Africa and homosexuality: In denial

The Economist magazine
12 April 2007

Africa and homosexuality: In denial

Anglican divisions are a reminder that homophobia in Africa is still the norm

IN A nice twist of missionary history, several of America’s oldest and richest Anglican parishes now claim to be under the authority of African bishops. The issue that has led them to renounce their own national leadership is homosexuality; some of the minority of Anglicans (or Episcopalians) who object to gay bishops in American dioceses are aligning with conservatives in Africa.

The most influential is Archbishop Peter Akinola, who leads the 17m-strong Anglican church in Nigeria, as well as his new congregants in Virginia. His hostility to homosexuality may reflect mainstream African opinion, but he is pragmatic too. His conservative reading of the Bible helps protect his Anglican flank against the fast-growing Pentecostalists. It also seeks common ground with Nigeria’s homophobic Muslims.

Most African leaders still frown on homosexuality. Several call it subhuman” and “un-African”. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has called homosexuals “worse than dogs and pigs”. The late J.M. Kariuki, a Kenyan populist MP, called homosexuality “that vice for which we Africans have no name”. Such views help ridicule African homosexuals and hamper the fight against AIDS, albeit a scourge transmitted mainly heterosexually in Africa.

It is hard to tell how many active homosexuals there are in Africa: the International Lesbian and Gay Association, a Brussels-based lobby, guesses there are more than 24m in a continent-wide populace of 900m-plus. Some are beginning to speak up, challenging a widespread notion that homosexuality was brought in by foreigners.

Africa’s Anglican clergymen get little education in sexuality. Some preach abstinence yet turn a blind eye to polygamous marriages, adultery and genital mutilation. Christopher Senyonjo, a retired Anglican bishop in Uganda, is one of only a small number of African Anglicans who challenge the conservatives. The hounding of homosexuals, he says, is the “opposite of Christlike”.

As Africans become more urban and cosmopolitan, will their views soften? If the consensus on homosexuals becomes gentler, other invisible” Africans, notably the disabled and the mad, who are often abandoned or tucked away out of sight at home, may be treated better too.

Only South Africa’s Anglicans, who played a big part in combating apartheid, offer some sort of counterbalance. The church there has spoken up for homosexual rights. The government has legalised same-sex marriage. But campaigners say that South African lesbians are now being targeted by homophobic men ­and sometimes even gang-raped.

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