Dr. Jillian T. Weiss, a regular contributor at the GLBT news blog The Bilerico Project , recently posted a thoughtful article, “Understanding Uganda”, in which she explores why gay-rights activism directed at African countries often provokes an anti-colonialist backlash. Since gay people have existed in all societies, and were actually treated better in some African cultures before the advent of Christian missionaries, how is it that gay rights have been successfully branded as a decadent Western import? Weiss suggests that the Christian imperialist roots of African homophobia are now so old that they’ve faded from public consciousness, while secular human rights language is more immediately identified with NGOs run by privileged foreigners. An excerpt:
…Similar charges [of elitism] are leveled against large LGBT rights organizations that are disparagingly referred to by some as “Gay Inc.”, implying that they are out of touch with ordinary LGBT people and seek to promote an elitist and oppressive agenda. Another analogy is imagining a strong force of groups across the United States, well-funded by countries we generally dislike, attempting to put messages in the media that we ought to embrace human rights by giving up American democracy and going with a One-World-Government plan. Of course, these analogies are vastly different from the Ugandan situation, and I don’t mean to compare their specific facts, but only the motivations that can stir dislike even of those espousing human rights.
I recently spoke to an African scholar regarding this issue. While his expertise is in Ethiopia, and in particular the issues of development and sustainability, his knowledge of Africa is useful in this context. I asked him why it is that human rights movements, including the African LGBT rights movement, are viewed as colonialist encroachment on African identity, whereas U.S.-imported evangelical Christian homophobia is viewed as compatible with African identity. To me, it seems a sad contradiction.
His answer made it clear to me that the subtext of the LGBT rights movement for many Africans is that of foreign imperialism, a “Western corruption” not native to Africa. Christianity, to the contrary, despite its origins in missionary activities designed to indoctrinate the “savages” into compliance with European dominance by means of a fatalist philosophy of acquiescence, was introduced so long ago to Africa that its imperialist subtext is completely obscured. Its handlers have deftly messaged it as supporting African autonomy, sovereignty and ownership. They truly believe it is African, despite the fact that, as discussed by Eugene Patron in his Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review article, “Heart of Lavender: In Search of Gay Africa,” Africans have lived without discord with LGBT identities in the past, despite the efforts of Christian missionaries.
The history of post-colonialism is a reaction against oppression of autochthonous rule, particularly the successful attempt to neuter those who might be independent-thinking local leaders. As Matthew Quest has noted, anything that appears to imply effeminacy is often rejected by Africans as smacking of imperialism.
Thus, it is impossible to understand the state-supported open homophobia imported from the U.S. that likely killed David Kato without understanding that rights advocates in Africa are seen as imperialist agents bent on the destruction of a pure and strong Uganda identity independent of the imperialist West. All this is confirmed by the condemnation of Western leaders, ensconcing the homophobic Ugandan leaders with the mantle of defiance against the imperialists.
None of this is meant to excuse or condone the homophobia of Ugandan leaders, or the complicity of U.S. evangelical Christians who stoke these fires while wearing the mask of African independence. But the solution is not going to come from condemnation. This issue is shot through with the same thorny problems raised by the homonationalist movement. Though speak out we must at the murder of a brave rights activist who was unwilling to let his LGBT brothers and sisters continue to suffer, despite the known danger to himself, let us not fool ourselves that heaping condemnation will solve this problem. It adds fuel to the fire….
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