Forgive it. Africa is not anti-gay; the continent is just hopelessly confused

Samantha Spooner

Homosexuality is legal in 18 of Africa’s 54 nations, and some nations where it is illegal paradoxically protect the right to be gay in their laws.

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EARLY this year of the world’s harshest anti-gay laws thrust the issue of homosexuality in Africa into the limelight – but this is not the case for much of the continent.

Uganda’s harsh anti-homosexuality act, which was made law in December 2013 only to be declared  “null and void” by a constitutional court on August 1 this year, was one of the few militantly anti-gay laws in Africa.

Hearing popular talk and commentary about Africa being “conservative” and therefore homophobic, one would be find it hard to imagine that, in fact homosexuality, is legal in 18 of Africa’s 54 nations.

If there were to be a “Top Ten” list of African countries where it is the “most legal” to be gay, this would probably be:

1.     South Africa

2.     Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

3.     Madagascar

4.     Congo

5.     Gabon

6.     Burkina Faso

7.     Chad

8.     Benin

9.     Cote d’Ivoire

10. Mali

This is on the grounds that homosexuality is legal, as are homosexual acts and male to male relationships are recognised on equal footing as female to female.

South Africa is of course the continent’s gay safe haven. The country – aptly called the “Rainbow nation” – not only recognizes same-sex marriages but it also protects gay rights.

Lesbians get a break

While this may seem to paint a more encouraging picture for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex (LGBTI) Africans, the reality is that Africa’s legislators are highly confused over the gay question. There is a clear legislative gap regarding homosexuality, where the laws do not condemn it – but do not protect it either.

One clear example of this is that the continent appears to have a clear bias towards lesbians. Though homosexuality is legal in 18 countries, female to female relationships are legal in 25 African countries. Though homosexuality is punishable by death or imprisonment in parts of Nigeria, they look far more kindly on lesbians who are considered legal in the country.

In Cote d’Ivoire, though homosexuality is legal the government has not stepped in to protect the community from attacks such as the one that shut down the headquarters of the LGBT-friendly anti-AIDS group “Alternative CI” earlier this year. Or in the case of Mali, even though this is a country where homosexuality is legal and there is an equal age of consent for heterosexuals and homosexuals, 98% of Malian adults believe that homosexuality is a way of life that society should not accept, which was the highest rate of non-acceptance in the 45 countries surveyed by the 2007 Global Pew Attitudes Project.

Be ready to get baffled

In other countries things are even more baffling – in Mozambique for example homosexuality is not considered legal, yet there are laws that prohibit discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the workplace.  Meanwhile in Lesotho, though homosexuality is legal homosexuals are prohibited from entering the country – how they expect to make the distinction between a gay and non-gay person is unclear. In Libya and Tunisia, though homosexuality is clearly illegal both of these North African countries do not prohibit homosexuals from entering the country.

While there are clearly laws in place that state whether homosexuality is illegal, in three African countries the laws are completely contradictory. In Mozambique, Angola and Botswana homosexuality is considered illegal and yet anti-discrimination laws are also in place.

Whilst African nations debate the gay question this has still not stopped the continent’s LBGTI community from adapting to the situation and continuing to live their lives as normally as possible – which for most means keeping a low profile. With no official discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation at the national level, what these groups have to deal with the most on a daily basis is societal discrimination that continues to be widespread.

Twitter: @samooner

Uganda Gay Pride Parade 2014
(Photo: Aida Mbowa)