/ 18 July 2023

Homophobia wears pan-Africanist regalia

Uganda Gay Bill
Civilians and various organisations protest against Uganda banning LGBTQ rights at United Nations Information Centre on March 31, 2023, in Pretoria, South Africa. Uganda became one of 30 African countries to ban same-sex relationships on March 21st. The bill criminalizes identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, asexual, and more (LGBTIQA+). (Gallo Images/Papi Morake)

I love nuance. Single stories are violent. They, as Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns, are a dangerous script to adhere to because they make the single story the only story. 

But in trying to tell the alternative narrative — the other stories — there is the danger of rendering the initial story a lie. Alternative stories are not about obliterating one story for another, they are about exploring the in betweens, the greys and multiple other perspectives, in order to complete the story. 

While I am interested in interrogating the single story of homophobia in Africa, and wanting to be excited about the strides that have been made in changing that narrative into a non-essential one, the other story is that homophobia in Africa is alive. I would really love to say that 21st-century, post-colonial Africa is not that homophobic, that the idea of the repressed queer is a myth. 

But the queer body is under the guillotine in Africa, from east to west, the north right to the south. Scholars and activists across the continent have reiterated this fact. This is true even for South Africa which is considered progressive. Queer bodies live with the fear of being punished through being raped, burnt, murdered and violated in many ways — just for being queer.

This is why I find the picketing by the Economic Freedom fighters, led by Julius Malema, on 4 April in protest against the Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill, to be a symbolic act that sets a good precedent. Call it politicking, call it a performance, and maybe it is, but so what? So what if it is a political performance? Are there no opportunities presented by an image of Malema draped in a rainbow flag marching against the anti-homosexuality bill? 

What does that visual text mean for a young person who is yet to be polluted by “woke” politics? Will it not make them think to themselves that it is okay to be who they are, that it is criminal to be persecuted for being yourself? So what? Malema marched in solidarity and this is a rarity in our African context.

One would imagine that in the 21st century, in a so-called post-colonial context, we would not be questioning the humanity of a person whose gender expressions are outside what we know, or policing a person who is attracted to a person of the same sex or loves differently from what we have always known. But, in most parts of this beloved continent, there is a script that reads: “Thou Shall Not Be Homosexual Here!” Uganda, has all but confirmed that the queer body is yet to be considered human here. 

Uganda’s move to criminalise homosexuality is inhumane. There is no alternative story to that. The anti-homosexuality act of 2014, which was championed by David Bahati, who is now a cabinet member, did not meet the standards of the oppressor and hence a more egregious 2023 anti-homosexuality bill has been introduced in the Ugandan parliament. Asuman Basalirwa, one of the legislators, implored his colleagues in parliament to join him in introducing a law that addresses the “cancer that is homosexuality” in Uganda. 

Queer people (read homosexuals in that context) have become a real threat to human existence such that the country has dedicated resources, energy and time to discuss the worthiness, humanity and legality of the queer body. They call it a noble cause, a need to cleanse the holy body of the nation whose sanctity has been brought into question by the deviant homosexual. 

Uganda has been persistent in its mission to drastically punish queer bodies by death, literally and metaphorically, for some time now. It is a public intent to kill, literally and otherwise. Sadly, this is not limited to Uganda. The hatred and dehumanisation of the queer is global. Only Uganda dares bare its chest on behalf of the many, including those in the so-called liberal havens of the North. 

I sit here wondering how it feels to have your humanity questioned and subjected to scrutiny. To have people discuss what kind of punishment your being or expression of love warrants, ranging from heavy monetary fines to the death penalty? 

What is happening in Uganda hurts. The world has watched, some in disdain, others in awe. A significant number in other parts of the continent echo in unison, “Africa is for Africans and homosexuality is unAfrican.” Homophobia wears pan-Africanist regalia. 

It is sad to see the colonial vestiges of power replaying themselves in the African sexuality and gender terrain. The black African queer body is subject to scrutiny in much the same ways the black body was during the colonial epoch. “Thou shall not set foot here, thou shall not be seen here, thou shall not sit amongst the chosen, thou shall behave in this and that way because you do not match the standard of the superior alpha human.” It reads like the same script. 

Black women are also familiar with this script — the dos and don’ts that are prescribed according to the organ you carry in between your legs, how your body moves and behaves on the grand stage of the world. If the performance is one that the powers that be don’t like, you shall be policed, disciplined and punished.

If the homophobic attitudes of the leadership in countries such as Zimbabwe have successfully shaped public sentiment and discourse around the queer body, imagine what counter discursive performances of being one with the homosexual in Africa could yield? 

Within a context where African presidents and political parties have either condemned homosexuality publicly or remained silent, Malema publicly standing with the lgbtiq+ community with a clear message that says, “Museveni do not sign that bill,” is commendable. 

I run the risk of centring the politician by applauding this move but the EFF’s plea at the Ugandan High Commission is how we confront what author Ayo Coly calls “postcolonial hauntologies”. That is the colonial attitudes, such as homophobia, that keep popping up their heads in our midst. 

The EFF’s march is what decolonising sexualities and genders in Africa looks like. Even if it in itself may not transform the status quo, it is a rehearsal for revolution that sets us on a gradual path to freedom. 

Africa is so queer, deal with it!

This article was one of the standout essays submitted to the Canon Collins Trust’s annual Lead with Your Mind: Troubling Power essay competition.

Princess Alice Sibanda is a Canon Collins alumna and postdoctoral fellow under the SARChI Chair in Sexualities, Genders & Queer Studies, University of Fort Hare.