It’s a pretty good time to be gay in North America and Europe. We’re marrying, raising children, and integrating into our communities in ways that would have been unthinkable just 15 or 20 years ago. With all our recent successes, it’s natural that we’d want to share some with sexual minorities in places like Africa, where widespread homophobia makes our sort of humdrum LGBTQ lives impossible. But many of the ways we’ve sought to promote change on that continent have been culturally naive and historically clueless. LGBTQ organizations are not doing nearly enough in Africa, and a lot of what they are doing misses the mark completely.
I spoke about this issue with Monica Tabengwa, who works on LGBTQ issues in sub-Saharan Africa for Human Rights Watch. Early in our conversation, she pointed out how journalists can unintentionally exacerbate the situation by providing fodder for anti-gay extremists. “You write something about gay rights in Africa there, and politicians use it here. They say that it is Western immorality, it’s trying to force Western values on Africans,” is how she put it. She was quite dry on the subject of clueless Westerners who waded into sensitive African political debates only to make things worse. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so embarrassed to be calling from Boston.
It’s undoubtedly true that some African politicians cast Western advocates for LGBTQ rights as bogeymen to win support from their homophobic populations. Even the words we use can be a trigger. Terms like LGBT, gay, lesbian, and homosexual, play badly. Using softer, more euphemistic language may feel like a step backward to out-and-proud Americans, but perhaps that’s the point—in order to be effective in Africa, those of us in the West must be willing to back up and rethink our usual way of doing things. Hand-wringing and angrily demanding change from our safe vantage points thousands of miles away achieves little.
It’s important that we accomplish something more, because African human rights issues are many and varied, and go beyond the latest anti-gay laws passed in Uganda or Nigeria. In Mombasa, Kenya, men who have sex with men (MSMs in public-health parlance) are subjected to blackmail, eviction, and violent attacks. In Accra, Ghana, police ignore reports of threats and intimidation against rights activists. In Monrovia, Liberia, fear of cuts in aid have led to increased homophobia and scapegoating of sexual minorities.
So far, advocates for change have mostly worked to raise awareness of abuses and apply political pressure on governments that have passed or are considering anti-gay laws. Some of this pressure has come in the form of Western governments threatening to withdraw aid, or actually withdrawing it. Rather than helping, this tends to make things worse for sexual minorities on the continent, who are blamed for the cuts, according to Tabengwa and many other African human-rights activists.
There’s also a basic misunderstanding of history at work. The U.S. LGBTQ movement started to gain traction only in the late 1960s, at a time when vast social and cultural changes had already shaken long-held prejudices and challenged conventional sexual morality. These cultural changes are what made the coming-out movement thinkable, and it was the expanding number of out LGBTQ people that eventually changed the political landscape. Without the cracks in the cultural conservatism that pre-dated the ’60s, there would have been much less room for tolerance. When we think about the sort of strategies that might effect change elsewhere, we must recall the magnitude of change that was necessary before the kind of acceptance we are starting see today was possible.
If what’s needed is to change African hearts and minds, we must shift our approach away from a scolding, punitive, paternalistic one and reach instead for something more engaged, more connected to actual Africans, and more focused on the communities where the necessary cultural shifts must happen. We need to fight back against African prejudices and misperceptions about gays, lesbians, and transgendered people. We must create a generous, humble, compassionate face for the LGBTQ movement, one that seeks the advancement of all humanity along with our own people. To that end, Western LGBTQ organizations should seek to decouple the issue of aid from local attitudes toward sexual minorities. In addition, LGBTQ individuals and advocacy groups alike should give directly to African causes, particularly those that dovetail with the needs of sexual minorities.
In the 1980s, gays and lesbians created organizations to cope with an epidemic that the government refused to pay attention to. Today, we could be raising money to support efforts to fight HIV and AIDS in Africa, partnering with local organizations that serve HIV-positive people, including HIV-positive gay people, or even creating new organizations to target the underserved MSM population. In the United States, numerous universities and organizations offer LGBTQ college scholarships. Now we need to establish scholarships to help LGBTQ Africans finish their schooling. Many of us are church and temple goers, members of faith communities that have made welcoming LGBTQ individuals a priority. Now we need to speak with our church leaders and our congregations about the ways our institutions can support tolerance and acceptance abroad, as well as at home, as part of their charitable mission. We must also support secular groups working in Africa, because the unfortunate fact is that the cultural dominance of religious groups contributes to homophobic attitudes.
“Everyone needs medicine. Everyone needs education. This applies to LGBT people sometimes more than others, [because they] have not completed school or they have trouble finding jobs, with all this anti-gay feeling.” Tabengwa told me, when I floated some of these ideas by her. She also stressed the importance of working through and with local LGBTQ organizations rather than acting unilaterally.
LGBTQ rights work has an image problem on the African continent, and we must seek to change that impression by thinking about what we have to offer communities in need before we expect them to change for us. We should not do this cynically, but gladly, because conditions of poverty, corruption, and lack of opportunity are the concern of good LGBTQ people just as they are the concern of all good people. In the West, we were once the smallest, most despised and marginal of groups. Now we have more organizations, money, and grass-roots support. Working to transform attitudes in Africa may be hard, but in light of all the changes I have seen within my lifetime here at home, I cannot believe that if we have the will, and the willingness to reach out, that it is impossible to gain tolerance and acceptance of sexual minorities there.