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Africa, gay rights and how culture shifts

By Gedion Onyango

In a previous post, “Africa: The link between gay rights, chieftaincy and patronage”, I made a sociological analysis of gay legislation status in sub-Saharan Africa, and encouraged more research into the issue. The responses I got were interesting. The commentators’ views broadened my perspectives and more explanations from me are in order.

I realised that the cultural dimensions as expressed in most Africans’ reactions towards gayism are contestable. Before I go further, I will mention that I am not an activist. My views, therefore, neither condemn nor promote any party in relation to the ongoing debate. On a personal note, I simply do not understand why sexual preferences or private sexual activities of an individual should be debatable or sanctioned in the first place. Therefore, in as much as, I am also contributing to this debate, my intentions are purely to work out explanations as to why either actors or people are responding the way they do towards gay rights. Unlike activists’ writings that have flooded the media recently, my writing only meant to invoke media debate on human behaviour represented in laws and practices that the gayism discourse is definitely part of.

There seems to be fierce debate on whether the negative stance towards gay members of our communities is culturally valid. We have seen negative legislations of gayism more culturally justified than scientifically driven. This cultural stance is of course absurd and indicates underlying intolerance from the society. But for us to soberly talk about this, we must first drop our activist or conservatism weaponry and take a balanced ground.

I place my arguments on the following grounds: first, all human actions, practices, aspirations, preferences, expectations and values are culturally-laden or conditioned. Whereby, I conceptualise culture as dominant and popular collective values, views, norms, practices, expectations and responsibilities that define relations between and among individuals or a society. These norms, aspirations or values may have historical groundings that legitimise their practices or validates their references. My understanding of culture also includes; the sanctioned aspects of culture where we find unpopular practices seen as threats to cultural values or to self-preservation of societal structures.

Secondly, I view culture as a system that exists in multi-levels. That is, we have culture existing from as low as at microscopic stages of individual preferences, family, clan/kin, to national and international cultures. This cultural system spectrum is sometimes conflicting, sanctioning excess and complimenting each level. For example, when we talk of humanity, there are universalistic views that are inherent at all levels in a cultural system. A case in point is the fact that one does not have a right to kill another human being in unexplained or unjustified circumstances. Therefore, laws both at national and international levels are informed by this cultural system. Though, at the same time, interpretations of these universalistic values or a cultural system may differ from one level to another. When this varied interpretation collectively happens at a particular level in a cultural system, some cultural elements or individual preferences are suppressed or promoted at the detriment of the minority group. But a cultural system is not static and goes through changes as contents get restructured to fit reigning circumstances.

In this sense, cultural dynamism is largely conditioned by the nature and mechanisms of interactions that each level is exposed to. It is this nature and mechanism of interactions that creates distinctiveness and varieties in what is more acceptable or not acceptable at a specific level in a cultural system. Therefore, when we talk of self-preservation as one of the reasons why collectively societies in Cameroon or in Uganda are more hostile to their gay members than say Kenya, Ghana and Zimbabwe where negative legislations on the issue have not been adopted; we are talking about measuring the extent of dynamisms that cultural dimensions of these societies have undergone.

We should also note that condemnations of anti-gay rights are also culturally informed. This is either the nostalgic/romanticisation of culture or what I view as cultural consciousness which is, in most cases, misconstrued and driven by identity-definition crisis. The term self-preservation is acceptable. But I think it may problematise identity definition given that there is so much untraceable migrations and intermarriages in the world today that it is almost impossible to point out exactly who or what is African or European. That is, in the face of globalisation, it is almost impossible to trace what entails European or African culture.

Going back to my point, a particular level in a universal cultural system may pose some excess that can largely go against interests and preference of universal cultural systems. The signing of conventions like on women’s rights, for example, comes as a result of the universalistic aspirations to sanction excess posed by collective consolidation of individual cultures at national levels harmful to women in a cultural system. Therefore, hostile stances towards gay members of the society are simply one of such excesses of collective individual cultures at the state or national levels. In addition, negative legislations against gay members are as a result of misinterpretations of the universalistic cultural views and expectations on individual freedoms. In particular, as I argued last week, if national cultural systems have rarely undergone revolutionising interactions that tend to overhaul conservative aspect of culture as well as negated or tabooed aspects of a culture, then there will be intolerance or suppression of a particular lifestyle seen as unacceptable in the society.

Therefore, in case we are looking out for potential methodological approaches or ontological and epistemological arguments towards researching gay stance vis-à-vis cultural dimensions in sub-Saharan Africa, we will have to understand boundaries of culture. In this way, we will be able to sieve out when to put a distinction between scientific and cultural justifications of gayism in our societies.

Studies on culture have a consensus that culture is not static and its contents change with space and time. Therefore, those using culture as a tool against gay members of the society are simply overshadowed by the politicians’ abuse of culture in sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, such individuals seem to be held up in the identity consolidation crises in the face of globalisation. What we see is the tension between consolidated collective individual aspirations at national level against international level. Similar activism and demonstrations seen across the world on issues of democracy, or gayism are evidences of universalistic cultural triumph over the local cultures. However, in most instances, these activisms largely mirror preferences and positions of most powerful nations in the universal cultural system. Therefore, some instances like legislation of anti-gayism can be partly viewed as protests created by opposition to domination of powerful nations in the international system.

So, whether we swing between scientific or cultural spectrums when it comes to the debate on gay legislation status in sub-Saharan Africa, the bottom line is that there is no better starting point to this debate other than a cultural position. Thus, before we address a problem, we must address the barriers to addressing such a problem. In our case, we must first make it clear that a culturally-driven campaign against gayism in sub-Saharan Africa is misinformed. It tends to assume a conceptualisation of culture that is clear in terms of definition on what elements entail African culture. This stance also tends to hold a view that culture is static and tends to neglect the historical status or investigating contents of that particular culture.

There are evidences that gayism has been part of human existence longer than we can remember. But, at the same time, reactions we see in sub-Saharan Africa are a necessary part of resolving discrimination against some particular members of the society based on sexual preferences. This is because; in any particular political or social system there are potential conflicts and disagreements, and such conflicts are sometimes addressed with time in a consolidated manner. I am strongly for the view that; being a private sexual practice, there are no valid approaches that can be used to trace history of gay practices in the society to confirm whether or not it is foreign or endogenous to that particular society.

Humans and their societies are very complex entities and there is no single perspective that can wholly explain their actions. I therefore fail to understand how and why gay issues ended up in the policy agendas of various governments amid myriad economic and political challenges in the world. I think illegalising undeclared insider trading conducted by companies owned by political leaders and putting effective measures to counter poaching would have been more logical and appropriate in Uganda, Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa.

Gedion Onyango is a PhD research fellow with the School of Government at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa.

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  • 2 Responses to “Africa, gay rights and how culture shifts”

    1. Momma Cyndi #

      Politics rely on a ‘us vs them’ strategy. Where there are no divisions, they will create divisions. It is how politicians survive.

      March 27, 2014 at 6:01 pm
    2. michael #

      Politiics is the curse of our age.It is always about power and manipulation.

      March 28, 2014 at 7:14 am

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