Every time the term homosexuality is mentioned, one can always expects, ‘un-African and un-Christian or Islamic’ to follow in quick succession.
But in reality there are many African communities which have had traditional same-sex marriages among females – same-sex family arrangements are actually nothing new to Africa.
The undeniable truth that is accepted by even the strongest of the denialists is that indeed homosexual people have existed in every race, people and age. There were homosexual people in traditional African societies just as there are today. Belaboring this point any further is unnecessary.
What is necessary though is to look at why different people engage in trying to re-write this history. While it may seem surprising at first, both the political class and religious class have one thing in common in their revisionist agenda – keeping hold of power.
For the political class, homosexuals provide a populist agenda for political mobilization. It is not surprising then, that politicians most rabidly vocal against homosexuality, are those with declining political support. For examples look to President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, and former president of Kenya Daniel Moi.
The religious leadership on the other hand use LGBT people to validate their claim to social power as protectors of what is ‘Christian or Islamic and, therefore, purely African’.
So it’s not surprising the religious leaders most vocal against gay people are those seeking to build or retain large congregations or who are facing scrutiny over their own moral or financial conduct. It is interesting that many also have executive or collaborative connections with churches in the West.
Even though the practice of women marrying women is fairly common in certain societies in West Africa, Southern Africa, East Africa, and the Sudan very little academic literature has been written about it. Some modern commentators on these forms of same-sex marriages emphasize the need for male-female marriages to have children but this argument is losing its shine with the rise of modern gay couples raising families.
The issue then is not about cultural authenticity of the African homosexuals but rather about social power dynamics.
When people try to exercise this power, they often do so by trying to revive ancient patriarchal rules, emphasize the importance of masculinity or mix up shorter-term economic and political interests.
What you get as a result is competing ideologies – conservative as opposed to socially liberal. But actually that doesn’t happen as much in Africa as you would expect elsewhere. One reason is because of the character of political composition of most African states. They tend to be made up or a small but powerful political and religious elite, a thin middle class and large masses of rural poor – largely dependent on the political and religious elite.
And, of course, it’s that elite who feel they have the most to gain as they build their own empires from all this. So LGBT Africans get pushed into subordination and invisibility.
Despite this, there is now a growing African gay rights movement fighting this in almost all countries in the continent. In this struggle, the African homosexuals are spoilt for choice as they select effective ways to seek liberation. They can seek inspiration and ideas from the women-rights struggle, anti-colonialism, 1990s multi-party democratic struggles and the gay rights of the west.
All this has given them a chance to leap many stages in the struggle for their rights. But it can also create confusion among some activists on the right choice for each country and movement. The need then to have a well articulated program for the struggle cannot be over emphasised.
It’s also clear that when gay people become visible, stereotypes are immediately broken down. And this gives a chance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to have their voices heard, even if not always in the way they would choose.
Yet visibility has also brought about violent attacks against people perceived to be homosexual and many have been murdered. Leading gay rights activists like David Kato of Uganda and even HIV and AIDS program workers like Maurice Mjomba have been killed for their work. Others have been forced to flee their countries and seek asylum in other parts of the world. In Cameroon and Senegal many activists and ordinary LGBT people have been jailed using colonial-era laws.
Some extremists are also pushing for more stringent anti-homosexuality laws, like the ‘kill the gays’ bill pending in the Ugandan parliament, and similar legislation in Nigeria. These developments cast a dark shadow on the liberation struggle African homosexuals.
It will take spirit and courage to get past these roadblocks but success is still possible.
David Kuria is an openly gay man running for the Senate in Kenya for Kiambu County in the March 2013 election. Read our interview with him about his election race here.