By Eusebius McKaiser
As a gay African, with a background in analytic philosophy, the most annoying opposition to my sexual orientation is the claim that my lifestyle is un-African. It is annoying because historic and anthropological claims about the origins of behaviour seldom offer principled reasons why a lifestyle should never be allowed.
Colonialists are often accused of bringing homosexuality to Africa. Yet they never get attributed with a likelier anthropological truth: introducing penal codes to the continent that outlaw gay sex. An irony that bypasses homophobic leaders such as Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, is that anti-sodomy laws on their countries’ statute books were first designed and implemented by the former colonial powers now accused of exporting homosexuality. Should former colonial masters not rather be accused of teaching Africa how to codify homophobia?
There is no anthropological evidence that homosexuality first occurred in Africa after colonisation began. The linguistic markers that draw attention to same-sex attraction – “faggot”, “gay”, “homosexual”, etc – may be inventions of the English language. And homophobic taxonomies distinguishing sexual identities that are “normal” from those that are “abnormal” may have first flowed from psychological studies in the west. But basic same-sex attraction, without linguistic markers or psychological theories, occurs in all societies where human beings find themselves. It would be rather strange for fundamental human experiences to be so highly relative that homosexuality was time- or place-bound.
A more serious problem with the claim that homosexuality is un-African is that it is a feeble normative assertion. For one thing, the mere existence of gay men and women who are African constitutes a counter-example to the claim. You can only insist that homosexuality is un-African if you maintain that a few individuals are entitled to define what being African must mean. It is not clear why gay Africans cannot craft narratives of African identity that includes the fact that they are homosexual. Why is same-sex attraction inherently un-African? I have yet to see homophobes across the African continent answer this question without simply asserting that it is so.
Of course, assertions, especially in the hands of men and women with massive political power, can quickly become reality. Hence the constant reports about the repression of gay Africans. But that is just evidence of the might of state power. It is not a compelling moral argument just because a majority of citizens swallow the homophobic rhetoric of political leaders.
And this relates to the biggest lie about homosexuality’s place in African societies. Even assuming homosexuality does not predate colonialism, which it does, it would not follow that homosexuality should not be permitted here. Why should African beliefs and traditions not be subject to moral criticism and revision?
Any African leader, who thinks tradition for its own sake is worth preserving, inadvertently promotes the continent as a place where critical self-examination is not allowed. That is nothing to be proud of. Any custom, homophobic or otherwise, that cannot withstand critical evaluation should simply be assigned to a dustbin of historic embarrassments. Since homosexuality is not harmful to gay men and women, or to any gawking bystander, there is no reason to outlaw it in Africa or elsewhere. Opposition to homosexuality, let’s face is, at best aesthetic – “Yuk!” – and at worst prejudice that is handed down to us. It is homophobia, rather than homosexuality, that is ultimately an embarrassment for Africa.
Eusebius McKaiser is an associate at the University of Witwatersrand’s Centre for Ethics, based in Johannesburg. His first book, a collection of critical essays, A Bantu in my Bathroom, has just been published by Pan Macmillan and is available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter @eusebius