Confronting Homophobia: A Response

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In my February column, I tackled a sensitive question: the rise of state-sponsored homophobia in several African countries. I knew what I had to say would displease some New African readers. This month I respond to those who took the time to share their views. I hope this marks the beginning, rather than the end, of an important dialogue we, as global Africans, need to have amongst ourselves about homosexuality and homophobia

I want to begin by making one thing very clear: contrary to Femi Akomolafe's letter (NA, March), I did not write my February column from the perspective of an "Africanist" scholar. Yes, I am a trained historian who has studied and written about Africa's rich and complex past, but I shared my thoughts in "Confronting Homophobia" from my perspective as a black woman, an African, and a Pan-Africanist. For those who might be perplexed by this, I suggest that you read my May 2009 column entitled "Why do you call yourself black and African?"

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It was of signal importance to me that I participate in a dialogue about homosexuality and homophobia within the global African community that is New African's readership. My column could have found a much happier audience in The New York Times or the UK's Guardian, but that wasn't my purpose. I have no interest in pandering to Western stereotypes that portray Africans as rabid homophobes. Rather, my intention was to draw our attention to the alarming rise in state and church-sponsored homophobia in several African countries. When the basic human rights of individuals are being violated because of their race, colour, creed, gender, or in this case sexual orientation, those committed to justice and equality cannot remain silent.

In "Beasts of No Nation", the legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti decried the hypocrisy of animals "dashing" humans rights to people. The animals he so trenchantly sang about were of course politicians disguised in human skins. While the song also lambasted the United Nations for its total lack of unity and equality between member states, Fela's central point was that human rights were already his property and therefore the "beasts of no nation" could not gift him his property.

I raise this because for me the fundamental issue at stake in the rise of state-sponsored homophobia in several African countries is the threat it poses to the unassailable nature of human rights. Human rights are not, as New African reader Kwame Kwakye claims, "conferred on a people by the state taking into consideration the socio-cultural environment of the people." Human rights, as the very name suggests, belong to all human beings regardless of the state they live under. A state can protect or deprive people of their human rights, but as Fela says you can't give someone what is already theirs.

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Voicing my objection to legislation that prescribes harsher penalties, including the death sentence, for homosexuals than for heterosexuals certainly does not emanate from a "lack of respect" for Africans, as Akomolafe suggests. To do so would be to disrespect myself. And as far as I can tell, there has never been an international uproar about the fact that African countries, excluding South Africa, do not permit gay marriage. As I indicated in February, most countries in the world do not allow same-sex marriages. Thus, the current outcry is not about the refusal to extend marriage rights to gay people, but is rather directed at draconian laws that criminalise sexual orientation in ways that unfairly discriminate against gay people.

Let us take the component of the Ugandan legislation, proposed by David Bahati, which stipulates the death penalty for homosexual sex while infected with AIDS. It is a well-known fact that in Africa HIV/Aids is predominantly spread through heterosexual sexual activity and that it is women who are often the unknowing partners of HIV/Aids-infected men. …