Wanja Muguongo on Exporting Homophobia

On November 1, Wanja Muguongo, a Yale World Fellow and the Executive Director of UHAI – The East African Sexual Health and Rights Initiative, spoke at Yale’s African Studies program’s weekly speakers’ series. She spoke about homophobia in Africa and the role of the West. I have been meaning to write a recap of what was said, and am finally doing so now for two reasons. Firstly and unfortunately, Uganda’s parliament is again revisiting the infamous anti-gay bill; in addition, an African Studies reading group which I have organized will be discussing Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial” [pdf] soon, which is relevant to all of this as well. Below is my attempt to cover everything that Muguongo said at the event, which was cut short (hence the abrupt ending).

It’s important that you understand where I’m coming from and who I am, so a bit about myself and my beliefs: I manage a fund that supports NGOs, and we are a resource but also part of a movement. The conversation of LGBTI rights doesn’t take place in a vacuum; it takes place in a world of power and patriarchy. On top of this, I believe that band-aids don’t help, and that you need to tackle problems to fix them. Ending anti-gay laws doesn’t end hate fundamentally, but it’s a step in the right direction. We must also tackle sex workers’ rights by allowing them to fight oppression and patriarchy and change how society looks at sex. I believe there is way too much power in the world that is being used badly, and that normativity has always been a cause for bullying. I have chosen to endeavor to dis-empower bullies as much as possible. One of the things supporting power is religion being used as a mechanism of that power. Here, when I say religion I do not mean faith or belief, but the institution of organized religion. I have a problem with institutionalized religion as it is being used today.

Faith and belief are supposed to be kind and supportive, but when they are institutionalized they fail to do those things. Religion is about control and can be used to target outliers. We must contemplate what it means to be non-normative in a strongly religious community that supports hate and is intolerant. We tend to think of GLBTI/sex workers are people that are not of faith, which isn’t always true. Things are more complex than they seem.

The battle I have chosen is not the intolerance being spewed out of mosques and churches; my battle is when that intolerance enters the Parliament. It isn’t as easy to counter statutes and laws as it is to debate opinions. Almost all countries I work in are secular, so religious leaders should not be as important as they are in the legislative process. The strength of religion in these societies is what creates these problems.

In the last eight years, the religious institutions in East Africa are not what they used to be. They have changed because of the U.S. Religious Right. The dynamics of the message they send is very different from before. In the U.S. the Right has eroded civil liberties, and its power comes from the Evangelicals in the Right Wing. When these institutions became interlinked with churches in East Africa, it changed everything.

Two statements have been made regarding this chronology. The first, used by African politicians, is that homosexuality came from the West. The other, used by human rights groups, is that homophobia came from the West. To the first point, isn’t it demeaning to ourselves to think that the West had to teach us to have sex? Isn’t it demeaning that we lack such dependency that we rely on the West to show us what we want? Besides, there is evidence of African pre-colonial societies having more flexible gender norms and sexual norms. Some Nigerian gods display gender-neutral characteristics, many naming systems blur gender lines, etc. This past demonstrates that sex wasn’t normative and gender was not static, even then. But the second point is also problematic – the idea that Africans must be taught to think. Africans are capable of hate, I guarantee it. We are capable of hate, and the idea that we must have learned to hate from the West takes away our agency. Both these statement oversimplify what is actually happening.

Homophobia as used by institutions in Africa has existed in the past, but it began to strengthen with support from the West. But this began earlier than many believe. As American churches pioneered into social justice, conversations about social justice turned from poverty towards equality. Churches like the Episcopal Church began ordaining gay pastors and woman pastors. Americans upset by this shift were able to find a sort of brotherhood in conservative African religious leaders.

The language African leaders used in supporting American conservatives did not sound right. The language used was couched in American religious context, and it seemed that the partnership between the two groups led to African religious leaders saying what American religious leaders could not. As these African leaders gained strength, homophobia strengthened in Africa. As it intensified, activists believed they could handle it as they had in the past. But it strengthened as pastors began meeting with Presidents and Members of Parliament and suddenly laws were being passed. Suddenly hate speech was turning into laws and it wasn’t harmless anymore.

There are three American organizations that are at the heart of this shift.

