Homophobia: Africa’s moral blind spot

It is high time for African leaders to accept LGBTQ rights are human rights.

Protester with mask and rainbow flag
A demonstrator is seen holding an LGBTQ flag during a protest in Nairobi. The Queer Republic organised a protest following remarks, that homosexual students should be banned from boarding schools by the education minister Prof George Magoha in Kenya. [John Ochieng/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images]

On April 17, Sheila Adhiambo Lumumba, a 25-year-old non-binary lesbian, was found murdered in Karatina, Kenya. Lumumba had been missing for several days before their body was found. An autopsy report revealed that Lumumba was raped, strangled, stabbed several times in the neck and eyes and their legs had been broken.

Human rights groups lamented Lumumba’s untimely and violent passing. The hashtag #JusticeForSheila trended on Kenyan Twitter for several days after their passing. The Kenya Human Rights Commission called on authorities to investigate the gruesome murder and stressed that “too many queer Kenyans are getting killed with no accountability for perpetrators”. Amnesty Kenya shared similar sentiments and asserted, “no one deserves such cruel treatment. Sheila didn’t have to experience all this pain”, and the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission described Lumumba’s death as “part of a pattern of attacks and violence against LGBTIQ+ persons in the country”.

And sadly, it is true that this gruesome murder was not an anomaly – members of the LGBTQ community are facing discrimination, hate and violence because of who they are and who they love across Africa.

In Kenya – much like the rest of Africa – gay sex is a criminal offence, and it is punishable by up to 14 years in jail. And it is not only discriminatory laws that are criminalising LGBTQ individuals and putting a target on their backs across the continent. Political leaders are also adding fuel to the fires of homophobia and acting as willing vessels for conservative and religious paranoia.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, for instance, dismissed LGBTQ rights as a “non-issue” in an interview with CNN in 2018 and declared that Kenya does not consider “homosexuality a human right”. “This is not an issue, as you would want to put it, of human rights,” he said. “This is an issue of society, of our own base, as a culture, as a people regardless of which community you come from.”

And Kenyatta is hardly the only politician in Kenya voicing anti-LGBTQ views. Presidential aspirant and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, for example, called for gay couples to be arrested in 2010. He also claimed it was “madness” for a man to fall in love with another man while there were “plenty of women”.

Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto is also equally open about his homophobic views. In 2015, he said, “The Republic of Kenya is a republic that worships God. We have no room for gays and those others.”

The institutionalised homophobia in Kenya is representative of a malaise that is devastating the entirety of  Africa.

In Ghana, for example, security forces raided and shut down the office of an LGBTQ rights group in the capital, Accra, after politicians and religious leaders called for its closure in February 2021. A few months later, in May 2021, 21 people attending an LGBTQ conference in the southeastern city of Ho were arrested for the crime of “advocating LGBTQ activities”. Last year, a draft legislation proposing up to 10 years in jail for LGBTQ people as well as groups and individuals who advocate for their rights, express sympathy or offer social or medical support was also submitted to Ghana’s parliament.

Meanwhile, clinics in several countries, from Uganda and Tanzania to Kenya, are offering highly discredited and known to be harmful “conversion therapy” services to LGBTQ individuals. An Open Democracy investigation conducted last year revealed that in Uganda such anti-gay “counselling” activities are being recommended to LGBTQ people by staff employed at public hospitals.

South Africa is an outlier on the continent as LGBTQ rights are enshrined in its constitution. Nevertheless, violence against queer people is still rife in the country. Between February 2021 and April 2022, for example, at least 20 LGBTQ individuals were murdered in ghastly circumstances because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Some optimists in Africa, such as Ugandan legislator Fox Odoi-Oywelwo, appear to believe that since “newfound access to knowledge, information and differing points of view is having a vast, transformational effect on the electorate”, LGBTQ acceptance across the continent will naturally and inevitably increase with time.

This, however, is not the case.

Homophobia is rooted in eugenics and has traditionally been fuelled by fascist and authoritarian regimes. The Nazi regime in Germany, for example, carried out a campaign against male homosexuality and persecuted gay men between 1933 and 1945. Authoritarian political leaders across the world are continuing this trend today.

Homophobia – as well as vigilante violence against LGBTQ individuals – is rife in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. A gay propaganda law that was unanimously approved by the Duma in 2013 makes publicly promoting the rights and culture of the LGBTQ community illegal in the country. In the United States, the Republican Party – with support from the far right – is waging a war against LGBTQ rights.  Florida’s Republican administration recently signed into law a controversial bill, dubbed “don’t say gay” that would ban all “sexual orientation and gender identity” issues from classrooms.

African progressives and human rights advocates should learn from the ongoing attacks on LGBTQ rights across the world and see that things will not change for the better on the continent without immediate action.

LGBTQ repression is often – if not always – part of an authoritarian agenda and a wider, systematic assault on civil freedoms. This can easily and clearly be seen in countries like Kenya, Uganda or Nigeria, where homophobia, police brutality and political repression come hand in hand and together serve to silence marginalised and oppressed sections of society and consolidate the power of established political forces.

So the fight for LGBTQ rights must be seen not as a niche issue that relates only to the West, but as part of a wider, universal battle for expanding access to social, economic and political rights and strengthening democracy.

Therefore, across Africa not only LGBTQ activists but everyone who cares for human rights and democracy should stand up for the rights of LGBTQ communities. Everyone who dreams of a better future for all Africans, including political parties, should push for fairer, more inclusive laws that would protect the basic rights and freedoms of all Africans, including those of LGBTQ people.

In this fight, the consistently lethargic African Union could and should lead the way. Although LGBTQ lifestyles and needs are unfairly projected and rejected as “unAfrican”, history tells us otherwise: the LGBTQ community is an indelible and omnipresent reflection of our incredibly diverse and beautiful humanity.

Lumumba’s was not the first, and sadly will not be the last, young African life lost to violent homophobia. This spate of “corrective” rapes, beatings and murders of LGBTQ individuals should not be allowed to continue unabated any longer. It is high time for African countries to reassess their positions and take action to protect marginalised, victimised and often criminalised LGBTQ communities.

No matter what Kenyatta and many other politicians like him may try to argue, LGBTQ rights are human rights. Africa cannot move forward and build a better future for all Africans, without taking the necessary steps to ensure the safety and acceptance of LGBTQ individuals.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.