BYLINE: Marc Epprecht
In recent years there has been a noticeable upsurge in homophobic political rhetoric in Africa - the so-called Bahati Bill in Uganda is perhaps the most notorious example, with its threat to impose a death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality" and to criminalise family members, friends and even police who failed to report suspected homosexual activity.
However, Cape Town, the gay capital of the continent, has seen an increase in the "corrective" rapes of suspected lesbians. In a recent national survey, South Africans overall scored some of the highest levels in the world in their disapproval of homosexuality "under any circumstances."
The rise of homophobic rhetoric and violence is puzzling in many ways, not least of all because of the urgent need to deal with HIV/Aids in a holistic and humane manner.
It is also puzzling when one considers that in the past many African societies displayed a relatively forgiving attitude to sexual "play" so long as it was kept discreet and did not disturb wider kin networks.
Indeed, abundant evidence shows that same-sex sexuality existed throughout Africa long before Arabs or Europeans colonised the bulk of it. How then to explain the heightened homophobia emerging across Africa? In particular, why are African Christian leaders among the most vocal in rejecting arguments in favour of sexual rights and tolerance of sexual diversity?
One would be unwise to simply blame the phenomenon on Africa being "primitive" or "traditional".
To begin with, most African societies traditionally stressed marriage with many children connected through a host of rituals to large extended families. There were material (labour), political (marital alliances, patron-client relationships), and metaphysical (religious) benefits to such families. Sexuality was thus not regarded as an individual choice or orientation but in a sense belonged to the wider community. Social obligations to marry and have children even extended beyond the grave. Ancestors required abundant offspring to maintain their memory and power as benevolent spirits through the generations.
Christianity in Africa incorporates many of these cultural beliefs.
Adding to the mix are strong taboos around the public airing of sexual matters.
Discretion, even secrecy, is respected while (outside certain limited ribald contexts) open discussion of the intimate details of sex is offensive. Secretive bisexuality or closeted forms of homosexuality are thus widespread and tacitly accommodated without upsetting the cultural norms.
"The gay lifestyle," particularly when imagined in terms of stereotypes of promiscuity and decadence, is an affront to all of the above traditional values.
Adding to this in some cases are specific historical incidents where homosexuality was associated with cruelty or conquest. In Uganda, for example, dozens of young Christian converts were tortured and murdered by the Muslim kabaka (king) of Buganda when they refused his demands for sex in the late 19th century. In Nigeria, the destruction of the great empire Songhai in 1591 by invaders from Morocco and Spain was reputedly accompanied by widespread homosexual rape. Who knows what local abuses took place during the slave trade, the many subsequent wars of conquest, and the spread of prisons and labour camps during the colonial era?
In other words, there are powerful truths in the versions of culture and history that people like Robert Mugabe and Yoweri Museveni invoke.
Second, African theologians are quite correct that the King James translation of the Bible contains several more-or-less explicit denunciations of homosexuality.
Indeed, the earliest documented fulminations against homosexual practice in Africa were by European and American missionaries.
The most famous case, which sparked an official …