Uganda recently passed an anti-gay law described by United Nations human rights chief Volker Türk as “probably among the worst of its kind in the world.” Anyone engaging in gay sex can be imprisoned for life. Even attempting to have gay sex can earn seven years behind bars. Homosexual acts committed by anyone infected with H.I.V. or involving children, disabled people or anyone drugged against their will can result in the death penalty.
Despite threats by Western nations to cut the billions in aid his country receives, President Yoweri Museveni continues to promote anti-gay measures.
Leading the anti-gay campaign are many of the country’s religious leaders, Christian and Muslim. The law has been strongly promoted by evangelical Christians from the U.S. According to lawyer and human rights activist Nicholas Opiyo, evangelical groups “have been working very meticulously over the last five years in mobilizing a constituency, fanning public sentiments, in spreading misinformation as the basis for this law.”
Uganda is hardly alone. Anti-gay laws and sentiment infect much of the African continent.
Kenya’s supreme court recently ruled that the government must allow the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission to register as an NGO. The ruling was seen as a major victory for LGBT people in a country where gay sex is illegal.
The court’s ruling triggered a torrent of abuse and death threats against the gay community. Rights campaigners accused some religious and political leaders of whipping up a backlash to the ruling. Irungu Houghton, head of Amnesty International Kenya, said, “Amnesty is deeply concerned by the growing confidence among politicians, religious leaders and extremist individuals calling for LGBT individuals to be assaulted or put to death.”
In Ghana, a bill is currently before the legislature that would make public displays of same-sex affection and crossdressing punishable with jail terms. LGBT organizations and dissemination of information supporting LGBT peoples’ rights will be banned. Violent attacks against gay people are common, and even encouraged by the media and religious and political leaders.
Same-sex relationships are outlawed in Zambia, punishable by up to 14 years in jail.
Not every African country is anti-gay. South Africa, for example, is a beacon of tolerance. Same-sex marriage and adoption are legal as is the right to change gender. Non-binary gender is legally recognized and gays serve openly in the military. LGBT discrimination is illegal. Indeed, South Africa was the first country in the world to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in its constitution.
But South Africa is one of the exceptions. According to Wikipedia, of the 55 states recognized by the UN or African Union or both, homosexuality is outlawed in 34.
Why so many African countries have become so intolerant of gays is a story about religion. In pre-colonial times, homosexuality was generally tolerated across the continent and often incorporated into tribal cultures. The colonial powers introduced the first anti-gay laws.
Since colonialism departed, Christianity has moved in. In a New York Times column, Tish Harrison Warren points out that “Sub-Saharan Africa had the most striking growth of Christianity, growing from around nine percent Christian at the beginning of the 20th century to almost 45 percent at the end of it.” As to the style of Christianity, she says, “The most explosive growth has been in Indigenous, independent Pentecostal churches.”
These are not colonial products. According to Warren, “The meteoric rise of Christianity in the majority world occurred only after the withdrawal of colonial powers when Christianity became more indigenized.” Africans, it seems, have enthusiastically embraced evangelical Christianity as their own.
This is not Christ Christianity, tolerant and loving; it’s Old Testament Christianity, harsh and punitive. The growing intolerance of gays simply reflects the growing influence of this brand of religion.
Anti-gay Africans often claim, falsely, that homosexuality is a Western import. Ironically, the real Western import is Evangelical Christianity’s anti-gay bigotry.