Africa’s Gays Persecuted as Cause of Ills
Even blamed for drought, homosexuals are widely
condemned, increasingly threatened
Tribune, June 9, 2004
435 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL, 60611
By Laurie Goering, Tribune foreign correspondent
WINDHOEK, Namibia—As a boy,
Telwin Owoseb wanted to wear lime green. His mother told him blue was for boys
and pushed him out the door to play ball, over his protests.
At the end of high school, he told his family he was gay.
While his mother accepted the news, his brothers and family friends were
“A man should be a man and marry and have kids,” he
remembers them saying.
Since then he has been called a “moffie”—an
Afrikaans slur for homosexuals—on the streets of Namibia’s capital, and he
has faced trouble finding work and a partner in this nation where being gay is
considered unnatural, un-Christian and un-African.
But he considers himself lucky compared with Namibia’s
rural gays and lesbians, an estimated eight out of 10 of whom are forced to
marry and have children as a result of fear, ignorance and social pressures,
according to gay-rights activists in Namibia.
“The government says homosexuality is a European
import,” said Owoseb, 21, a member of the country’s Damara ethnic group,
which tends to be more accepting of homosexuality. But “if it were European
there wouldn’t be names for homosexuals in our own languages, from before
the Europeans arrived. It’s not a European thing. I’m not a European.”
Africa is not an easy place to be homosexual. Across the
continent, millions of gays and lesbians find themselves increasingly under
threat and pointed to as a source of Africa’s ills.
Homosexuals have been shot by warlords in lawless Somalia
and stoned in northern Nigeria, activists say. Hundreds have been arrested in
Egypt on debauchery charges. Zanzibar has proposed 25-year prison sentences
for men convicted of sodomy.
Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, the most homophobic of
Africa’s presidents, dismisses gays as “lower than pigs and dogs.”
Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni has threatened them with arrest, prosecution and
deportation. And former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi long characterized
them as a “scourge.”
In Namibia, homosexuals have been blamed for severe
drought by religious leaders, who insist their wicked behavior displeases God.
Government officials, who have threatened to deport gays, accuse them of
trying to depopulate the country and describe their lifestyle as a kind of
cancer, threatening to lead to “social disorder.”
While gays generally are not blamed for the spread of
AIDS in Africa—the disease is a largely heterosexual one on the
continent—they are dismissed as “unnatural.”
“Homosexuality is an unnatural behavioral disorder,
which is alien to African culture,” Helmut Angula, Namibia’s agriculture
minister, once observed.
Some Namibian gays find themselves subject to brutal
“cures.” Families arrange to have lesbian daughters raped to show them the
“right” way to behave. Gay men are held down by police and earrings are
ripped from their ears. A leading government official has written a treatise
describing how homosexuals can be “cured” by sawing off the top of the
skull and washing the brain with a chemical solution.
What is remarkable is that Namibia’s outspoken
homophobia is relatively new. A decade ago, gay men held hands on the streets
of Windhoek, seen as a homosexual mecca for southern Africa. For generations
lesbians and to a lesser extent gay men were quietly accepted in at least some
of Namibia’s ethnic cultures.
Glow has dimmed
What has changed, gay activists believe, is the
country’s confidence in its future. Since Namibia won its independence from
South Africa in 1990, “the euphoria has been wearing off,” said Ian
Swartz, director of The Rainbow Project, a gay-rights organization.
Namibian leaders promised better times after independence
but have found stubborn problems such as poverty and southern Africa’s AIDS
epidemic difficult to solve. In frustration—and sometimes to divert the
public’s attention from their own shortcomings—they have begun looking for
someone to blame and have settled on minorities, including homosexuals,
according to human-rights activists.
“There’s a sense of economic and political
powerlessness, and when you feel powerless about your economy and your
country’s politics there’s a tendency to turn to culture as the one thing
you can exert control over,” said Scott Long, director of the Gay, Lesbian,
Bisexual and Transgendered Rights Project at Human Rights Watch.
Namibia’s public campaign against homosexuals began in
1996, after a group of cross-dressing gay men used the women’s bathroom
during a meeting of the ruling South West Africa People’s Organization. Days
later, President Sam Nujoma gave his first anti-gay speech, insisting that
“homosexuals must be condemned and rejected in our society.”
Since then government officials—most of them from
northern Owamboland, Namibia’s richest, most populous and most traditionally
homophobic region—have tried to criminalize gay sex and threatened to deport
homosexuals. In heavily Christian Namibia, the government has promoted a view
of homosexuality as un-Christian and as an imported European deviation.
