When Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf talks about democracy, economic reform, or good governance, Western diplomats swoon. But when President Sirleaf – this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate -- talks about homosexuality, Westerners look for ways to change the subject.
On Monday, London’s Guardian newspaper published an exchange between its reporter Tamasin Ford and Sirleaf, with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair present. In the interview, Sirleaf defended her country’s law banning “voluntary sodomy,” which is punishable up to one year in jail, saying, “We've got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve. We're going to keep to our traditional values."
Ms. Ford then turned to Mr. Blair for comment, but Blair stayed on message. "One of advantages of doing what I do now is that I can choose the issues I get into and the issues that I don't," said Blair, who was visiting Sirleaf in his capacity as founder of Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), a charity that aims to strengthen African governments. “For us, the priorities are around power, roads, jobs delivery.”
On homosexuality, Blair wouldn’t comment.
Understanding why the issue of homosexuality causes such discomfort across the African continent requires a cursory knowledge of the legacy of European colonialism and of Christian missionaries, and also the growing assertiveness of today’s African leaders to determine what is and isn’t appropriate in their countries. Some African leaders, including Sirleaf, argue that Western opinions are unwelcome when it comes to social issues, while Western historians noted that many African societies didn’t even have a name for homosexuality, let alone the stigma attached to it, until the arrival of Christian missionaries in the late 1800s. Regardless of who is right, it is an issue that leaves both sides befuddled and defensive, and that has the small number of African gay rights activists increasingly worried.
At least 30 of Africa’s 54 nations have laws that criminalize homosexual behavior, laws that have largely remained in their current form since they were written by British, French, German, Portuguese or Belgian colonial powers.
At the extreme edge is Uganda, where lawmakers have tried, twice, to enact a law that would make homosexual behavior – which is already illegal in Uganda – punishable by the death penalty. Ugandan gay rights activists have recently filed a civil tort case in the United States, charging that American missionaries, including the Springfield, Mass.-based Rev. Scott Lively, stirred up antigay violence and sentiment by giving sermons that demonized homosexuality.
But not all African nations are alike. South Africa has gone the opposite direction, becoming the first country in the world to include in its Constitution specific protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Even so, according to a 2011 Human Rights Watch report, social attitudes lag behind the nation’s liberal laws, and many gay men and women find themselves the victims of “discrimination, harassment, and violence at the hands of private individuals and sometimes state agents.”
“[Homosexuality] degrades human dignity. It’s unnatural, and there is no question ever of allowing these people to behave worse than dogs and pigs,” said President Mugabe in 1995, after shutting down a Harare book exhibition organized by the group Gays and Lesbians in Zimbabwe. “If dogs and pigs do not do it, why must human beings? We have our own culture, and we must rededicate ourselves to our traditional values that make us human beings…. What we are being persuaded to accept is a sub-animal behavior and we will never allow it here.”
What seems likely is that African societies are confronting the issue of homosexuality because their once-closed societies are opening up more. With more public forums, including Internet chat rooms and social media, those citizens who happen to be gay or lesbian are beginning to make their voices heard, and to demand rights they see existing in other countries and in international law.
But when outsiders – from Christian conservatives to human rights activists – enter this debate, they bring with them their own mental baggage and expectations for how this debate should play out. In some cases, such as Uganda's death-penalty proposal, this makes things worse.
* Keep Calm, a winking reference to the World War II slogan "Keep Calm and Carry On," is a new blog that aims to provide a bit of context to help make sense of confusing news events.