk, for example, the director of the LGBT rights group Rakurs said, “The law was clearly designed to limit our activities. … And in many ways it has succeeded. We cannot hold protests of more than one person. And any attempts to help young people are stifled.”
But Russia’s anti-gay crackdown has also increased the visibility of the LGBT rights issue, which activists hope will be in the spotlight when the Winter Olympics opens next month in the Russian city of Sochi.
- Gays in Africa face rise in state-sponsored homophobia (thestar.com)
- Anti-gay Ivory Coast attack sends guard to hospital (76crimes.com)
- Zambia: Police raid suspected gays without warrants (76crimes.com)
- Trial nearly over for opponent of Zambian anti-gay law (76crimes.com)
- Elton John: Russia’s homosexuality propaganda laws are deeply dangerous to LGBT community (theguardian.com)
- Davos pusillanimity watch, LGBT rights edition (blogs.reuters.com)