The Closeted Continent

38 out of 55 African nations have laws punishing sodomy. And things may get worse before they get better.


Gay rights activists worldwide exulted Sept. 26 when the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva passed a landmark resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity. Only the second of its kind (the first was in 2011), the resolution, passed by a count of 25 yes votes to 14 no votes (and seven abstentions), called for a U.N. report on how to combat discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals. Given the composition of the Human Rights Council — which includes many countries with egregious rights records — a resolution that goes so far as to protect transgender rights, which are recognized in just 16 U.S. states, seems a remarkable victory.          

But the triumphant roll call in Geneva, while reason for hope, masks a more tortured reality for gay people around the world. Of the council’s 13 African member states, just one, South Africa, voted for the measure. Seven of the African countries voted against, and the others abstained or escaped to the bathroom or the coffee bar when ballots were cast. Behind the no votes in Geneva lurks a dark reality for gays back home: 38 out of Africa’s 55 nations have sodomy laws on the books; harsh new restrictions on gay rights have been adopted in Nigeria and Uganda over the last year (Uganda’s law was struck down in August on technical grounds but could be reintroduced); a bill passed in Gambia this summer would impose life sentences for some homosexual acts; and being gay is a capital offense in Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan. Even in South Africa, the first country to recognize gay rights in its constitution, is showing signs of backsliding. The country’s first gay-friendly mosque, located in Cape Town, was threatened with an order to shut down (on the grounds that it has too few parking spaces), only to be targeted by arson this past Saturday, Oct. 4. South African gays are the target of frequent hate crimes, including the September stoning of a gay man in Port Elizabeth. The picture is at least as bleak in the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait — the Near Eastern countries represented on the Human Rights Council — all opposed the U.N. resolution, with Egypt interfering to push for amendments that would have stripped the text of all references to sexual orientation and gender identity. 

While gay rights are on the march in many parts of the world, the very progress that activists have celebrated in the halls of the United Nations, on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, and in confetti-dusted city halls around the United States may actually be worsening the danger for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in far-flung parts of the world. Over the last six years, 19 U.S. states have legalized same-sex marriage, the European Court of Justice has recognized anti-gay threats as grounds for asylum across the continent, and Brazil, Uruguay, and several Mexican states have allowed same-sex marriage. But in much of Africa, the Mideast, and Central Asia — including Russia — a nasty backlash has ensued that, at least for now, may be making life worse for some of the world’s most vulnerable gay populations.

The international community increasingly looks like a tale of two closets when it comes to gay rights. In the United States, the door is being flung open. While de facto and de jure discrimination persist, the string of victories at the state level and the U.S. Supreme Court’s latest decision to clear the way for same-sex marriage to become legal in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin make the movement’s momentum in the United States seem unstoppable. Progress has been dramatic in South America as well. The surge in left-leaning governments has overcome the resistance of the Catholic Church to propel progress, with wins on civil unions in Ecuador, adoption by gays in Uruguay, same-sex marriage in Argentina and Brazil, and insurance coverage for sex-reassignment surgery in Argentina and Cuba. The September U.N. resolution was introduced by Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay as an effort to prove that the gay rights agenda isn’t confined to the West.

This progress has been powered by an increasingly potent global gay rights movement driven by major international organizations like Human Rights Campaign and the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, as well as smaller grassroots gay groups that have sprouted up (or, in some cases, chosen to work underground for fear of activists’ safety) in many dozens of countries worldwide.

Elsewhere in the world, though, signs of momentum in the global gay rights struggle are fueling a determined effort to slam the closet door though legal measures, harassment, and violence. Anti-gay legislation in Nigeria, Uganda, and Gambia has bred an environment of undisguised hostility and brutality. This year in Abuja, Nigeria, a mob armed with clubs and sticks brutally beat up 14 men who were exposed as gay by a newspaper report. When some of the victims were marched by the mob to a police station, the cops beat them, kicking and punching them and threatening them with jail time. In Cameroon, a high-profile gay prisoner of conscience, jailed for a text message telling another man that he loved him, was provisionally released on medical grounds and died in his home village this year after his family, ashamed, turned him away. In August, a bill was introduced in the Kenyan Parliament that would permit publicly stoning to death gay foreigners. A Russian law passed in 2013 that prohibits "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" has led to witch hunts targeting teachers and students suspected of being gay. Egypt is now trolling on social media to entrap gay people — arresting and trying people for crimes that include advertising apartments available for gay sex and videotaping a gay wedding. 

The impetus behind intensifying anti-gay crackdowns around the world is at least threefold. Part of the blame lies in the American Bible belt. The signing of Uganda’s law this February drew attention to the active role of evangelical American Christians in proselytizing against homosexual behavior in Africa, capitalizing on local phobias. When she keynoted a Nigerian Bar Association conference, Sharon Slater of Arizona-based Family Watch International urged delegates to reject homosexuality, arguing that they would forfeit their religious and parental rights if they backed "fictitious sexual rights." A few days later, an email to the organization’s supporters crowed that, based on Slater’s remarks, Nigeria’s Anglican leader had called on the government to withdraw from the United Nations in protest of the body’s support for gay rights. Massachusetts attorney Scott Lively, a conservative activist, was the catalyst behind Uganda’s anti-gay law. (Lively is being sued in a U.S. court by a Ugandan LGBT group for interfering with its members’ rights). A 2013 documentary film by Ross Williams, God Loves Uganda, spells out how evangelists swarmed in after the fall of Idi Amin in 1979, bringing money, Bibles, and an anti-gay agenda that awakened animus that was previously dormant or nonexistent. As anti-gay activists grow marginalized at home in the United States, some are taking the battle abroad, working to fan hostile sentiment in places like Belize.

