LGBT and Africa and class and the right and religion… February 19, 2014Posted by WorldbyStorm in Class/Class politics, LGBT, Religion, The Left, Uncategorized.
…a telling interview in the Observer this last weekend with celebrated Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina whose acerbic ‘How to Write about Africa’ brought him to an international audience. Wainaina who came out as gay this year has a lot to say about gay rights in Africa and what’s educative about it is the way in which the struggles lgbt people have there are one’s that run into a broad range of issues, class, politics, religion and the push from the right (in its cultural and religious forms but obviously also locked into certain economic lines).
So what has he to say about class:
“If you are middle-class here, or international enough here, you can pretty much live as you want,” he says, of his own circumstance. That was not so easy, though, still, for his young friend, and increasingly impossible for gay men and women in Nigeria and Uganda (and to differing degrees in the 36 other African countries in which homosexuality remains illegal). “It is an irony,” he says, “that my friend had worked in the past for an NGO counselling people about the importance of being open about health issues, but he couldn’t even tell us he was going through this thing. I thought, ‘It is time: I have to write about it.’”
Politics? And feminism.
why, I wonder of Wainaina, did the subject seem so very raw in African societies now?
He pauses, before giving me a brief lesson in political history. “Partly homophobia is seasonal,” he suggests, “particularly with regards to election seasons. And it comes in different packages. Sometimes it is packaged with abortion, for example, what they call a wedge issue, a for or against.”
Religion, and in particular the religious right (and note how that inflects the societal discourse making somewhat more tolerant religions – or perhaps more accurately somewhat less intolerant religions – become less so).
Given the caveat that the cultural history is different in Islamic parts of Africa, Wainaina believes those currents of bigotry are best understood by examining the recent patterns of church-going. “In any forum where people discuss the issues – in the media, or in conversation – you will quickly hear almost the exact wording that has been distributed and disseminated in the churches,” he says. “Most importantly, the Pentecostal churches, which have in turn influenced Catholic and Anglican because they are shouting loudest and growing fastest.”
That language was no accident. It entered Africa in the late 1980s on the back of the heavily funded right-wing Pentecostal movement, mostly imported from the rapture-obsessed white southern churches of America. “They came in the last days of those dictatorships in the 1980s, and they came with presidential sanction,” he says. “From Malawi to Zambia to here to wherever. Those churches talked a lot about obeying your leaders, and about the mortal dangers of decadent influences bringing in abortion and homosexuality.” They used the fear and reality of HIV, often pictured as vengeance, to back up their preaching.
And politics again, this time the failure of politics to engage with economic failure, polarised societies and suchlike:
Nigeria under the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, who spends a lot of time courting the born-again, has become a case in point. “Listen,” Wainaina says, “your nation is being polarised between Islamic militants and Pentecostal reactionaries: what is the single issue they can agree on and unite around? Your economic miracle is stalling, your popularity is tanking, and so in your desperation you create not just an anti-gay law but you blink your eyes to a wave of thuggery, beatings, whippings and everything else. Then you have that shit run on CNN and people suggest that it is part of a programme ‘to eradicate western influences’, and the beatings are to save young men from themselves.”
There’s the legacy of colonial interventions:
The last ruling monarch of the Buganda people, Kabaka Mwama II, was apparently gay. His “bestial enslavement” of 23 young courtiers was used to justify his overthrow and the seizing of his territories by colonial forces. Many of those 23 men became Christian converts and martyrs for plotting against the king. They were the first African saints and the unity of Ugandan state and its church were, Wainaina argues, forged from the propaganda of their homosexual suffering.
“That sexual secret has been simmering at the heart of Ugandan identity ever since,” he suggests. “It goes very deep.” (That long internalised schism perhaps also helps to explain why, in Google’s 2013 Zeitgeist survey, Ugandans searched for “homosexuality” more than any other nation on earth; Kenyans were third.)
How he himself will fare is far from clear. Perhaps he’s right that given his linkages, and profile, he’s safe enough, but think of this in class terms, that millions of ordinary working class African men and women haven’t got that license, must live in societies that are deeply antagonistic, murderously antagonistic, to a crucial part of their identity. And note the way in which there is a noxious confluence of various different elements that combined focus and accentuate that antagonism and how it is so often used as a diversion from economic issues and as a means of consolidating or event strengthening support – in a not dissimilar dynamic to how ‘social’ issues are used by the right in the United States and to a degree both in the UK, various parts of Europe and indeed here in Ireland.
Indeed it’s striking how this deep antagonism of the conservative and reactionary right to the concept of lgbt equality (as well, as issues like abortion, certain aspects of bioethics – IONA for example is no fan of IVF – etc) is sometimes forgotten in struggles closer to home. In part that is perhaps a function of how far there has been a societal shift on these matters (albeit in this state and on this island abortion remains an issue that appears unlikely to be addressed even in part anytime soon), how far the distance travelled has actually been, and perhaps because victory is within grasp. But as to that last I wonder. In some polities conservatives are savvy enough to support (rhetorically or nominally) marriage equality – for example the British Tories are in favour of it albeit it has caused some splintering within that party and the new legislation means that the first marriages will take place next month. In others conservatives are dead set against and even today the US Republican Party remains dead set against.
Of course, contextualised with the situation in most African states (with South Africa being a shining exception) the fact that marriage equality is contested at such a level perhaps appears beyond imagination and it underscores the distance to go that just this last weekend in Uganda the following occurred:
Rights campaigners and health professionals have condemned Uganda’s president after he said he would approve controversial anti-homosexuality laws based on the advice of “medical experts”.
Yoweri Museveni told members of his governing party he would sign the bill – prescribing life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality” – that was passed by parliament late last year, dashing activists’ hopes he might veto it.
Ofwono Opondo, a government spokesman, tweeted on Friday that “this comes after 14 medical experts presented a report that homosexuality is not genetic but a social behaviour”.
Perhaps this is the most appropriate last word on that:
The findings by Museveni’s medical experts were disputed in an open letter by more than 50 of the world’s top public health scientists and researchers. “Homosexuality is not a pathology, an abnormality, a mental disorder or an illness: It is a variant of sexual behaviour found in people around the world,” they wrote. “Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are normal.”