Against Gay Human Rights in Africa… Or, Activists Are Always Wrong

Activists are always being told to shut up, sit down, go away — by people in their own movements. “Honey catches more flies than vinegar,” they say. Or, “The patient dog eats the fattest bone.” The specter of backlash is also raised, as if the black activist were responsible for racism. As if the queer ones were responsible for homophobia that would have probably gone away by itself like a bad cold if we had just hunkered down and eaten some soup.

And somehow, these conservative, complicit forces rewrite history to take the credit when proven wrong. The local black luminaries who attacked MLK were practically photo-shopped in beside him there in DC, or Selma. The queer institutions that sidelined activists, and tried to discourage a certain group of rogue lawyers from petitioning the Supreme Court to end the ban on same-sex marriage, were first in line with their celebrations and press releases and demands for donations when the case was actually won.

No wonder that the New York Times can still publish articles like the tendentious “Support of Gay Rights in Africa May Hurt,” which is just another argument for silence and inaction tarted up with a juicy pseudo, neo-colonial twist. We’re being told once again that the locals, in this case, Nigerian queers, were better off before activists got involved. And also that the current backlash is all the fault of Americans and their tame little proxies.

A Dyke Abroad

For the record, local queers have been activists in Africa long before they starting getting outside help. One of the oldest being Gays And Lesbians Of Zimbabwe (GALZ), founded in 1990. Second, Nigerian queers were not somehow okay before activists got involved, unless isolation, fear, stigma, shame, and violence don't count. And finally, are we really expected to believe that a few years of cautious US State Department reminders that queers, too, have human rights and modestly funded local queer activities suddenly spurred Nigeria into a homophobic, gay-hating mess? Really?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn’t make her famous “Gay rights are human rights” speech until late in 2011. Obama didn’t properly evolve and make his own speeches until the following year. In fact, up through the Bush administration, the US was still joining forces with the likes of the Vatican, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to squish every mention of LGBT rights in global anti-AIDS efforts. In 2001, we even went so far as to fight to exclude queer issues from the UN-sponsored World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

If Nigeria recently exploded in homophobia, it’s less because of specific activist groups or their meager American funders than because the entire African continent has been swept by a wave of gay scapegoating for the last two decades.

In 1995 in Zimbabwe, the opposition-massacring dictator Robert Mugabe launched the campaign, telling his citizens it was their duty to arrest queers, citing the law of nature, morals, and society. Most importantly, he attacked homosexuality as “un-African,” a phenomenon of colonists and whites. This gave him a convenient domestic enemy to distract his citizens from the usual ills of poverty and dictatorship.

His techniques were quickly echoed in Zambia, Uganda, and, of course, Namibia, where government ministers denounced “un-African” homosexuality and demanded our elimination. Namibia’s marginally better tyrant, President Sam Nujoma, euphemistically said we should be uprooted. He actually sent queers fleeing in 2001 when he not only characterized us as public enemies, but called for lesbians and gay men to be arrested and deported or imprisoned.

Anti-gay campaigns weren’t only in Africa’s south or west. In Egypt, in 2001, the government put 52 men on trial for “contempt of heavenly religions,” while the newspapers discussed whether homosexuals should be given a chance to repent before they were burned or stoned.

The irony, of course, is that for years, in order to finance their cynical local campaigns against “foreign” or “colonial” or “European” or “American” homosexuality, African homophobes have been gobbling up the money of white, extremist, right-wing American Christians, from Pat Robertson to the deep-pocketed National Christian Foundation. And not just the money, but also the guidance, support, strategizing, and overall clout.

That is barely featured in the New York Times article, which also ignores the fact that African governments’ queer scapegoating is largely driven by political opportunism, as is the case of most state-sponsored scapegoating. The backlash the Times frets about is to a great extent manufactured — by corrupt African politicians, US Christian Right interlopers, and a local yellow press. It’s not particularly spontaneous, or “provoked” by home-grown queer activists and their meager, progressive American funding. In fact, the outsized, poisonous role the American Christian Right is playing in Africa should be, in itself, more than enough reason for other Americans to pour millions into LGBT projects in the region.

The fact that the New York Times actually thinks there are any cases of LGBT abuses in which we might be better on the sidelines makes me want to puke. The only question is what exactly we should do to help, not if we should. Money, of course, is the easiest option. Nigerian queers shouldn’t have to apologize for taking American dollars, when they’d be bashed as foreign agents anyway. Americans shouldn’t apologize for giving them. Especially since, by helping queer activists, we also bolster elements of democracy like freedom of speech and assembly. If we fight violence against queers, we make Nigeria a more peaceful place. Fighting for trans women or dykes, we improve the lives of all women in a country where their status is dire. Now, more than ever, we rise and fall together.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.