Africa: How (Not) to Talk About Sex in Africa


It is time the LGBTQ+ coalition changed its strategy on the continent.

Considering the urgency with which authorities in a certain African countries have moved to pass anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, one might be forgiven for seeing LGBTQ+ people as an existential threat to the continent.

From Burundi through Kenya and lately to Uganda and Ghana, the LGBTQ+ community and those engaged in same-sex relations have been targeted for a list of alleged crimes, ranging from the corruption of “African values” or “Christian values” on the one hand, to “promoting cultural imperialism,” going against “the order of nature,” and violating “common decency” and “the laws of the Republic” on the other.

Significantly, passage of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation has not taken place in isolation. In many cases, it has been preceded, some might say enabled, by condemnatory rhetoric, mass arrest and torture of individuals and groups of people suspected to be homosexuals, shutting down of social media accounts of LGBTQ+ groups and individuals, and shuttering or refusing registration to LGBTQ+ advocacy NGOs. Such, indeed, is the sheer harshness of anti-LGBTQ+ language in many African countries that one is left to conclude that the state has more or less authorized jungle justice against LGBTQ+ people. Asked late last year about perceived Western pressure on African leaders to uphold LGBTQ+ rights, Burundian President Evariste Ndayishimiye, a devout Catholic, did not mince words: “For me, I think that if we find these people in Burundi they should be taken to stadiums and be stoned, and doing so would not be a crime.”

Many analysts have attributed this outbreak of lawfare to political expediency, by which they suggest that anti-LGBTQ+ mobilization is nothing but an attempt by political elites desperate to distract the citizenry as a way to consolidate their grip on power. While the shoe certainly fits in some obvious examples, it is also the case that, outside the shenanigans of manipulative political elites, other “objective” drivers of anti-LGBTQ+ hate exist, prime among which is a persisting moral anxiety about homosexuality. If anything, it is these drivers that provide the necessary social conditioning and the overall cultural mood for the enactment of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Put differently, if the Burundian president could speak so openly and defiantly about stoning gays, it is partly because there are enough Burundians out there who agree with him and see reality through the same lens.

Political homophobia in Africa (the term belongs to sociologist Ashley Currier) is also ascribed, again not inaccurately, to the activities of right-leaning U.S. Christian groups such as the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Fellowship Foundation, Family Watch International, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Assuredly, these groups have been active across Africa, a part of the world they have identified, rightly or wrongly, as one of the last battlegrounds in their campaign against the seemingly unstoppable rise of an amoral liberalism. These groups are estimated to have poured more than 280 million dollars into their global “influencing” campaign, with more than fifty million dollars going into Africa alone.

Although conservative American groups have been active in Africa, it is dubious to conclude that, absent their intrusion, there would be no hostility toward LGBTQ+ people on the continent. As the reference to Burundi is meant to show, strong anti-LGBTQ+ feelings are as native to Africa as they are to other parts of the world, meaning that if U.S. evangelical and other conservative groups have been successful in their campaigning, it is because preexisting African conditions favor it.

Contrary to the widespread and, frankly, infantilizing assumption that American conservatives have taught otherwise “innocent” Africans to hate gays, the truth of the matter is that hostility toward LGBTQ+ people, being completely homegrown, is precisely what Africa shares with other societies and cultures. (As an aside, there is something profoundly unsettling about the fact that it is only in Africa that prevalence of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment is consistently attributed to nefarious external actors, implying that Africans are somehow not in charge of their own destiny, while the same conclusion is never reached about, say, Russia, where the country’s supreme court recently outlawed LGBTQ+ advocacy.) In a variant of the same idea, some African scholars of sexuality have insisted, with little evidence, that Africa was a kind of paradise for homosexuals before the violent interregnum of colonial rule.

If it is true that intolerance toward gay people is in fact one characteristic that Africa shares with the rest of the world, the question arises as to what has changed. The answer to this crucially important question is simple: what has changed–an often overlooked fact–is that over the past two decades, and for a variety of reasons too complex to go into here, we have witnessed a truly remarkable shift in attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community. It goes without saying that this cultural breakthrough was first achieved in Western countries, where various groups and individuals drew from the liberal tradition to establish and broadcast the argument for gay humanity and acceptance. The remarkable (which is not to say complete or irreversible) progress made so far in seeking to eliminate all forms of discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in key Western countries is due largely to this rapid transformation.

This fact deserves to be highlighted because it has implications for the LGBTQ+ strategy to combat discrimination in Africa, which, for the moment at least, seems defined by an understandable resolve to fight legal fire with fire. As if to justify its wisdom, the legal strategy has sometimes led to court rulings with judicial pronouncements that are enviable nuggets of classical liberal thought. For example: a February 2023 Kenyan Supreme Court judgment allowing the country’s National Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) to officially register as an NGO, notes, inter alia, that “it would be unconstitutional to limit the right to associate, through denial of registration of an association, purely on the basis of the sexual orientation of the applicants.” More crucially: “Given that the right to freedom of association is a human right, vital to the functioning of any democratic society as well as an essential prerequisite enjoyment of other fundamental rights and freedoms, we hold that this right is inherent in everyone irrespective of whether the views they are seeking to promote are popular or not.”

The significance of legal pronouncements like the foregoing cannot be overemphasized. At the same time, it is open to question whether any substantive progress in the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights is possible without a commensurate battle for hearts and minds, particularly when you consider that, for most people, court showdowns are often no more than battles over legal abstractions. This is not to say that attempts to overturn obnoxious court rulings should be abandoned, but to see such as an addendum–granted, a critical one–to the social imperative of changing popular perception of LGBTQ+ people as less than human in the best cases, or, in the worst, incurable moral perverts to be casually hunted down and murdered.

In other words, it has become incumbent upon the African LGBTQ+ coalition to initiate the kind of conversations that enabled cultural transformation in the West, with the ultimate aim of demonstrating and affirming the basic humanity of LGBTQ+ people.

It will be observed that there is currently a large number of NGOs already championing gay rights across various African countries. While this may be true, NGO-led advocacy (and this is something that goes beyond sexual and reproductive rights) is not without costs. In the first place, and admittedly for reasons that are perfectly understandable, pro-LGBTQ+ advocacy tends to be subsumed under other projects. Furthermore, an unintended consequence of any cause or program being championed by NGOs is that, eventually, such gets to be defined and comes to be understood as owned by or belonging to NGOs. In the case of pro-LGBTQ+ advocacy, it appears to have led to a situation in which the LGBTQ+ cause has come to be seen as a cause promoted by and circulating among a narrow (NGO) elite. The fact that the majority of such NGOs are urban-based with scant organic connection to the community beyond the cities often means that there is no visibility at the grassroots. Unintentionally, being championed by NGOs, many of which tend to rely on (overwhelmingly Western) foreign financial support for their programming, leads to a situation in which an otherwise vulnerable LGBTQ+ population is counted among the powerful. Similar to anti-LGBTQ+ mobilization, the campaign for LGBTQ+ rights in Africa has its own complicated connections to powerful external forces.