“What Clinton and Obama have done is weaponize gay rights in the service of neocolonialism.”By ISH
Gay people in African countries have long confronted existential challenges. But now old laws that criminalize homosexual behavior are being supplemented with harsh penalties and new laws designed to push gay people back into the shadows. This massive wave of repression is being led by local demagogues and visiting American missionaries. But underneath it all, decades of neocolonial exploitation and blatant imperialist hypocrisy have created a perfect storm of terror for gay Africans.
We celebrate the fact that Uganda is a no go zone for the gay people. Let them die like cockroaches and insects with no purpose. We praise the lord that our leaders are put them in their places;- graveyards, cells, prisons and out of Uganda. Yeessssssssssssssssssss this is it, we shall get them.” —a Ugandan supporter of anti-gay legislation, on FacebookAfter being stalled for several years and having undergone various revisions, Uganda's parliament made headlines in December by finally passing a deeply repressive bill against gays and lesbians. While the death penalty clause was removed from what was originally referred to as the "Kill the Gays Bill," it sets penalties including life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality,” and also criminalizes the failure to turn in known homosexuals for their behavior. According to the Guardian, “Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda under a colonial-era law that criminalised sexual acts 'against the order of nature,' but the Ugandan politician who wrote the new law argued that tough new legislation was needed because gay people from the west threatened to destroy Ugandan families and were allegedly 'recruiting' Ugandan children into gay lifestyles.”
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has so far refused to sign the bill into law, saying the bill would not solve the problem of “abnormality.” But regardless of the status of the bill, Ugandan gay people, referred to as “kuchus,” report a sharp increase in anti-gay harassment and violence. Activist David Kato was murdered in 2011, and Andrew Waiswa of the Gender-Equality and Health Organisation of Uganda (GEHO) was beaten by thugs in December requiring hospitalization. Waiswa, now recuperating at home, reports that his friends are threatened daily on the streets. Says Waiswa, “So they want to kill me for being me and trying to help fellow LGBTq brothers and sisters??? Now that's madness!! I have survived many attempts and I know some of us might lose our lives in this battle, but giving up the fight is not an option....We are born this way!!! We are gay! We are here... we can't hide anymore, we have nowhere to run...yes we are Ugandan Kuchus!!”
A Worldwide Trend?Unfortunately, Uganda is not the only country in Africa, or indeed elsewhere in the world, where gay or queer people are now being targeted. In January, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan surprised observers by signing a similarly repressive law that criminalizes gay marriages but also criminalizes the ability of gays and lesbians to associate or to form organizations. Immediately following the enactment of this law, dozens of gay Nigerians were arrested, according to human rights activists. In northern Nigeria where Muslim sharia law coexists with civil Nigerian law, the new law seems to have fueled a wave of popular anti-gay protest demanding harsh penalties for those arrested.
Nigerian student Udoka Okafor summarizes:
Openly LGBT persons in Nigeria are simply struggling to survive a culture that is hostile to them because of their sexual and gender orientation. The legal system criminalizes them, society ostracizes them, and politicians spit out negative demagogueries about them that further indoctrinate people into a culture of hostility towards LGBT persons.”Elsewhere, Gambia's president Yahya Jammeh used the occasion of his September speech to the United Nations in New York to denounce homosexuals and their supporters: "Those who promote homosexuality want to put an end to human existence...Homosexuality in all its forms and manifestations which, though very evil, antihuman as well as anti-Allah, is being promoted as a human right by some powers.”
A legislator in Liberia is promoting a law that would also criminalize gay marriage: “[Homosexuality] is a criminal offence. It is un-African...It is a problem in our society. We consider deviant sexual behaviour criminal behaviour,” said the legislator, Jewel Howard-Taylor.
Back in 1995 President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe notoriously said, “I find it extremely outrageous and repugnant to my human conscience that such immoral and repulsive organizations, like those of homosexuals, who offend both against the law of nature and the morals of religious beliefs espoused by our society, should have any advocates in our midst and elsewhere in the world.” He has kept up this anti-gay attitude ever since and non-sexual gay behavior was criminalized in Zimbabwe in 2006. There are many other examples across sub-Saharan Africa.
And of course there is the law in Russia, signed by President Vladimir Putin last summer, that bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” This law effectively shoves Russia's gay and lesbian community back into the closet, as any open activity can now be cited as “gay propaganda” that might expose children to homosexuality. While homosexuality itself remains decriminalized in post-Soviet Russia (at least for now), activists report a disturbing increase in violence directed against the Russian gay community. The Russian anti-gay law has been a focus of world-wide activists seeking to use the winter Olympics in Sochi to publicize what's happening there and punish the Olympics' supporters for enabling repression by calling for protests and a boycott.
