Pride and prejudice: how not to fight homophobia in Africa

It is simplistic to suggest that African homophobia stems only from colonisation.

The coverage of the recent conviction of two gay Malawians (subsequently pardoned) for homosexuality was dominated by western human rights activists' self-serving -- but ultimately self-defeating -- dismissal of African homophobia as "the desperate defence of western mores in indigenous clothing".

Writing in the Independent, the British activist Peter Tatchell, who is heavily involved in the Malawian test case, claimed that "the minds of many . . . Africans remain colonised by the homophobic beliefs that were drummed into their forebears by the western missionaries who invaded their lands". He reiterated this viewpoint on The Staggers.

To save the situation, Tatchell rallied the troops for a remedial invasion. "It is time to finish the African liberation struggle by ending the persecution of gay Africans," he declared.

The works of Marc Epprecht and Neville Hoad show that homosexuality and homophobia existed in pre-colonial Africa. Yet, ironically, western activists persist in challenging the prejudiced claims by some Africans that homosexuality is "un-African" with the equally prejudiced counterclaim that homophobia is "un-African".

The leading authority for this fallacy, which has been pontificated to the point of infallibility, is a 66-page report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). It provides an accurate account of the colonial origins of most of the statutes that criminalise homosexuality in Africa today.

For example, Nigeria's federal sodomy statute remains identical to the original provision of the 1899 Penal Code of the Australian colony of Queensland.

However, it is a fallacy for HRW to conclude that "sodomy laws throughout . . . sub-Saharan Africa have consistently been colonial impositions", simply because "no 'native' ever participated in their making".

Different blends

Rich and varied systems of indigenous law, which are now collectively called customary law, existed in pre-colonial Africa. Customary criminal law applied wherever there was a political entity requiring the enforcement of certain standards of behaviour and imposing sanctions for their breach.

Although there was no single body of law that applied throughout the continent, a degree of basic uniformity of content existed over a wide range of matters, including the suppression of homosexuality, as was indeed the case among the rest of mankind.

Customary law was affected in many parts of Africa by Islam long before European colonisation. Thus, the British colonialists met different systems, ranging from relatively simple indigenous systems of social norms based on the family, the village, or group of villages, to the highly systematised and sophisticated sharia law of crime. Some systems blended customary with sharia law to varying degrees.

The fundamental feature of customary law was that it was unwritten. Although sharia law was written, it was and still is embodied in disparate rulings of jurists of the various schools. Therefore, the criminalisation of homosexuality in pre-colonial Africa was not embodied in comprehensive codes.

However, a vast majority of Africans of all faiths and cultures are united today in their hostility towards homosexuality and this is a reflection of the similarity of the various systems of customary law to each other and to the foreign codes on the subject.

Customary law continues to regulate many areas of people's lives in Africa today. Though largely superseded by legislation, it still governs issues such as family relations. Also, where conflicting legislation exists, lack of access to legal resources and a general absence of the institutions of government may mean that, in practice, customary law still applies.

More significantly, customary law on issues such as homosexuality negates the enforcement of contradictory statutory law. This happens, for instance, in South Africa, where the legal recognition of homosexuality has resulted in a backlash against gays and their perceived assertiveness.

So the fact that the legislation which criminalises homosexuality is in apparent breach of the respective countries' constitutions, and international treaties such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, which guarantee the right to privacy and prohibit discrimination (as held by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the courts in South Africa and India), does not necessarily mean that a change in legislation will end the persecution of gay people in Africa.

It should also be noted that some African constitutions guarantee the right to culture and oblige the courts to apply customary law in certain circumstances. Similarly, the African Charter provides that "the rights and freedoms of each individual shall be exercised with due regard to morality and common interest", and prescribes that "the promotion and protection of morals and traditional values recognised by the community shall be the duty of the state".

Beyond legislation

As such, while current efforts to strike down the sodomy laws through the institution of test cases are an important step in the right direction, there is a need for a more informed and culturally aware strategy that goes beyond litigation and legislation.

Critical in this regard is an understanding of the various brands of Christianity practised today in Africa. These are, to varying degrees, a blend of Judaeo-Christian and African traditions.

HRW's claim that African Christians who oppose homosexuality appropriate "the most stringent moral anathemas of the missionaries' faith, along with an imported law against homosexuality, as essential bulwarks of true African identity", illustrates the sort of fundamental misunderstanding of contemporary Africa that has undermined many well-intentioned western interventions.

Perhaps a more pragmatic way to serve the interests of gay Africans in the short term is to appeal to the humanity of a sufficient number of their brothers and sisters. This could reduce homophobia in the continent to a level similar to the one deemed tolerable in the west, where, as the Sun's poll after the David Laws story shows, homophobia remains rife.

Africa cannot afford to face this problem with yet another imported and, in its own way, blinkered attitude, which refuses to acknowledge the existence and influence of home-grown prejudice.

