World observes anti-homophobia day, but not Africa

Gay and lesbian community demonstrates in Nairobi
Gay and lesbian community demonstrates in Nairobi Reuters

Nations all over the world are observing Sunday a day of solidarity with gays and lesbians. But few African countries are celebrating the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. In fact, state-sanctionned homophobia is on the rise across much of Africa with Gambian President Yahya Jammeh recently stating that he would personally slit the throat of a man who wants to marry another.


The spirit of anti-homophobia day is not widely embraced on the African continent.

Kenya's deputy president William Ruto recently told worshippers at a church service in Nairobi that there was "no room for homosexuality" in Kenya.

Speaking at the Jesus Winner Ministry Church, which is popular with Kenyan politicians, Ruto said that homosexuality "violates our religious and cultural beliefs".

But it does violate constitutionally protected minority rights, according to Njeri Gateru, a lawyer with the National Gay and Lesbian Human Righs Commission of Kenya.

She is nonetheless encouraged by a Kenyan High Court ruling that ordered the government last month to register a gay rights group. The government had refused to register the NGO on moral grounds. the court ruled that the Kenyan constitution not only recognised the rights of minorities but also banned limited rights on moral grounds.

"It has had a huge impact," said Gateru. "The judgement is such a good precedent for other cases that we intend to launch in court, including a suit that will ask for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Kenya."

The landmark ruling in effect means that LGBT rights, like other minority rights, are enshrined in Kenya’s constitution.

"The judgement makes a very powerful point that precisely because LGBT people are an unpopular and vulnerable minority that the constitution needs to protect them," said Graeme Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Programme at Human Rights Watch. "It’s a core principle of the constitutional values of Kenya."

But homophobia remains rampant in the east African nation.

"When someone who is in a position of power feels that it’s OK to discriminate against these people, to beat them up because they are criminals anyway, Kenyan society adopts that and accepts that," Gateru explained.

The homophobia in the central African nation of Cameroon has been even more virulent.

One gay rights activist, Eric Ohena Lembembe, was tortured and killed in 2013. And another man, Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, was sentenced to jail for three years in 2012 for sending a text message to another man saying "I'm very much in love with you."

The situation there has been aggravated by religious leaders who have virulently denounced homosexuality. Archbishop Simon Victor Tonye Bakot, archbishop of Yaoundé from 2003 to 2013, has equated gay marriage to a crime against humanity.

In many other African countries the future of gay rights appear bleak.

In Uganda ruling party MPs remain eager to pass a bill that would clamp down even further on homosexuality, which is already illegal.

Joel Ssepuya, a gay man who has obtained refugee status in France, is appalled by the homophobia in his country, which he has had to flee after being arrested by the police, discriminated against at his workplace and stigmatised by his family.

"I was rejected by my family because of who I am, because of my sexuality," he said in an interview. "Some people wanted to stone me to death."

Although homophobic African leaders often present homosexuality as un-African, historians and activists have argued that it is homophobia that is un-African.

"It all started when the spread of Christianity using the message of the Bible was imposed on the African people because their own religion was said to be barbaric, therefore, by doing so, the respective colonial powers alienated Africans from their own religion and culture which paved way to the birth of the present-day homophobia," argued Ugandan gay rights activist Tony Kitara in a recent piece in Gay Star News.

Same-sex relations at the court of Kabaka (king) Mwanga II – before the arrival of British colonisers – are well documented and have long been discussed by historians.

According to historian Henri Médard, author of a book on the Buganda kingdom in the 19th century, in what is now southern Uganda, it was not uncommon for African kings to break cultural taboos like same-sex relations to assert their absolute power.

Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011

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