Uganda and the Myth of African Homophobia

By Karl T. Muth - 23 July 2013

I recently finished writing an article for a law journal on the anti-homosexuality law in Uganda. It focuses on the evolution of this law from a legislative history standpoint, but also focuses on the history and ethnographic realities within which this law (which many, including me, believe was drafted and advocated primarily by American lobbyists) was drafted, edited, and eventually brought to the floor of the Ugandan Parliament.

It is easy, even tempting, for white Occidental commentators to depict Africans as homophobic. It mirrors the underestimation of the American black community’s acceptance of homosexuality (part of one of the larger Republican blunders of the last few decades wherein a political calculation was made, incorrectly, that black and Hispanic voters were more interested in hating homosexuals – and thus embracing the right-wing agenda – than making economic progress for themselves and their families). It also plays into classic neocolonial tropes: Africans are unsophisticated, Africa lacks the heterogeneous cosmopolitan culture needed for tolerant social policy, Africans are uneducated and hence intolerant, Africans are equal-opportunity luddites and oppose progress technological or social or otherwise, etc.

Sometime in the 1960’s, when nearly all things related to international development were clustered under “peasant studies” (a term that, in retrospect, seems to have been selected to belittle the work of both the studiers and subjects), an interest in perceptions of sex, gender, and social relationships evolved. Many of these early studies were predictably focused on population control (the famous – and at a times contradictory – studies of the introduction of birth control in Bangladesh, for instance). Others focused on nebulous research questions like, “do Africans value education?” Obviously, beginning with such a research question makes the research process harder than diamonds and defensible findings rarer than sashimi.

The article I wrote recently had a far narrower focus: What was the history of this law and what incentives existed that caused its almost-exclusively-American supporters to pour millions of dollars of support into oppressing gay people in a landlocked African country smaller than Oregon? After more than a year of work on this article, I came to believe – strongly – in two main unsettling conclusions. First, that there is very little history of homophobia, at least in the area of northern Uganda where I lived and worked. And I suspect, though have little evidence, that this is true elsewhere in Africa. Second, that the vast majority of erroneous propaganda about homosexuality (that homosexuals are pedophiles, that corrective rape is an acceptable practice, that homosexuals are members of a conspiracy, etc.) has been introduced by Americans.

In a historical review, I found little evidence of a history of anti-homosexual sentiment in Uganda in precolonial times. Even during colonial times, when the British were quick to interfere in anything they considered alien in Ugandan culture, there is no record of the High Commission Courts or Colonial Magistrates having heard even one prosecution related to the defendant’s sexual orientation. The Ugandan concept of sexuality is substantially different from the modern Western view – and, in many ways, more advanced (at least in my view). For decades, men have been able to have sex with other men in Uganda without being considered “gay” or of a different sexual orientation (distinguishable from Western medicine, for instance, which has only relatively recently recognised, at least in the clinical context, that there are “men who have sex with men” and “women who have sex with women” who do not self-identify as homosexual).

With all the press about Uganda’s anti-gay law (if you’ve been living under a right-wing Christian extremist rock for the last five years, you may not have heard that a law in the Ugandan parliament would subject people who’ve had homosexual intercourse to the death penalty), you’d think Ugandans hate gay people more than anyone else in the region. Of course, that thinking depends upon all sorts of fallacies, such as the concept that Uganda has a functional representative democracy or that the laws passed in the Ugandan Parliament generally enjoy widespread support among Ugandans (both untrue, but fallacies that American and British people tend to enjoy believing, particularly after having seen seven Marshall Plans worth of aid money mostly-squandered in Africa). In fact, recent research by several organizations suggests that Ugandans are substantially more tolerant of homosexuals than Kenyans or Rwandans.

What is so fascinating about homophobia in Africa is that it is a kind of philosophical import substitution. Whereas homophobia used to be something that had to be imported to Africa from America, Africa is now slowly beginning to produce its own homophobia. There is a right-wing megachurch in Kampala that looks and feels very much like an American megachurch (holding over 10,000 worshippers, it is even American-sized) and preaches the usual mix of give-us-money and hate-thy-neighbour. Local organizations, many of which are outgrowths of American anti-LGBTQ NGO activity, are springing up that promise jobs, free t-shirts, and opportunities to network.

Equally fascinating is Americans’ enduring ignorance about their country’s relationship with Africa and their unshakable belief that things being imported to Africa from America include democracy, goodwill, and happiness (happiness is a difficult thing to pin down, but it can be created by mixing American high-calorie-per-serving soft drinks, major label meaningless hip-hop, and episodes of Baywatch). Meanwhile, the actual imports from America (political and religious extremism, messages of white supremacy, people and organisations encouraging homophobia, quasi-government agents peddling weapons, etc.) go either unnoticed or purposefully ignored.

I have no doubt there are homophobes and intolerant people everywhere on earth, including in Africa, and including in Uganda. However, I know that the primary inspiration for these people in Africa is American – not African – attitudes.

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