Finally, in December of last year, India's supreme court shocked the world by reinstating a colonial-era law recriminalizing homosexuality. The 1861 law had been struck down in 2009. In the new year, the supreme court even rejected complaints by human rights activists and stood firm on its decision to make homosexuality punishable by up to ten years in jail.
Why Is this Happening?
Yet things look very different in the United States. While violence
against transgendered people remains at an unprecented high level, and
while a bill against workplace discrimination against LGBT people (ENDA)
languishes in congress, the rapid increase in the number of states
legalizing same-sex marriage equality would suggest a rising tide of
acceptance toward gay people here at home. Despite the furious activity
of anti-gay hate groups and the frothings
of fascist teapartiers on the American right, mostly the story in the
US has been one of rapid legal advance for gay civil rights. So why all
this backlash against gay people in so many places around the world?
Many of the African politicians behind these anti-gay laws claim that homosexuality represents something un-African being imported into Africa by criminal European or American gays for nefarious purposes like child molestation. These politicians say there is no history of homosexuality in Africa, despite the fact that this is widely disputed by scholars. Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa, one of the architects of the Uganda bill, wrote, “Homosexuality is illegal, unnatural, ungodly and un-African: In Uganda as most of the global South, homosexuality is an 'evil and repugnant sexual act' which simultaneously breaks four established laws [including] the law of our African tribal cultures which have been handed down to us by our fathers from thousands of years of civilized traditions.”
It is true that a moden gay identity owes much to the evolution of gay consciousness in European and American culture, but gay historians and anthropologists have documented same-gender sexuality and gender-nonconforming behavior all over the world, including in many traditional African cultures. It's ironic that what these politicians are actually defending is a legal system and religious morality established by the British colonial masters, who introduced harsh anti-gay codes at the point of bayonets to the indigenous populations of the African regions they conquered in the 19th century.
And it's not as though there are no African gays standing up for their own rights. There are LGBT organizations across Africa. The very fact that African gays now have a roster of martyrs like David Kato of Uganda, or Roger Jean-Claude Mbede and Eric Lembembe of Cameroon, disproves this notion that gay people are outsiders. And who can forget the heroic anti-apartheid activist turned HIV-activist Simon Nkoli?
So what is really happening? Two actual outside forces are involved.
The Evangelical Link
Scott Lively is a right-wing American Christian fundamentalist activist who has devoted his career to attacking LGBT people. The author of a slanderous book
that claims Nazi Germany was the product of a homosexual conspiracy, he
traveled to Uganda in 2009 to give a series of lectures warning of a
gay menace to Ugandan society. His message is not just one of religious
conservatism, but a call to political action. American evangelical
missionaries have been using allegedly charitable intentions to build
networks throughout Africa. Their ubiquitous presence in local relief
work, including massive involvement in HIV/AIDS charities, has given
them entry to local politics. Their work is not all about mere charity:
it comes with a heavy dose of social conservatism and politically
reactionary ideology. Their AIDS relief work, where they have become a
channel for US government funding, puts AIDS prevention in the context
of conservative religious practice and morality, focusing for instance,
on abstinence and marriage. Remember the abortive and bizarre “Kony 2012”
campaign? The people behind that were part of the same community of
zealous missionaries working hard to capture the minds of communities
across central Africa.
Lively and others like him, apparently on the losing end of the so-called culture wars in the United States, have found a receptive audience in countries like Uganda. In the U.S., Lively's organizations are derided as hate groups. In Uganda, in the midst of a massive religious revival where antigay attitudes have become commonplace, Lively's political message has found fertile ground. Martin Ssempa, already engaged in a campaign against sexual permissiveness in AIDS prevention, became one of his chief local disciples. An American journalist visiting Uganda in 2005 described Ssempa's message:
In his sermons, he condemns homosexuality, pornography, condoms, Islam, Catholics, certain kinds of rock music, and women’s rights activists, who he says promote lesbianism, abortion, and the worship of female goddesses. He told me that Satan worshipers hold meetings under Lake Victoria, where they are promised riches in exchange for human blood, which they collect by staging car accidents and kidnappings.”Scott Lively and the American evangelicals have become the catalyst for the transformation of these reactionary ideas into political reality. Although Lively claims to be against harsh punishment for homosexual acts, it's clear that his pseudo-historical and pseudo-scientific diatribes against gay people have sent anti-gay sentiment in Uganda over the top. It's worth noting —and frightening — that Lively has lately been making numerous appearances in Russia. (He's also being sued in the state of Massachusetts for “crimes against humanity” by a Ugandan LGBT group called SMUG, Sexual Minorities of Uganda, backed by the Center for Constitutional Rights).
While Lively is the most prominent of the reactionary evangelical leaders implicated in anti-gay legislation, there are religious organizers across the region influencing popular attitudes and legal processes. The Catholic Church, the conservative wing of the Anglican church, numerous protestant denominations, and in the case of some countries, Islamic fundamentalist movements like Nigeria's Boko Haram, are all preaching intolerance toward gay people.