The problem with that view, gay-rights activists say, is
that Christianity itself is a European import in much of Africa. Over
centuries of colonization most of the continent’s rich oral tradition was
lost, making Africa’s traditional views on homosexuality unclear. What is
evident, however, is that gays were an accepted part of at least some African
In northern Namibia, many homosexuals traditionally
served as healers and spiritual leaders, said Daniel Somerville, editor of
Behind the Mask, a Web site for gay Africans. Even today, large numbers of
lesbians practice as traditional healers in neighboring South Africa, one of
the few nations worldwide where homosexual rights are protected under the
“People say it’s imported colonial behavior,”
Somerville said. “But in fact the opposite is true. The colonialists, if
anything, tried to stamp it out. They were, after all, the Victorians.”
`Welcoming and belonging’
The All Africa Rights Initiative, a gay-rights movement
that met in Johannesburg in February, issued a statement saying “we have and
have always had a place in Africa.” African traditional culture, the
statement said, is based on “principles of welcoming and belonging,” not
Reversing the image of homosexuality as a European import
has been difficult, largely because Africa’s gay activists have tended to be
white. That is changing, but only slowly. Most gay Africans, like their
heterosexual neighbors, are too busy trying to feed themselves, earn a living
and take care of their families to get involved in politics.
“That white people brought [homosexuality] here is a
lot of nonsense, but our own black community believes that,” said Linda
Baumann, 21, a lesbian who lives in Windhoek. “The only answer is education,
and more of us speaking up for ourselves.”
That isn’t easy, particularly in the conservative
Owambo community where Baumann grew up. Her partner and housemate was thrown
out of her childhood home when her family discovered her orientation a few
years ago. Baumann, who said she lost most of her friends when she came out,
counts herself lucky that she got only a lecture, largely because her strict
father had moved out years ago.
“I was lectured about the Bible and God, and mom cried
and said I wasn’t raised this way,” she said. Today her mother and one of
her two sisters accept her, but it is an acceptance forged out of
necessity—her salary puts food on the table.
“If my father knew, he would say I am no longer his
child, that the devil is in me and I need to go to a traditional healer and be
healed,” she said. But she is thankful she doesn’t live in a rural Owambo
community. If so, “I would have a husband and kids by now.”
Many Namibian gays who emerged from the closet in the
1990s have gone back in as a result of the government support of homophobia,
activists said. Gay men who married and later divorced have married again,
But the attacks also have spurred new activism. Gay
Namibians have turned to the country’s hugely influential churches, seeking
their acceptance and help in rebuffing myths about homosexuality. The response
has been mixed, but at least some denominations, especially the Lutherans,
have been relatively welcoming.
Gay-rights activists also have teamed with other troubled
minorities—white farmers, AIDS patients, abused women—to work for improved
human-rights protections for all. The country now has an annual human-rights
parade, dominated by gays.
Across the continent, gay-rights groups have formed in
nations such as Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and Uganda, largely in response to
government hate speeches. That mobilization suggests “it’s not always a
bad thing to have these outrageous statements,” Somerville said.
Perhaps the best news for Africa’s gay men and
lesbians, however, is that plenty of their neighbors do not take homophobic
government messages to heart. Gays and lesbians have quietly been part of
African society for centuries, anthropologists argue.
Too hungry to care
And on a continent struggling to feed itself, “a whole
number of issues come before worrying about other people’s sexual
behavior,” Somerville said. That means “the levels of homophobia one hears
about in the press and from leaders is not necessarily reflected in the
populace. People could care less.”
Activists say the best way for gay Africans to overcome
prejudice is to be good neighbors.
“You have to take away all the myth, and the best way
to do that is just to live and be open,” Swartz said. “When all you talk
about is sex, you forget there’s a person behind that label.”
Letter: Gay Persecution
Tribune, June 14, 2004
435 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611
I just wanted to thank you for Tribune foreign
correspondent Laurie Goering’s “Africa’s gays persecuted as cause of
ills; Even blamed for drought, homosexuals are widely condemned, increasingly
threatened” (News, June 9). Here in the U.S., people get so wrapped up in
their own personal feelings about another’s “morality” that they forget
that we are all human beings. People need to take a step back and realize that
their ignorance, hatred and fear lead to violence.
In places all around the world lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender people are beaten, imprisoned and killed by their own governments
for engaging in homosexual acts. Those suspected of being lesbian, gay,
bisexual or transgender are routinely the victims of harassment,
discrimination and violence. Many of those who speak up for lesbian and gay
rights—regardless of their sexual identity—are themselves persecuted with
We need to start getting involved and taking action to
stop this type of ignorance and hatred.
—Kim Mongoven, Chicago