Last week, on 21 March, Uganda’s parliament passed draconian homophobic and anti-LGBT+ legislation. MP Fox Odoi-Oywelowo warned that this would mean life imprisonment or even the death penalty for “aggravated” offences.
On top of this, much of the rest of East Africa is currently in the grip of a concerted campaign of state-sponsored homophobia. Njeri Gateru, executive director of the Nairobi-based National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC), warned that:
There is a concerted effort in peddling misinformation and disinformation…
The sentiments that have been carried over in the public space inspire and justify violence against LGBTQ.
Much of the mainstream media has (rightfully) reported on the horrifying laws being passed in Uganda. However, any conversation about homophobia in Africa would be incomplete without two acknowledgements. First, homophobia as it is seen on the continent today is largely a product of Europe’s colonialism. And second, the new wave of homophobic sentiment is itself also fuelled by American Christian evangelism.
Colonialism and homophobia
When European countries invaded and brutally colonised Africa, they brought with them a whole host of conservative social mores. Among these was the taboo against homosexuality, which was itself a product of Christianity.
Prior to their subjugation, many African countries had far more accepting attitudes towards LGBT+ individuals. But these more relaxed treatments didn’t survive the rule of the UK and other European countries. This subjugation was not only legislative – the growth of Christianity in Africa helped to perpetuate the notion of homophobia as a value native to many African nations. Subsequently, the end of colonial rule did not lead to the end of Christianity’s influence, as Stonewall pointed out:
While many of the countries under British rule are now independent, the majority who still criminalise homosexuality, including Jamaica and Uganda, have carried over these laws from the colonial era. Generations later, many Africans now believe that an anti-gay attitude is one that is a part of their culture. So much so, that former Zimbabwean President Mugabe labelled homosexuality as a “white disease”.
In fact, this legacy of homophobia is particularly prominent across Commonwealth countries:
There is a direct correlation between countries which belong to the Commonwealth, and therefore have previously been under British rule, and countries that still have homophobic biphobic and/or transphobic legislature in their constitutions. 25 per cent of the world’s population (2.4 billion people) currently live in a country belonging to the Commonwealth, however they make up a disproportionately large 50 per cent of countries that still criminalise homosexuality.
However, colonialism was by no means the last time that nations from the Global North would push homophobia in Africa. American conservative Christians began to flock to Uganda after the fall of Idi Amin in 1979. Amin had previously banned Christian evangelism, but the country was now ripe to claim in the name of a fundamentalist understanding of the bible.
American groups like Mike Bickle’s International House of Prayer spent millions on schools, orphanages, and hospitals. This essentially bought the goodwill of the Ugandan people. Along with this charity, they also began preaching an extremely hardline form of Christianity. Here, homophobic sentiment could find more purchase than it did in an increasingly accepting America.
Then, in 2009, pastor Scott Lively came to Uganda. Lively was previously most famous for his book The Pink Swastika, which claimed that many prominent Nazis were gay and that homosexuality inspired their nationalism. In Uganda, Lively delivered a series of immensely popular sermons denouncing the ‘gay agenda’. He warned that the “evil institution” of homosexuality sought to “defeat the marriage-based society” and would “prey upon” Ugandan children.
This casting of homosexuality as predatory – and particularly targeting children – was key to what would follow. As Minority Africa co-founder Caleb Okereke explained for Foreign Policy:
This recasting of homosexuality as akin to pedophilia, alongside the widespread use of similar language, is meant to legitimize the response and crackdown by governments and institutions. If gay people are not successfully framed as predators, then extreme measures against them could be questioned. However, the violence that LGBTQ+ people experience in Africa has been justified by these anti-gay groups through the construction of a narrative of intent by “them” to target children.
The endless money of the Global North
In the run-up to the passage of Uganda’s 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Bill, evangelical NGOs accounted for 20% of all nonprofit groups in Uganda. They also held $2bn in wealth. Whilst secular NGOs were required to refrain from political advocacy, church groups suffered no such restrictions. They also made powerful politicians a priority target. As MP Fox Odoi-Oywelowo told Open Democracy:
Their initial point of entry was the [Ugandan] National Prayer Breakfast, a collection of religious and radical people here who introduced that ideology of hate. They sit over breakfast and pray and make radical hate speeches. They also introduced some money. They hold fellowships in expensive hotels, attended by MPs. They also sponsor trips for MPs – to Jerusalem, for example – and basically indoctrinate them.
Odoi-Oywelowo added that radical US Pentecostal communities had specifically sponsored homophobic and anti-LGBT+ lawmaking in Africa. He claimed that, in 2022, they spent $26m to promote the new anti-homosexuality law. This is an extraordinary amount of money in any case. However, it’s even more astounding given that Uganda’s average gross domestic product was just $884 in 2021.
In this way, Uganda – and Africa more broadly – finds itself colonised twice over. Europeans brought and enforced Christian-inflected homophobia. This was normalised so effectively that it is now spoken of as a Ugandan value and framed in opposition to the decadent homosexuality of Europe and America. In fact, Okereke explained that:
For Ugandan and African homophobes, the reverse is the case. It gives them a premise for absolution—an anticolonial veneer that allows them to say, “This was brought here from abroad, and we need to eradicate it.”
Second, American evangelists losing their battles on the home front shifted their focus to Africa. The same poverty inflicted by colonisation made nations like Uganda ripe for exploitation by seemingly endless supplies of US money.
The homophobic and anti-LGBT+ rhetoric sweeping East Africa is monstrous. This fact is only made worse by the knowledge that it is a monster created by Europe and the US, and it represents a Christian fundamentalist vision of society.
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