Second, in local cultures, traditional values tend to be a powerful strand in anti-gay attitudes. To be sure, not everyone accepts the idea that indigenous cultures rejected homosexuality; some dismiss such claims as a way to invidiously compare the supposedly enlightened West with the benighted cultures of less-developed regions. And the history of anti-gay bigotry belies pat cause-and-effect explanations. Human rights groups have pointed out that in Africa, for example, sodomy laws were introduced by colonial powers. Some analysts of the gay rights movement have cited further evidence that indigenous cultures should not be seen as inherently homophobic; scholar and columnist Jay Michaelson counts more than 20 cultural varieties of indigenous African same-sex intimacy that have been recorded by anthropologists. Nonetheless, African leaders often cite homosexuality as an affront to homegrown morality. Liberian president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who attended Harvard University, has defended local sodomy laws, saying that they are grounded in "traditional values." In some cases, opponents of gay rights have justified discrimination based on an intertwining of religious and cultural arguments. Zambia’s deputy foreign minister said this year that "Zambia is a Christian nation and as such we live by the Christian values and we will not be able to recognize gay rights."

In other quarters, the cultural argument against gay rights is fanned by an appeal to anti-colonial and anti-imperialist sentiments. A Kenyan bishop has described the gay rights movement as "equivalent to colonialism and slavery."

And finally, the undeniable element in the surging repression of gays is direct backlash against the heightened visibility, organization, funding, and openness within the gay-advocacy community worldwide. As gay rights advocates around the world have become emboldened by progress, their opponents have upped the ante. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has decried U.N. gay rights resolutions as "social imperialism," while the political party of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe says that gays "disturb the African moral fabric." In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has used the West’s "faceless, sexless tolerance" as a rallying cry to motivate his conservative base, arguing that homosexuality is a threat to Russian population growth. U.S. State Department officials have acknowledged the danger of such backlash, citing examples — such as a U.S. Embassy pride event in Pakistan — where open promotion of gay rights has stoked visible and virulent opposition.

If backlash is in part fueled by ire against outside intrusion, the West isn’t letting repressive regimes have the last word. In response to new legislation, Western groups have pressed successfully for reductions in foreign aid aimed to punish regimes hostile to gays. When European governments in February announced cuts to foreign aid to Uganda in response to the country’s anti-gay law, a Ugandan government minister shot back via Twitter: "The West can keep their ‘aid’ to Uganda over homos, we shall still develop without it." But rather than convincing them to back off punitive tactics, the imperviousness of some African leaders to financial and political pressure has actually galvanized the global gay rights movement. Some organizations that were once focused on their own communities are now training more energy and dollars abroad; as victories mount in the United States, those who helped make those victories happen feel a heightened sense of urgency to help gay communities still suffering from the harshest forms of discrimination.

The complex geography of the global fight for gay rights poses dilemmas for Western activists and governments eager to break new ground in vindicating rights, but also wanting to minimize the risk of backlash that can inadvertently put gay populations abroad at even greater risk than before. 

Although it’s possible that gay rights advocacy is making life worse for gays in the short term, there are steps that may help keep gay people safer around the world and lessen the chance that the current standoff over gay rights goes on for decades.

On tactical questions like whether aid conditionality is effective, Western activists and governments should pay close attention to the views of local groups. In 2011, a large group of African social justice organizations issued a statement opposing a proposal to condition British aid, arguing, among other things, that doing so risked alienating local LGBT activists from other civil society groups. Although this doesn’t mean that every proposed set of LGBT-related conditions is unwelcome, it does underscore that opinions on the utility of aid conditionality are divided and that local views need to be carefully canvassed and considered.

A second useful measure involves finding ways to broaden the domestic constituencies in favor of gay rights in places where governments are hostile. If the voices in support of fair treatment are limited to LGBT groups and foreign advocates and governments, they have proved relatively easy to dismiss. But if mainstream domestic social justice and civic organizations, religious institutions, intellectuals, trade unions, businesses, and other constituencies can be mobilized as well, the political price of repression will gradually increase. Rather than applying pressure directly, Western governments can seek opportunities to mobilize international businesses with in-country subsidiaries and partners, liberal church denominations, and academic and intellectual networks to sensitize counterparts in countries on the front lines of gay rights battles.

A way for LGBT activists to lessen the danger of backlash is to build on the canny impulse that put Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile in the driver’s seat of the most recent U.N. gay rights resolution. By supporting representatives of non-Western governments and civil society leaders to engage directly with counterparts in regressive countries, the gay rights movement can continue to counter the construct of gay rights as a Western agenda. If there were a government willing to fund, for example, a visit of Cuban gay rights activists or supporters to Russia, their message might get through in the way that advocacy originating in the United States or Europe would not. Brazil does more than $12 billion in annual trade with sub-Saharan Africa. If African governments suddenly confronted LGBT rights as an issue in their bilateral relations with Brasilia, they would take notice.

In the long run, history suggests that when human needs are framed as rights, political momentum tends to gradually and irreversibly build in their favor. There is little question that this is happening in the realm of gay rights, and it’s hard to fathom that, eventually, most parts of the world won’t begin to come around. In the meantime, though, Western tactics can risk playing into the hands of bigoted leaders eager for an excuse to repress. As the global gay rights movement moves from strength to strength, it’s essential to keep in mind those most vulnerable populations whose stakes in ultimate success are greater than anyone else’s.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.

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