While discrimination based on race, class, religion, gender, and disability is widely condemned by those committed to justice and equality for all, in too many places unjust treatment based on sexual orientation is still rife. In some areas, perhaps most dramatically in several African countries, homophobia is now giving rise to persecution and draconian forms of legislation aimed at denying basic human rights to the gay community and in some instances criminally punishing people for the simple act of loving someone of the same sex. We cannot afford to remain silent.
Let me state unequivocally that in my view, homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is a normal variation of the human condition. As such, homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is a characteristic found in all human populations across the globe. It is not, as many have claimed, a Western import. To suggest otherwise strikes me as nothing short of repackaging David Hume's mid-18th century racist theories, which purported that Africans were only capable of mimicking European ways, to support the idea that homosexuality is "un-African". Anti-gay advocates studiously avoid reckoning with the contradiction inherent in rejecting the notion that Africans are parrots when it comes to intellectual ability, while embracing it when it comes to homosexuality.
That homosexuality appears more prevalent in certain areas rather than others has more to do with differing climates of acceptance than anything else. In the same way that gay communities in places like San Francisco and New York are more visible than in Middle America, at the international level the United States and Europe appear to have larger gay populations in comparison to Africa precisely because the social, political, economic, and increasingly criminal repercussions of being gay in parts of Africa are often far greater than in the West.
Acceptance and equality do not create gay people; they do however open up spaces within societies where people are free to love one another without living in fear. While no country can claim to have crossed the finish line as far as equality for gay people is concerned, some have done better than others. Same-sex marriage is now legal in Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. Five US states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, lowa, Vermont and New Hampshire) also recognise gay marriage. To be sure, however, gay marriage is by no means the litmus test for gay rights. Even in the few countries where same-sex marriage is legal, many gay people are still denied equality in the workplace and live in fear of harassment.
The fact that only a few of the nearly 200 countries in the world even recognise gay marriage underscores the point that homophobia is not unique to Africa. I am struck and deeply troubled, however, by the increasingly extremist anti-gay measures that some African leaders are promoting. They are breeding a climate in which hate and violence towards our gay brothers and sisters are not only acceptable, but also actively encouraged.
While Uganda has received the most recent press attention for pending legislation that would toughen an existing, but largely unenforced law against sex between people of the same gender, it is by no means alone. In the summer of 2008, The Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, infamously threatened to behead homosexuals in his country. This followed on the heels of reports that gay men from Senegal were seeking refuge in The Gambia after the Senegalese authorities began targeting the gay community in the wake of a same-sex wedding that led to the arrest of five men.
Since the imposition of shari'a law in 12 states in Northern Nigeria (Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Jigawa, Niger, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara) in 2000, roughly a dozen people have been sentenced to death by stoning for allegedly engaging in homosexual acts. …