Time to reposition one of Africa’s great debates: gay rights
Over the past few years, we have seen an explosion of arguments for and against gay rights in Africa. Those in favour of gay rights point out that they can help to protect sexual minorities by making discrimination illegal, in the process making societies more equitable. Those opposed to gay rights allege that homosexuality only arrived with Europeans, that gay rights are a threat to the African nation, and a threat to the heterosexual family.
There is of course a wealth of evidence that same-sex desire existed in Africa before the first Europeans. There is also no evidence whatsoever that gay rights will undermine the sovereignty of any nation or lead to the breakdown of the heterosexual family – indeed, the causal mechanism to justify such arguments is left deliberately vague by homophobes. And yet, despite what would appear to be rather flimsy arguments opposing gay rights in Africa, we still find parts of Africa where at least nine in ten people think that homosexuality should not be accepted. Why is this?
In this article, I will suggest that there are key reasons why gay rights are not widely accepted in Africa and why these homophobic views have not been successfully challenged by gay rights activists.
I will also suggest that there may be other ways of protecting and improving the lives of sexual minorities in Africa which not only directly complement and strengthen arguments for gay rights, but are offering immediate results.
Where has the push for “gay rights” taken us?
The push for gay rights in Africa is often framed in relation to universal calls for human rights. As the argument goes, gay rights are human rights. The problem with this argument is that it is open to attack for promoting a Westerncentric idea (human rights only really started to gain ascendency after the 1948 UN declaration signed in Paris).
Such rights also come under attack because the majority (the heterosexual population) is being asked to give something to a minority (a sexual minority) supported by outside forces (groups including the UN, Human Rights Watch, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and so forth) which do not appear to help the heterosexual majority. As some have argued, you could replace ‘heterosexual population’ with ‘black population’, ‘sexual minority’ with ‘white minority’, and groups such as the UN with colonial era Great Britain, France and Germany, and see worrying parallels to colonialism. Here sexual minorities are seen to be aligned against the wider nation (often backed up by external forces) rather than as a part of the wider nation.
The power of gay rights comes from the hope that they will lead to the legal protection of sexual minorities. Gay rights therefore are really in many ways gay legal rights. We can see this in South Africa with the culmination of gay rights arguments centring on the legal right for same-sex couples to marry. Over time, such legal rights are meant to have a positive effect on the wider population’s opinion of sexual minorities. In short, it is hoped that people are more likely to change their negative views of homosexuality if they know that acting on those negative views is illegal. The same hope exists behind laws against racism for instance. And yet not everyone agrees with this.
While it may well be the case that legal change is an important step towards eventual acceptance and equality for sexual minorities, by itself, it is unlikely to be enough to change societal attitudes. For example, in South Africa, we see how legal change might not have increased acceptance of sexual minorities. The Pew Research Centre’s poll on global acceptance of homosexuality in 2013 found that only 32% of South Africans thought that homosexuality should be accepted by society, one percentage point lower than the previous Pew survey conducted in 2002.
Gay rights, and in particular gay legal protections, are clearly vitally important. However, neither the key mechanism being used for their adoption (human rights) nor their key outcome (the eventual acceptance of homosexuality by society) are as straightforward as we may hope them to be.
What happens if we talk about health?
Another way of improving the lives of sexual minorities in Africa is to look at health, in particular health in relation to HIV. Looking at health shows the connection between sexual minority groups and other groups in a country. It can also improve the lives of sexual minorities immediately, increase acceptance of homosexuality in society, and it does not require the granting of gay rights in a country to do so. Here’s how:
First, there are clearly very pragmatic reasons for a state to address HIV among all parts of the population (for example the burden on the health service, the reduction in tax revenue due to workers being off sick and so on). Whether we are talking about sexual minorities, women, men, adolescents, truck drivers, sex workers, migrants or miners, it makes sense to challenge the spread of the virus to help the overarching functioning and productivity of a country. This is also important because the virus clearly does not stay within any one part of the population. Research shows that significant proportions of groups such as ‘men who have sex with men’ (MSM) also have sex with women. If a state misses out targeting one part of the population, risk immediately increases for all other parts of the population.
Second, and beyond obvious pragmatics, successfully tackling HIV among sexual minority groups means tackling homophobic discrimination. Research conducted at the Anova Health Institute in South Africa shows that sexual minority groups such MSM can easily face discrimination and less than adequate healthcare at public clinics due to homophobia. Anova has also found that groups such as MSM are more likely to need competent medical care because homophobic discrimination leads to depression, which leads to MSM feeling powerless to look after their own health.
Third, the effect of homophobic discrimination on sexual minority groups is very similar to the effect of other types of stigma on other groups. AIDS stigma, for example, has been found to limit competent medical care and also lead to psychological conditions like depression. In other words, there is a link between stigmas that affect sexual minorities in particular and stigmas that affect all of society.
Fourth, work to improve healthcare for sexual minorities is already starting to occur throughout Africa. Not only is it taking place in South Africa (Anova, in partnership with the South African Department of Health has done training at over 200 public healthcare clinics in dealing with groups such as MSM), it is also taking place in a variety of countries that have yet to implement legal gay rights.
Nurses and doctors are being trained in these countries, from diverse communities, in cities and in smaller towns, to be accepting of sexual difference and not to discriminate against sexual minorities. The reason this training is occurring is not necessarily because the people doing the training or the people allowing the training also promote gay rights. Instead, it’s because it is in the public health to assist a so far underserved segment of society in the fight against HIV. Along the way, no doubt, important and influential people in different communities (the local doctor or the local nurse) are finding out about more sexual minorities, learning how to treat them respectfully, and passing on that attitude to others.
Talking about health for sexual minorities therefore functions in a different way to talking about gay rights. Gay rights can inadvertently segment off sexual minorities as separate to the wider nation. Gay rights also do not necessarily improve societal attitudes, even after decades of struggle.
The point of this article has not been to suggest the approach deployed by those in favour of gay rights is wrong. It has however been to suggest that there are other, complimentary ways, in which the lives of sexual minorities can be improved.
Talking about health helps overcome some of the shortcomings of the gay rights argument while simultaneously reinforcing why sexual minorities need to be treated with dignity. Talking about health may be the next step to create true equality for sexual minorities across the continent.
Dr Andrew Tucker is with the Anova Health Institute of Johannesburg. Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.