After victories at home, American LGBTQ-rights groups are increasingly turning to advocacy abroad. Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, is portrayed as a region in desperate need of Western intervention. But in most cases, the West’s interference on LGBTQ+ issues is hegemonic, dangerous to Africans, and decidedly anti-queer in its narrow conception of gender and sexuality.
Queer African leaders say the best way to advance LGBTQ+ equality in their countries is through the hard, slow, and quiet process of education. They explain that heated controversy makes it harder to tackle the lack of popular support for queer people. And policy changes, they add, aren’t enough to meaningfully improve queer peoples’ lives if social attitudes go unaddressed; lesbians in South Africa’s townships are regularly subjected to “corrective rape” even though same-sex marriage has been legal in the country since 2006.
But it’s not clear that the West’s LGBTQ+ establishment cares what African leaders think. The debate over sexual and gender diversity in Africa is increasingly a proxy war between Western gay rights groups and the American right. Conservative Evangelicals have worked hard to defend and toughen anti-sodomy laws that were themselves imposed by European colonizers. They’ve focused unprecedented funding on this perverse pet project.
In response, however, Western LGBTQ+ groups get involved loudly and unilaterally, with a white supremacist confidence that they know what’s best. They ignore the queer African activists and scholars who must be respected. And ultimately, these leaders say, Western involvement sets back their efforts, attracts unwanted attention, validates the damaging lie that homosexuality is a foreign lifestyle, and puts people in danger.
In Nigeria, for example, backlash from heavy-handed and imperialist Western interference is blamed for the passage of an oppressive 2014 law that had little support until countries like the U.S. came out against it. This past July, gay men in Côte d’Ivoire were attacked and driven from their homes after the U.S. Embassy outed them in pictures of a pro-LGBTQ+ ceremony. Hegemonic Western intervention—especially when it’s a matter of mere symbolism, like an official statement or speech—almost always makes things worse, not better. It’s how, in the words of the Zambian Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, “homophobia [in Africa becomes] as much an expression of resistance to the West as a statement about human sexuality.”
(It’s also an open question how much the West’s LGBTQ+ establishment cares about Africans in the first place. International programs at the Human Rights Campaign, the American gay rights behemoth, are funded in large part by Paul Singer. Singer is a billionaire hedge fund manager and international debt speculator. He buys up distressed sovereign debt, almost always at pennies on the dollar, while debtor nations are mired in conflict. Vulture funds like his wait out these debtor nations, and then, when they’re rebuilding after ruin, sue for the full amount, plus interest and penalties. In the Republic of Congo, for example, Singer’s hedge fund bought up $30 million of defaulted debt for just $1.8 million – and then sued the country for $120 million in repayments and interest. It should come as no surprise that Africans distrust foreign LGBTQ+ groups when they’re working with people like Singer.)
Western intervention also imposes foreign norms of gender and sexuality. The work of Western LGBTQ+ groups is grounded in political ideologies about human rights rather than appreciation for the unique ways that queerness has long played a part in indigenous practices and lifestyles. Western groups are capable of imagining a just society only in Western terms. As a result, our impositions exclude and delegitimize the many sexual practices and gender paradigms that are queer (that is, outside the norm) both to the sociocultural contexts in which they exist and to the dominant queerness of the West.
For example, members of Northeastern Tanzania’s Kurya ethnic group recognize nyumba ntobhu, a practice whereby women choose to marry one another and build families led by two matriarchs without necessarily consummating the marriage. Western LGBTQ+ advocacy is predicated on conceptions of gender and sexuality that are particular to the West, so its effect is to endanger queer Africans and foreclose possibilities for different ways of queer living. As such, it’s decidedly anti-queer—anti-difference—in its violent insistence on a singular and narrow understanding of gender and sexuality.
If we genuinely want to support the liberation of queer Africans, we have to decenter ourselves from their struggle. We’ve got to respect their leadership—and reject the racist hubris that insists we know more about their own lives than they do.
Ted G. Waechter '18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Quincy House.
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