Gay rights being an issue in most African countries, I took time to get opinions from Africans in Helsinki and around the world. Most did not hide their disappointment at Finland joining the ranks, some using such adjectives as disgusting and ungodly. The mildest of the critics thought that it was okay as long as gay romantic behaviour was engaged in outside their range of vision.
The minority that expressed support for the legislation also had varying views. Some said that gay rights should be granted for the simple reason that people should have the right to be different, just as is the issue with race. They conceded that for those who choose it as a lifestyle, there is the freedom of choice insofar as the freedoms do not encroach on another person’s freedoms. Others thought that the issue of gay rights was so trivial in comparison to other crises affecting the world in general and Africans in particular, they thought that it was better to just give the gay people their rights so that we may move on to more pressing issues.
Then there were those who were ambiguous, apparently un-decided or ”voting for the highest bidder”. Some would give a homophobic response to the question, and on realising that I might be pro-gay rights would change their tone.
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My own opinion on this, as someone who strives for human rights and democracy, the rule of law and all that good-sounding stuff, is that countries like Finland are setting a precedent of acceptance, just like countries like Zambia in Africa are setting the precedent for a future Africa by allowing a white man to act as the President of a post-colonial African country. Such precedents transcend borders.
The history we have gone through as the human race in the last 500 years does not need repeating here and a lot of bitterness still lingers. However, we are working towards a future in which we hope to see things go in a better direction.
This begins by recognising the active factors at play right now. What are the characteristics of homophobia? How do they manifest? What are the root causes of the attitudes and arguments given by homophobic people? Despite how emotional these matters can be for both the homophobic and the pro-gay rights, we need to apply logic in the process of problem-solving or conflict resolution. Simply pointing out what is wrong with which people is not enough as it only adds fuel to the fire but offers no solution.
As someone who once very actively chanted homophobic slogans loudly, I have made observations in my own transition towards acceptance of gay rights, and in my interest on the subject I have done research of my own.
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Firstly, most if not all characteristics of homophobia in Africa are identical to, and have their roots in, the homophobia of Europe in previous decades and centuries. The fact Europeans can be legislating on the acceptance of gay marriages in 2014 is testimony to the fact that even the pace-makers are not necessarily so far ahead, especially if one considers that South Africa, an African country, is way ahead of many.
In Africa, the arguments raised against homosexuality include that it is un-godly, unnatural, a disease, and that it is a western imperialist imposition. Except for the argument that it is a western imposition, all these other arguments have been heard before, in now pro-gay Europe. Finland only declared that transvestism is not a disease in 2011, for example. From acknowledging that transvestism is not a disease to legislating for gay marriages in three years is quite a leap. How did they come so far so fast? These are the things we should be looking into to find solutions, how it was done or how it happened.
In the middle ages France burned homosexuals at the stake. As late as the 1950s England administered hormone treatment to cure homosexuality. Just like the African homophobes, the English quoted brimstone and fire scriptures from the holy book. Infact, they are responsible for most of the homophobic legislation in Africa, which, Africans in a display of cultural schizophrenia, quote as justification to reject something they call ”unAfrican”. They quote the same brimstone and fire scriptures they were taught by the British Empire.
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The question arises, how did the English cure themselves of this homophobia? What took place in their society to effect such a change? I believe that by studying these precedents one might find patterns and trends which can help identify processes which could be deliberately applied in the quest to bring about more acceptance of gay rights in Africa and in the world at large. Even as we bear in mind that whatever formulae may be identified needs to be applied in the context of Africa’s internal welfare, we need to look at the larger global picture, and not just at those countries which seem to be getting it wrong.
The issue of homophobia in Africa is not an isolated occurrence on this planet. The United States, the war machine for human rights and democracy, has itself a lot of conflicting scenarios from state to state. We do not even dare mention the Islamic states.
Just like African fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists find it ungodly and also consider it a Western disease (at least publicly). Both are in denial of their own local homosexuality. The common factor is religion. Religion also seems to be the problem in the United States. Religion was the problem when Europe was homophobic.
There also seems to be the irrational fear that once homosexuality is granted legal rights it will mushroom all over the place. There is no evidence of this anywhere where gay rights have been recognized.
In conclusion, evidence suggests that formerly homophobic countries can become champions of gay rights. There is a precedent which just needs to be studied and learned from. Instead of focussing on what is wrong with homophobic Africans as though it were a unique and isolated phenomenon, and adopting hostile confrontational attitudes, let us look at the champions of gay rights and how they overcame their own homophobia, and what lessons from that can be applied in the African context.
The author is a media producer and cultural activist from Zambia. Opinions expressed in columns and blog entries published by Kepa are personal and do not necessary reflect official positions of Kepa.