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Why Game of Thrones is the perfect show for the modern age

There is something horribly relatable about George R R Martin’s world of Westeros, whose characters have now become part of public myth.

By now, it feels as if George R R Martin – the author of Game of Thrones, narrative sadist and ruiner of all things beautiful and good – has been appointed scriptwriter for the news. I am not the first to observe this. Martin is famous for killing off everyone’s favourite characters and sending his stories careering into pits of bleak uncertainty just when you thought everything might turn out all right. Since Prince became the latest beloved star to die this year, it has become abundantly clear that life is imitating Game of Thrones, and there’s nothing to do but watch the next bit through your fingers and try to avoid spoilers.

The staggeringly popular HBO show based on Martin’s books is in its sixth season, and it is wild, glorious trash. I mean that as a compliment. I love this horrible, problematic show more than I can possibly justify, so I’ve stopped trying. It is hardly a social-justice warrior’s dream, given that it seems to be racing against itself to sexually degrade as many female characters as possible in the space of a 45-minute episode.

The argument for the endless misogynist violence is that it has to be shown, not to titillate viewers, absolutely not, but because that sort of thing just happened back in the murky medieval past. This would be a decent excuse if sexual violence were indeed a thing of the past; or, come to that, if Game of Thrones was actually set in the past, instead of in a fictional fantasy world where there are shape-shifters, zombies and dragons.

There is one aspect, however, in which Game of Thrones has a claim to being the most realistic show on television. Despite the wizards, the wights and the way every character manages to maintain perfect hair even when they’re being pointlessly tortured to death, there is something horribly relatable about Martin’s world of Westeros, whose characters have now become part of public myth. What sets it apart is not the monsters, the nudity or the festering gallons of gratuitous gore, but the overwhelming sense that the plot got run off the rails three books ago and is being steered towards a terrible precipice by a bunch of bickering, power-mad maniacs. This, coincidentally, happens to be the plot of the entire 21st century so far.

Viewers might tune in for what the actor Ian McShane called the “tits and dragons”, but they stay for the unremitting horror. Martin gleefully tramples over all the tropes of conventional sword-and-sorcery fiction. There are no noble quests or heroes’ journeys. Instead, horrible things happen to good people for no reason. Heroism goes extremely unrewarded. The few times injustice does get punished, it happens by accident. Fair maidens are not saved, protagonists are slaughtered at random, and war is always a stupid idea, even though the ­surviving cast members are still trying to solve all their problems by waging it.

Most fans of the show have idly wondered which warring noble house they’d want to be born into. Are you brave and upstanding like the Starks, an entitled aristocrat like the Lannisters, or a mad pirate bastard like the Greyjoys? Personally, I like to think that I’d be at home in Dorne, where knife-fighting and aggressive bisexuality are forms of greeting, but the truth is that I’d have been dead for at least two seasons by now and so would you. And not excitingly dead, either. Not beheaded-by-the-king dead, or burned-as-a-blood-sacrifice-to-the-god-of-fire-by-your-own-father dead. Statistically speaking, we’d be peasants. We probably wouldn’t even get names. We’d just be eating mud and waiting for the war to be over. You know it’s true.

The moral lessons so far are murky but sensible. Dragons are awesome. Men are invariably dreadful. Following religious zealots into battle is a poor life decision. Honour is a made-up concept that will probably get you killed. Most importantly, there are very few truly evil people in the world: instead, there are just stupid people, and scared people, and petty, vindictive people, and sometimes those people get put in charge of armies and nations, and that’s when the rest of us are really buggered. That’s what Game of Thrones is about.

I’m not even confident of a happy ending. I’ve made peace with knowing that my favourite characters are unlikely to make it out of the series alive, and even if they do, it won’t matter, because a giant army of ice zombies is coming to eat the world.

And that’s what makes it brilliant. There are plenty of horrible, sexy things on television, and in these anxious times every novelist worth his advance seems to be turning his hand to grim dystopian fiction. The problem with most dystopias, though, is that they’re too predictable. They serve up worlds where, however awful things get, someone is at least in charge. They are comforting for that reason, in the same way as conspiracy theories are comforting. It is less distressing to believe, for instance, that a secret race of lizard people is managing the destiny of the human race than to believe that nobody is managing it at all.

Stories help us rehearse trauma. They help us prepare for it. You sit down to watch terrible things happening to made-up people and you imagine how you’d cope if that were you, or someone you loved, and even if the answer is “not at all” you find yourself feeling a bit better. Right now, the really frightening prospect is that the world is actually being run by vicious idiots with only half a plan between them who are too busy fighting each other to pay attention to the weather, which is about to kill us all.

That, along with the epic theme music, is why I still love Game of Thrones. It feels like aversion therapy for the brutal randomness of modern politics, with a side order of CGI monsters and a lot of shagging. There you go. I hope that’s given you all the excuse you need to tune in for season six. I did my best. If you need me, I’ll be behind the sofa. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism