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Homophobia recently topped the news agenda when Cameroonian newspapers published a list of prominent people and accused them of homosexuality, sparking debate across Africa. Many African leaders are on record for their condemnation of homosexuality, but Jacob Rukweza, an activist with Zimbabwe’s Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) argues that politicians must make space for homosexuals within the law. To not do so denies a fundamental aspect of their society and reflects poorly on their ability to lead as representatives of their nations.

Among the many myths created about Africa, the belief that homosexuality is absent in Africa or incidental is one of the oldest and most enduring. African leaders, historians, anthropologists, clergyman, authors, and contemporary Africans alike have denied or overlooked the existence of homosexuality or same-sex relationships and persistently claimed that such patterns were introduced by Europeans.

Southern African leaders have been accused of blaming the alien culture of homosexuality for their countries problems. In February 1999, on the sidelines of the World Council of Churches 8th Assembly, Keith Goddard, Director of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) which has a membership of nearly 500, most of whom are black Zimbabweans – told a press conference in Harare that Zimbabwe was “one of the most vocally homophobic countries in the world. President Robert Mugabe is world famous for his verbal gay bashing.”

President Mugabe hit the headlines in 1995 when he denounced gays and lesbians as “sexual perverts” who are “lower than dogs and pigs”. Rejecting calls for gay human rights, Mugabe said, “we don’t believe they have rights at all”. Mugabe charged that homosexuality was unnatural and unAfrican, saying that it was an alien culture only practised by a “few whites” in his country. He repeated similar sentiments on the 25th of February this year whilst addressing supporters in Mutare, to the east of the country, during official celebrations of his 82nd birthday.

Mugabe’s attitude and mentality towards homosexuality represents a dominant perception among African leaders. In January 2003, Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda, was quoted by The New Vision, calling on the Ugandan police to arrest all homosexuals or anyone indulging in unnatural sexual practices. He also denounced homosexuality as unAfrican. Sam Nujoma, while still President of Namibia in 2003, also told a press conference of international journalists that homosexuality was a “borrowed sub culture, alien to Africa and Africans”.

Whilst some leaders in West Africa have not been vocal about gay rights, their attitudes are represented eloquently by the anti-gay laws informing the judicial systems of their countries. Under Sharia law in Nigeria and most of North Africa, homosexuality is a criminal offence punishable by hanging. Laws across Africa do not recognise homosexuality as a way of life: it is generally perceived as unnatural and therefore criminal. Those who practise homosexuality are automatically turned into lawbreakers, social rejects and threats to society. It is impossible to separate the laws from the political leadership which sponsors such law.

But research and reports by progressive contemporary historians, anthropologists and sexologists around the issues surrounding sexuality and gender in traditional African societies tell a different story. Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe’s book Boy Wives and Female Husbands (1998) explores African homosexuality and documents same-sex relationships in some fifty societies in every region of the continent. Essays by scholars from a variety of disciplines explore institutionalized marriages between women, same-sex relations between men and boys in colonial work settings, mixed gender roles in East and West Africa. The book covers recent developments in South Africa, where gays and lesbians successfully made that nation the first in the world to constitutionally ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and assists in revealing the denials of African homosexuality for what they are – prejudice and wilful ignorance.

Obviously homosexuality can hardly be referred to as a new phenomenon in African society. It is not. Cursory interviews of homosexuals have proved that to a great extent their behaviour is neither borrowed nor influenced by foreign culture.

Jasper, a 23-year-old Zimbabwean who works as a hairdresser in Harare, discovered his homosexuality at the age of 12 while still in school in rural Wedza, where he grew up with his parents. He says he considers himself a woman trapped in a man’s body, something he did not choose for himself. He says his behaviour is not influenced by any western culture since he discovered his sexuality at a very tender age, in a rural setting, well before interacting with anything he could call western.

Paul, 33, who works in Bulawayo as a teacher, says he has married twice and has a six-year-old daughter. Each of his wives left after finding out that their marriage was just a front. Paul says he was forced to marry by his parents. He goes to church every Sunday “to pray for his sin” but is unable to abandon his lifestyle. Paul says he was “born gay” and feels “insulted by people who think this is a prank”.

Sarah, 28, a journalist by profession, says she is a lesbian and there is little she can do to change that. She says she is not attracted to men and will not get married to a man because she has always been attracted to other women. She says she has a female partner and the two are in love, although both their parents are encouraging them to settle down with male partners. She says she discovered her sexuality ten years ago when she was in college. “At first I was confused. I didn’t understand what it was. I tried to date boys but it didn’t work out. I just couldn’t stand it.” Sarah says her behaviour and feelings come naturally to her.

What African societies have done with some degree of success, however, is to make sure that homosexuality as an aspect of life or topic of family discourse remains firmly taboo.

For a typical African family unit, gays, lesbians and bisexuals do not exist. Even in a family where a member is clearly gay, parents and other family members generally never attempt to consider or accept this reality. At best, families that have noticed homosexual tendencies in one of their own have either panicked or berated such behaviour as mischief while dismissing it as inconsequential.

Open and meaningful family engagement on such issues of sexuality is virtually non-existent and discourse is usually limited to admonitions and reprimands. Small wonder then why vernacular languages have extremely limited vocabulary when it comes to the subject of homosexuality.

For various reasons, a siege mentality was deliberately grafted onto the psychology of the African family system over a period of time. This mentality has persistently and consistently refused to open up to the glaring realities of divergent sexualities and natural but differing sexual preferences inherent in human beings.

Unfortunately this mentality ¬– domineering and stubborn – informs even the highest structures of governance in Africa and shapes government policies, legislation and national character. As a result, because this point of view does not recognise homosexuality as a way of life, government policies and laws accordingly refuse to acknowledge homosexuality as a way of life. This is why in most of Africa, excluding South Africa and in some of the countries that were not colonised by the British, homosexuality is classified under various forms of legislation as a criminal and punishable offence.

The 'ostrich mentality' as adopted by many African governments has clearly failed to take nations into the future, which is where everyone belongs. The tendency of dipping your head in the sand when faced with complex problems is both naïve and retrogressive. When you decide finally to pull your head out of the sand, the problem will still be there – perhaps now more complex but still looking you in the face.

Moreover, laws that fail to acknowledge the realities of the constituency they purport to serve reflect badly on those whose responsibility it is to legislate and execute good law. It is a major weakness on the part of society when its laws ignore fundamental aspects of the lives of its people on the basis of perceived complexities of such aspects. The law in its stride should, at any given time, be able to deal conclusively with all aspects of its constituency. Failure to live up to this expectation can only mean that those tasked with making laws on behalf of society are incompetent and incapable of reading or interpreting society's fundamentals.

What must be clear here is that, when the law fails to acknowledge the realities of a society it is supposed to serve, the law in question is bad and must be corrected. Parliaments the world over are sponsored to make and amend laws. Parliamentarians are elected to make laws that serve the interests of all society and to amend laws that infringe on the rights and interests of any member of society. There is no better way for African MPs to earn their allowances than to represent the people's interests in parliament and make laws that, in the first instance, recognise the existence of all people.

Laws, anywhere in the world, are made to serve and protect society and its people, and not the other way round. And in serving or protecting people, the law is expected to be fair and just in the eyes of all people. In other words, the law is expected to be fair and just in the eyes of men, women, children, teachers, lawyers, doctors, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, blacks, and whites alike – indeed all people.

The fact that laws in Africa do not recognise the existence of homosexuality as a way of life will not make gays and lesbians disappear from among us. Their existence is as real as the colour of our skin. It will be impossible to ignore the existence of homosexuals in our midst without attempting to ignore the very existence of humanity.

However, deliberate calls by African leaders to have homosexuals in their countries arrested is a tacit, albeit unintended, acknowledgement that homosexuals exist in Africa. We are indeed witnessing a paradigm shift by African leaders: a reluctant transition from denial to acknowledgement. The Nigerian Bill to ‘Make Provisions for the Prohibition of Relationships Between Persons of the Same Sex, Celebration of Marriage by Them, and for Other Matters Connected Therewith’ is obviously reactionary and draconian but it does presume the existence of homosexuals in society. And even Mugabe in his recent speech in Mutare finally, though reservedly, admitted to the existence of black homosexuals in Zimbabwe although he said, in Shona: “they are few”. We can only hope that such acknowledgements may, in time, translate into the tolerance and appreciation of natural sexual and gender differences.

* Jacob Rukweza is an activist who has written this article on behalf of GALZ – Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, an organisation founded in 1989 to facilitate communication within the gay community.

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