But it's a mistake to simply blame the new wave of anti-gay repression on mere backward religious ideas. The real issue is power, and this is revealed as we consider who is actually benefiting from this repression.
The Weaponization of Gay Rights
There is a second outside force behind the wave of anti-gay reaction
in Africa and elsewhere, and it's actually the more sinister one.
Ironically, this force is dressed in pro-LGBT language and intent. This
force is the U.S. State Department.
Hillary Clinton, acting as President Obama's secretary of state, made a speech at the UN offices in Geneva in 2011 in which she said, "Some have suggested that gay rights and human rights are separate and distinct, but in fact they are one and the same.” The speech was a sweeping condemnation of anti-gay repression world-wide. Under her leadership, the State Department followed up the speech with broad policy statements that “the United States would use all the tools of American diplomacy to promote LGBT rights around the world.”
American and international LGBT organizations widely welcomed Clinton's remarks, hoping that the United States would use its “leverage” to advocate for gay civil rights in places like Uganda. The American LGBT population largely cheered Clinton and Obama, which was, of course, part of the idea.
But here's the problem. The United States is not actually a force for good in the world, and certainly not a force for good in Africa.
The real interest of the US in Africa is power; economic and political power. In the fifty-plus years of the post-colonial era, African countries have learned well and good what domination by the US means. In countries like Congo, Rwanda, Liberia, and Angola, the US has meant decades of genocidal civil strife and the looting of natural resources. It has meant coup d'etats and rule by viciously corrupt western puppets. It has meant poverty for the masses of people while a select few at the top of African countries are blessed with untold wealth and influence. It has meant crushing national debts and environmental disaster. It has meant brute force against uprisings or national attempts to break free of imperialist — of neocolonial — domination. The United States and its corporations profit from African misfortune.
What Clinton and Obama did was weaponize gay rights in the service of that neocolonialism.
It's no accident that Clinton issued this statement when she did. Obama has his eye fixed clearly on one of the main battlefields of neoliberal globalization. American “advisers” and even armies have been dispatched to central Africa. Drone bases have been set up in west Africa. US military incursions and drone attacks continue in Somalia. And US military aid and mercenary assistance (in concert with its junior partner the Israeli military-industrial complex) is all over east Africa. The radical-looking governments once supported by the Soviet Union have mostly disappeared, but Chinese imperialism has replaced Russia as an economic threat to the US in Africa. The US has used its crocodile-tears version of “human rights” as a weapon before, but now some symbolic concern for LGBT rights has been added to the American armory. Let us be clear: this is not a good thing for the gay, lesbian, transgender, or queer people of Africa.
US Africa policy is drenched in blood. Sure there's lots of money going to famine relief, AIDS prevention, and resource exploration. But each dollar is a strand from a spider's web. And how dare the United States, prison capital of the world, lecture any other country about civil repression?
The neocolonial domination of Africa looks different than the colonial domination of Africa. It requires allowing national governments the appearance of independence. The corrupt, anti-democratic rulers of so many African countries understand this well too. What the weaponization of gay rights allows them is a cheap form of utterly fake anti-imperialism. It allows them to deflect actual criticism of their repressive rule by blaming gay people as subversives and pointing to their own opposition to imperialism by loudly resisting the bullying of the State Department on gay-related social policy. The real fact that the US government and multinational corporations are propping up undemocratic regimes because it's strategically and economically profitable to do so is consciously obscured. The millions of dollars that fatten the accounts of local compradors from their collaboration with imperialism are no longer the focus when these compradors turn around and announce that they are standing up to unfair pressure from the most powerful country on the planet.
Last July, Zimbabwe's Mugabe commented after Obama's visit to a handful of African countries:
Then we have this American president, Obama, born of an African father, who is saying we will not give you aid if you don’t embrace homosexuality....We ask, was he born out of homosexuality? We need continuity in our race, and that comes from the woman, and no to homosexuality....we will cut their heads off.”The anti-gay demogogues in Uganda and Nigeria are also clear on this, finding great utility in the time-honored traditions of scapegoating and showboating. One can see exactly what has now happened by examining the Facebook page “Nigerians Must Unite and Liberate Nigeria.” A really interesting page, full of anti-imperialist content, it's the site of daily postings against Nigerian government corruption, ethnic and religious sectarianism, against corporate destruction of the Nigerian environment, and plunder of Nigerian resources. But along came the anti-gay marriage law, and now it is filled with posts and comments praising President Jonathan. “We are forever looking forward to the slightest opportunity to commend Goodluck Jonathan the President of our nation, in the hope that he will do better. In that spirit, my compliments, and in no small measure, go out to President goodluck jonathan, for having the courage to stand up to enormous American & European pressure, by signing into law, the Anti-Gay bill and criminalizing same-sex marriage and public celebration of gay love in Nigeria. Thumbs up on this one.” And, “Good News from Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan has signed into law a wide-ranging bill which not only criminalizes same sex marriage, but all cohabitation, meetings, gatherings and advocacy by or on behalf of gay people in the country: The signed bill says the gays, lesbians in Nigeria will risk a 14-year jail term...Brave President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.” Pro-gay commenters were called CIA agents and banned.
