In recent years, Western human rights activists, scholars, and politicians have worked to advance homosexual rights in Africa. Understandably, they have tended to frame their arguments in liberal, universalist terms. In 2011, President Obama instructed federal agencies to promote homosexual and transgender rights overseas. Last year, in Senegal, Obama argued that although different countries’ customs and religious beliefs should be respected, homosexuals must be treated equally. “And that’s a principle that I think should be applied universally,” he added. Since then, several European countries, the World Bank, and the United States have cut aid money in attempts to influence the development of African law on the issue.
This approach is intuitive, given successful reliance on liberal values of equality and autonomy to enhance the status of homosexuals in the West, including through adversarial legal proceedings. Moreover, liberal ideology has become fully entrenched in international law, and the language of constitutions of countries across Africa also reflects the influence of liberal philosophy.
I am sympathetic to the liberal perspective, but consideration of events and ideas outside the liberal legal paradigm suggests reasons for caution in following a liberal agenda to promote homosexual rights in Africa.
For example, some of the anthropological evidence about the significance of same-sex sexual intimacy in African cultures reinforces the claims of queer theorists, whose anti-essentialist arguments suggest that sexual identity is socially constructed, rather than the product of an immutable, biological imperative.
Although the anthropological record demonstrates geographically widespread behavior that modern, Western observers would characterize as homosexual, historical understandings of this behavior would frequently have confounded contemporary constructions of homosexual identity. Even today, many Africans who engage in what Westerners would term homosexual conduct consider that conduct a relatively insignificant component not only of their overall identities, but an unimportant component even of their sexual identities. This anthropological substantiation of anti-essentialism suggests significant obstacles for liberal nondiscrimination arguments. Likewise, the observation of queer theorists that essentialist arguments can be used as effectively as tools of oppression as of liberation provides reason for caution by liberals attempting to improve African lives by classifying them in essentialist terms.
Communitarian philosophy is also particularly salient in the context of any discussion of the legal status of homosexuality in Africa because of the deep communitarian roots of traditional cultures across the continent. Although African countries have tended to adopt constitutions that proclaim liberal rights, many of the societies in which those constitutions have arisen have lacked the profound cultural commitment to individualism that observers like Michael Sandel have noted in the United States. Instead, African cultures have tended to emphasize group welfare over individual rights. As a consequence, communitarian values have frequently explained the actual operation of law in African countries better than the liberal principles expressed in African constitutions. This communitarian perspective also suggests obstacles to advancement of homosexual rights in Africa through liberal arguments.
The context provided by consideration of the anti-essentialist claims of queer theorists, the African anthropological record, and communitarian philosophy offers potential insight on the likely depth of political resistance to liberal initiatives. Similarly, a more expansive appreciation of the history of efforts to influence African thought might alert liberals to the treacherous intellectual territory they inhabit. In advocating for universal rights, liberals would do well to recognize the sordid history of Western imposition of universalizing ideals to manipulate and subjugate African minds and bodies.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, at the height of colonialism, Westerners imposed a Victorian universalism on their colonial subjects. Victorian-era laws against homosexual conduct, applicable in the colonies as in the metropole, reflected the period ideology that heterosexuality was the natural norm, and that homosexuality was both biologically and morally deviant. British colonialists contended that homosexual activity in Africa was the product of an external menace, the morally licentious Arabs and Portuguese of Richard Burton’s infamous Sotadic Zone; today, their modern African intellectual counterparts point to the pernicious neocolonial influence of liberal Western culture.
Likewise, modern liberals assert their own universalizing rubric: Western-style homosexuality characterizes a subset of all populations, regardless of culture, and it must be accepted in accord with the liberal values of equality and autonomy. According to the implicit, and sometimes explicit, message of these liberals, the African politicians who make vitriolic public attacks on homosexuality are mere puppets of sinister outside forces—the lasting influence of colonial culture, and, often, contemporary, Western religious conservatives—and are incapable of possessing their own morally coherent perspective. An appreciation of this history might facilitate avoidance of the tropes of colonialism that could incite further backlash against policies aimed at enhancement of the status of people who engage in same-sex intimacy in Africa.
In the end, categorizing all Africans who engage in same-sex intimacies as homosexuals could make the intended beneficiaries of categorization easier targets for oppression by majorities in societies disinclined to accept such Western conceptions of sexual identity. Likewise, arguments based on equal protection or autonomy may be less likely to succeed in cultures in which group interests often take precedence over individual rights. Western liberals are correct to counter African claims that homosexuality is un-African by pointing out that European outsiders originally introduced religious intolerance and laws against sodomy to African cultures that had been more amenable to same-sex intimacy. But African leaders who insist on the Western origins of homosexuality are also correct, though perhaps in an unintended sense: the presence in many contemporary African cultures of some people who define their same-sex intimacies in terms congruous with Western conceptions of homosexuality may indeed be the consequence of outside influence.
The question, at this point, is how best to protect African homosexuals and the many Africans who engage in same-sex intimacies but resist Western characterizations of the significance of those intimacies. There will always be struggles within every society to define the past in order to shape the present and influence the future. When strangers with little understanding of the context for those struggles attempt to affect their outcomes, they may face unintended consequences. Without question, we have the right to express our opinions and the authority to condition the distribution of our aid money on compliance with liberal norms. Nonetheless, if we hope to have a positive impact on the lives of Africans who engage in same-sex intimacies, we might do better to structure our interactions with the cultures we hope to influence as conversations rather than as lectures or commands.