First is the american Center for Law and Justice, run by Pat Robertson. Robertson is crazy and outlandish, but he is not taken seriously enough. Religion as a whole in America is not taken seriously enough. ACLS was founded to counter the ACLU by protecting “family values” through acts like defending anti-abortion activists in court. It is now run by Jay Sekulow, an adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign and a former adviser to George W. Bush. Sekulow’s son has been involved in selling Romney to evangelicals. This group is active in setting the narrative in Africa. Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network is in almost all African countries, and “The 700 Club” is translated into many local languages. He also has some ownership in a number of mining ventures on the continent. He benefited from Apartheid and from Charles Taylor. This is the type of man we are dealing with.

Another important group is Family Watch International. The group worked in a number of Islamic countries to foster “family values,” and has worked hard in getting the United Nations to include “family values” in its framework. And we know what “family values” means – it is heteronormative and oppressive to women. Those are the values this group is pushing on the whole world.

The third group is Human Life International, a Catholic organization that is very pro-life. They promote a narrative that women’s rights and gay rights are linked and that they are both evil. There is some bizarre thinking that these groups do, imagining that individual feminists are by nature both lesbians and the type of women who get abortions. These groups are the types of groups pushing an anti-homosexual agenda in Africa.

One person who is behind a lot of what is happening in East Africa is Rick Warren. He is a Baptist minister who loves “purpose-driven countries.” In April of 2009, he went to Uganda and met with MPs and pastors to speak about homosexuality. By July, a bill was in the pipeline, it was drafted by September, and in October it was in Parliament. This was in a country that, like all former British colonies, already had colonial sodomy laws. And this wasn’t an isolated case:

  • In 2009, the anti-homosexuality bill first arose in Uganda
  • In 2009, Mugabe refused to discuss the decriminalization of homosexuality in Zimbabwe.
  • In 2010, Kenya ushered in its new constitution, and anti-homosexual groups have already been pushing it further.
  • In 2010, Malawi decided that its anti-gay laws were discriminatory – and decided to pass anti-lesbian laws to oppress women as well.
  • In 2010, Nigeria’s Senate outlawed same-sex marriage and prohibited discussing homosexual acts, which directly affected AIDS awareness and education campaigns.
  • In 2011, Congo crafted anti-gay laws, two years after Burundi criminalized homosexuality as well. These steps were an expansion of homophobia in Africa – countries that had no sodomy laws or anything of the sort were moving to outlaw homosexuality.
  • Just last week, Uganda’s MPs pledged to reintroduce the anti-homosexuality bill by Christmas.

There is good news, but very little. This year, Malawi’s new President has pledged to repeal sodomy laws, but she is alone in this endeavor and her opponent is well-connected in religious circles. It will be a difficult campaign just to keep her in office, let alone bring about a shift in the laws. It is also important to note that, while African governments crack down on things like same-sex marriage and adoption, the GLBTI advocacy groups aren’t even thinking about these issues. These laws are being passed to appease Western influences, while African rights groups push for basic safety.

The conversation has shifted from whether or not we like that homosexuality exists to imposing jail and death sentences. And worst of all, in almost every instance, the Religious Right has succeeded. The only place it failed was in Rwanda, where the lower house introduced an anti-homosexuality law while the world was distracted by Uganda’s worse law. On the day it was being introduced, the Minister of Justice said that the government had no interest in people’s private lives, forcing the homosexuality section to be abandoned (however, sex work was eventually criminalized). In Rwanda, for obvious reasons, the idea of treating someone like an “Other” is unsettling. As Rwanda continues to grow past its post-genocide status, equality will collapse because there are few structures to uphold it for long.

In Kenya, there was a push to move anti-gay laws from the statutes to the constitution, embedding the idea in the law of the country. ACLJ set up an office in Kenya, and they are now active there and in Uganda, South Sudan, and Malawi. Fortunately, Kenyans struggled for a long time to establish their new constitution, and the effort to make any changes to it failed, but ACLJ persists.

We are facing a stronger enemy now, as religious conservatives in Africa and in America work together to pass laws that oppress us. When this first began, we were not prepared, but advocacy groups and members of the community must work hard to stop this expansion, and then to roll back these laws.

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One thought on “Wanja Muguongo on Exporting Homophobia

  1. Pingback: Wanja Muguongo recognized for East Africa LGBTI contribution | Denis Nzioka

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