So not only is bigotry triumphant, but the corrupt national leaderships which actually profit from their relationship with neocolonialism and the multi-national corporations are let completely off the hook.
The reaction of the LGBT establishment
in the US has been predictable, lining up to demand that the US, the
EU and other governments increase their pressure on African governments.
The corporatist LGBT civil rights group Human Rights Campaign (HRC)
even traveled to Davos to present at the World Economic Forum vulture
nest: "When countries like Russia or Nigeria pass laws that
threaten the human rights of LGBT people, world leaders must make it
clear that those actions have consequences,” said HRC head Chad Griffin.
The HRC basically identifies with imperialism and calls for more misery
to be inflicted on Nigeria. Talk about not doing African gays any
favors. (For more information on how the HRC actually profits from
global exploitation check out these reports: “HRC and the Vulture Fund” and “HRC International Expansion Funded by the Worst Humans.”)
While the impulse toward solidarity with oppressed lesbian, gay and transgender people in countries like Uganda and Nigeria is positive, it's really impossible under the circumstances of US imperialist hegemony to fail to contextualize what's going on in Africa, and to fail to understand the hypocrisy of American intent. The liberation of Africa's gay people may wind up looking different than the civil rights trajectory in Europe and the United States. This is in no way to excuse or mitigate the brutal repression being inflicted on gays in Uganda and Nigeria; indeed it should be firmly and loudly condemned by communists, as imperialism and the corrupt rule of the compradors should be equally condemned.
But the liberation of Africa from neocolonialism, imperialism and neoliberalism (including the liberation of African gay people) must be the work of Africans themselves.
As in the Middle East, where apartheid Israel is using its supposed acceptance of gays as a propaganda weapon in its war against the Palestinians, the concept here of “homonationalism” is useful.
Writing in Jadaliyya, Maya Mikdashi identifies homonationalism in the context of what Hillary Clinton's aggressive statement really meant: “In her speech Secretary Clinton was...reproducing this generative alienation between political and human rights. She emphasized that LGBTQs everywhere had the same rights to love and have sex with whomever they choose as partners, and to do so safely. In making this statement, she reiterated a central tenet of what Jasbir Puar names homonationalism: the idea that LGBTQs the world over experience, practice, and are motivated by the same desires... Secretary Clinton suggested that queers everywhere, whether white or black, male or female or transgendered, soldier or civilian, rich or poor, Palestinian or Israeli, can be comprehended and interpolated through the same rights framework. But the content of what she she calls 'gay rights' is informed by the experiences and histories of (namely white gay male) queers in the United States, and thus there is an emphasis on visibility and identity politics and an elision of the class and political struggles that animate the lives of the majority of the third world's heterosexual and homosexual populations. Thus detached from its locality, 'gay rights' can travel internationally not only as a vehicle for normative homo-nationalism, but as a vehicle for neoliberal ways of producing politics and subjects more broadly.”
Thus, part of the problem is that the imposition of American will on African countries is rightfully going to produce backlash, leaving the actual lesbian, gay, transgender or queer Africans forced into making false and dangerous choices. And it's fair to suggest that the active embrace of US bullying by elements in the American gay community who have embraced the agenda of the Obama State Department might mark a transition from “homonationalism” to “homoimperialism.”
Mikdashi concludes with a warning, which is really important when thinking about how to respond to calls for justice against the oppression which is real and horrifying, coming from people and places drenched in the bloody hypocrisy of empire:
We cannot 'choose' to not be who we have become, but we must recognize how we have been formed as neoliberal rights seeking and speaking bodies, and how this formation is linked to a history of depoliticization and alienation. In other words, we must be both tactical and skeptical when this language reaches to embrace us, and when we, as activists and as academics, use it ourselves. We must find ways to critically inhabit this homonational world and try, always, to act within the uncomfortable and precarious line between rights and justice.”
Lenin famously said that communists should be “tribune[s] of the people...able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects.” And so we are called to speak out against the rise of anti-gay repression in Africa, in Russia, in India, and to challenge the credentials of those who claim they are somehow defending African-ness by oppressing gay people. But for us, this work begins here in the US: the State Department, the Clintons, the Obamas, the fascist hate groups and the ilk of Scott Lively, these mortal enemies are all here right at home.
As Andrew Waiswa of GEHO says, evoking past liberation struggles in Africa, “A luta continua!”