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Ugandan prof cites western roots of Africa’s anti-gay movement

Stella Nyanzi
Stella Nyanzi

Stella Nyanzi is an anthropologist who studies gender and sexuality issues in Uganda, at Makerere University in Kampala.

Talk about being at the eye of the storm.

Uganda has become ground zero for what some characterize as an explosion of homophobia and increased criminalization of homosexuality in Africa. Hostility toward gays is hardly new or confined to Africa, of course, as Humanosphere has noted. Nearly 80 countries worldwide consider homosexuality a crime, with some making it a death penalty crime.

“In Africa, I think it’s worth noting that the countries with the most severe laws are former British colonies,’ said Nyanzi, who will be the keynote speaker at a Seattle conference focused on sexuality, health and human rights. “You don’t see this so much in the former colonies of other countries.”

The conference, hosted and run by students at the University of Washington, is the 11th annual Western Regional International Health Conference, which opens with Nyanzi speaking on Friday and runs through the weekend.

The meeting will also screen a powerful documentary, Call Me Kuchu, that describes the plight of gays in Uganda – and the murder of a gay activist.

“This is happening in many places but I’m not sure everyone recognizes why, and how,” said Nyanzi.

At the Seattle talk, Nyanzi intends to discuss how gender and sexual discrimination emerges from the tendency for those in power to use social division and hatred to further consolidate their power.

“I think the discussion about these moves to re-criminalize or further criminalize homosexuality is often too limited,” Nyanzi said. “Criminalizing a minority group for being a minority has much broader implications and effects on the entire society than most people realize.”

A quick way to understand what Nyanzi is saying may be to cite the poem by the German minister Martin Niemöller about looking the other way when the Nazis first arose: “First, they came for the socialists and I did not speak out, because I was not a socialist…. (then labor unions and then the Jews).”

Many attribute the intensification of homophobia in Uganda, Nigeria and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa to efforts by American evangelical Christian organizations who, as Nyanzi puts it, “failed to win their battles in the west and so are exporting their morality wars to Africa.”

That’s true to some extent, she said, but it’s a trend that capitalizes on an existing mindset in most of the former British colonies in Africa.

“All the former British colonies like Uganda, Nigeria and India have these anti-sodomy laws that orignated under the prudish days of Victorian England and that you don’t find in Francophone countries or the former colonies of other nations,” Nyanzi said.

In addition, she noted that Britain’s approach to colonial governance was often about making the most of the ‘divide-and-conquer’ method. Once many of these countries gained independence from Britain those who took power continued to use the methods of retaining and enhancing their hold on power. It’s no accident, she says, that anti-homosexuality tends to run in parallel with autocracy.

“So, what I’m saying is that this is much more than just a conflict over sexual morality,” Nyanzi said. “The western religious conservatives could not have gotten this done on their own in Africa … They may be fueling it, but they are not necessarily driving it now.”

Western human rights groups and others who criticize anti-gay laws or actions, she said, are often dismissed as trying to impose American values on Africa. The recent announcements by the U.S. government and some European governments to cancel aid to Uganda in protest of these anti-homosexuality laws will just hurt the poor and do little to influence those in power to change their tune, Nyanzi said.

“And the U.S. government’s response will be especially ineffective given they cut aid for one project while at the same time awarding more military aid to Uganda’s efforts to combat the Lord’s Resistance Army (nominally run by the thug Joseph Kony),” Nyanzi said.

“If you want to punish the government for its discrimination against homosexuals, don’t cut the health aid and give to the government’s defense forces … Your country’s actions don’t make any sense from the Ugandan perspective.”

At the Seattle conference, which is largely focused on health and human rights, Nyanzi will of course talk about how the intensification of anti-gay laws and sentiments will drive homosexuals and other sexual minorities underground and make the battle against HIV-AIDS even harder. But the main point she hopes to get through to her audience is that the real battle here is about much more than how sexuality and morality.

This fight is fundamentally about power, about how the powerful can use even sexuality as a proxy for angry nationalism, as fuel for social division and as a means to deflect attention from what’s really going on.

“This is about something else, is what I’m trying to say,” Nyanzi said.



About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.