Two transgender women in Cameroon have been sentenced to 5 years in prison for "attempted homosexuality", it's 2021.

This seems as good a time as ever to have an open and frank conversation about homophobia across the continent.

Photo: Reuters

Pictured above is YouTuber Shakiro, who alongside her friend Patricia has been sentenced to 5 years for "attempted homosexuality". They have been in detention since February after being arrested at a restaurant, the BBC reports. According to Reuters, February was a particularly terrible month for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual  (LGBTQIA+) rights in Cameroon as a spate of attacks ravaged the country with three murders and twenty attacks targeting LGBT people. Sadly February was not an aberration from the country's general attitudes. Cameroon, where my family hail from, applies homophobic laws particularly egregiously. With homosexuality being punishable by up to 5 years in prison. Whilst Cameroon has been under the rule of Paul Biya since 1982 in what is widely thought of as a dictatorship, his draconian discriminatory sexuality based laws are supported by most of the public. With families frequently disowning or even physically harming relatives who "shame them" by coming out. In 2014 a Cameroonian man named Roger Jean-Claude Mbede died after being removed from a hospital by his family. He was being treated for a hernia he had developed in prison following his arrest and conviction in 2011 under a Cameroonian law that imposes up to five years in prison for homosexual acts. Human Rights Watch reported that in 2012 he was granted granted provisional release on medical grounds and went into hiding. His lawyer Alice Nkom recounts his family stating that:

 “he was a curse for them and that we should let him die” 

and

 “they were going to remove the homosexuality which is in him”. 

according to Lambert Lamba, a Cameroonian activist who works on behalf of sexual minorities. Cameroon is one of many African countries struggling to enact effective liberal democracy in the "post colonial" era. Earlier this year a LGBTQIA+ support centre in Accra, Ghana was closed after the Catholic church in Ghana bishops’ conference released a statement demanding it’s closure . A letter calling for it’s reopening was signed by a range of high-profile Black celebrities including Edward Enninful, Reggie Yates, Idris Elba and Naomi Campbell. People convicted of having gay sex in Nigeria can face imprisonment of up to 14 years (due to the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act signed by former President Goodluck Johnson in 2014)  - apart from in 12 northern states with Sharia law, where they face death by stoning. The signing of the SSMPA arguably precipitated the Gishiri mob attack, in which a knife wielding mob attacked suspected gay couples in their homes whilst shouting “we are working for Johnathan” . A change of leadership in Nigeria would prove no reprieve for those suffering. Whilst on a trip to the U.S. to meet former President Barack Obama in 2015, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari was asked about same-sex marriage. He was quoted as responding by saying “Sodomy is against the law in Nigeria, and abhorrent to our culture.” As recently as the 2021 Ugandan elections, the idea that calls for increased LGBTQIA+ inclusion in society was Western interference, resurfaced when President Yoweri Museveni was asked about it by Channel 4.

Photo: Reuters

There are plenty more accounts I could give highlighting the scale of the problem, but I feel the point is made. At this juncture I'd like to give something of a disclaimer. I understand that as a straight person, perhaps speaking about gay issues de-centres gay or trans voices. On the other hand, as an African I see African society as my personal business and as a human being I see human rights abuses as my business. So I am hopefully at least 66% qualified to share my opinion on the realities I've outlined. Firstly on Muhammadu Buhari's assertion that sodomy is abhorrent to Nigerian culture. Reducing homosexual relationships to a sex act showcases how gay relationships are wrongly reduced to sexual deviancy. In complete ignorance of the the possibility of romance, companionship or the other feelings gay people yearn for just as much as the rest of us. Also, just from a purely pragmatic framework: if gay sex is abhorrent to you and you want to stop it happening - locking gay men together in prison just seems counter productive.


What's also counter productive, is wasting resources persecuting innocent people, in a developing country with a myriad of genuine issues. Because oppression isn't free. Police have to be paid to enforce homophobic laws. Lawyers have to be paid for court cases when homosexuality is alleged. When speaking with family members about sexuality based oppression I often hear "Africa has more pressing issues than gay rights". Firstly, gay African people would probably disagree. Secondly, this implies that ending homophobia would take resources away from other areas, when this is basically the opposite of the truth. It's less effort to just leave people alone. Think about the tangible problems most sub-Saharan African countries have:

  • Lack of value on the value supply chain from raw materials
  • Neo-colonialism from China and Europe
  • Power struggles and rebel uprisings 
  • Religious fundamentalist militias 
  • Slow Covid response due to lack of medical infrastructure

To my knowledge, gay people are not specifically responsible for any of these problems. So if there's no negative material realities attributable to sexual minorities, why the hatred of them? In my opinion it is down to the widely held belief that LGBTQIA+ inclusion is at odds with African culture and Blackness as a whole. We see this idea permeate through the rampant homosexuality in some of our music culture even within the diaspora. So normalised that it barely registers. In Pop Smoke's Dior he growls "I can't fuck with these niggas, cause niggas is gay", snuck in amongst the verse as if it's a totally reasonable thing to say. The reality is that gender and sexuality constructs, as we understand them today, were imparted by colonialists. Amnesty International’s publication Making Love a Crime: Criminalisation of same-sex conduct in Sub-Saharan Africa reflects that prior to colonisation different conceptions of sexuality and gender were accepted across much of Africa. There is even evidence that Western anthropologists deliberately omitted accounts of same-sex African relationships. When the prevalence of examples were too obvious to ignore like in the case of King Mwanga of Buganda (a Bantu Kingdom in today's Uganda), Europeans attributed his debauchery to contributing influence of his Muslim advisers. Homophobia is an ideology literally given to us Africans by White European colonialists. Historically it's not like they've ever had our best interests at heart, so I don't see the logic in stringently sticking to their ideas. 


Ironically, in present day some Western nations progress in the reduction of sexuality based discrimination creates the illusion that the West is more progressive. For those who don't understand history properly, it could seem like homophobia is a problem rooted in the global South. The reality is that several African nation's independence is a more recent development than the invention of the microwave. Britain legalised same-sex marriage in 2013 despite being free from Roman rule for over a thousand years. So numerically it is inevitable that newly free nations would take longer to develop socially, than we would perhaps like. The problem is that there are people suffering now who don't have another 1000 years to wait for things to play out. They deserve to enjoy their lives, free from persecution, now. Which is why we have to speak out. Western paternalism isn't the solution to a problem the West created, so I weirdly agree with several African leader's sentiment that it is not Europe's role to moralise about human rights abuses. Where our opinions diverge is in the sense that I think it is the role of progressive Africans who know better. It's time to free ourselves from the lies. Ultimately no one can convince someone to socialise with or embrace gay people if  they don't want to. They'll miss out on a lot of great parties and fashion inspiration, but it's their choice. What we can surely unilaterally decide as global citizens though, is that no one should be imprisoned or physically or emotionally harmed for their sexuality.  There are a number of grassroots organisations and thought leaders who's work you can interact with if you'd like to support/know more at the bottom of the article. Once armed with their content I would urge anyone to speak to the older members of their family and extended family, though it may prove frustrating (believe me). I myself find it uncomfortable and awkward, but gay and trans people living unapologetically as themselves knowing they could literally be killed for it, show more bravery and courage than most of us will ever have to. It's only right we do our bit.


Article by Martyn Ewoma


Individuals and grassroots organisations to support:

 


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