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Queerphobia in Africa: Time to unlearn the bad theology and to relearn the good

In March 2023, a group of Ugandan parents of LGBTIQ+ children published an open letter to Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, imploring him not to sign into law the Anti-Homosexuality Bill which had been tabled in the country’s parliament.

The tabling of the Bill came at the tail end of a months-long wave of queerphobic rhetoric — driven largely by religious leaders — which swept through the East African country.

In the last few months, we, as parents of LGBTQ+ Ugandans, have watched in trepidation and deepening concern, as religious fundamentalists, publicly elected officials, and anti-gay lobbyists have organised a dangerous movement against our adult children,” the letter stated.

Parents of LGBTQ+ Ugandans: our children are going to be targets of mob violence

The parents — all of whom are either devout Christians or Muslims — found themselves at odds with the way in which their faith was being weaponized against their children, who were being “vilified, disparaged, and publicly castigated… verbally threatened, physically targeted, and abused for who they are and for whom they love, based on unsubstantiated, false, and unchecked allegations”.

The letter added: “Religious fundamentalists continue to condemn our children as outcasts and criminals …. It has been horrific to watch this form of hate speech against our children… We fear that our children are going to be targets of mob violence; which is a direct consequence of living in a country whose legislators are recklessly legalising homophobia and transphobia with this Anti-Homosexuality law.”

Their impassioned plea did not, however, yield the desired result. In May 2023, Museveni signed the bill — labelled the among the worst of its kind in the world — into law.

And while the draconian nature of this piece of legislation has kept much of the world’s attention on Uganda, the East African country is unfortunately not unique. Amnesty International notes with concern the “ominous wave of similarly worded legislation … on the brink of assent across the continent”. Countries such as Ghana, Zambia, Namibia, Malawi, South Sudan, Tanzania, Burundi and Kenya have seen a notable increase in anti-queer rhetoric and/or anti-queer legislation being mooted.

In Kenya, Muslim protestors took to the streets to demand harsher penalties for same-sex relations and a member of parliament, Mohamed Ali, spoke of his determination to “kick LGBT people out of Kenya completely”. In March, the country’s parliament passed a motion for the government to place an immediate ban on “public discussion, reporting and distribution” of LGBTQ-related content.

The rise in anti-queer rhetoric in Kenya is hard to witness

Alishba*, who lives in the coastal Kenyan city of Mombasa, is a devout Muslim woman who has three LGBTIQ+ family members.

Describing her relationship with her queer family members, Alishba says: “I relate to them like any other family member. To me, they are important — like any other family member in my life. I respect them and they respect me. We get along. I think we are even closer than other family members. We even relate more intimately. We talk more. We hang out more… And they are also close with my children.”

For Alishba, the rise in anti-queer rhetoric, protests and legislation in Kenya have been hard to witness.

When I see the anti-LGBTIQ+ protests, and when I read about what [the new legislation] wants to implement — I feel sad,” she says. “I feel disappointed. I feel disgusted. Because we have bigger problems to deal with: poverty, lack of medical funds, lack of available medical resources, the economy right now. But instead of us focusing on how we can bring our leaders to accountability to stop the corruption, the stealing, the looting of public property, the destroying of public entities, we’re fighting our own children because of their personal issues.”

Reverend Jide McCaulay, a gay African theologian, concurs with Alishba. McCaulay views the rise in anti-LGBTIQ+ protests and legislation in various parts of Africa as “absolutely misplaced”.

It is important [to note that] the violence that we see is not about religion,” McCaulay says. “The violence we see against the LGBT community is really self-serving for many people. And, unfortunately, we know that, in politics, it is a diversion from the abuse of the economy [and] a distraction from their corrupt ways.”  

In 2023, during the 53rd Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the former United Nations Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Victor Madrigal-Borloz said “religion or belief systems are often deliberately placed in antagonistic positions against the human rights of LGBT persons in social and political discourse”.

Religious narratives have been deliberately used to justify violence and discrimination”

In some cases,” Madrigal-Borloz said, “religious narratives have been deliberately used to justify violence and discrimination – often in defiance of the doctrine of those faiths, and also beyond the scope of the right freedom of religion or belief.”

For McCaulay, an important tool in the fight against increased queerphobia is the support of family members of LGBTIQ+ persons.

I believe that, for family members who are allies, this is a time they have the opportunity to stand up. Religious leaders do not have the monopoly [on] God — or to the understanding of God’s word. Families need to stand up for what is right for their lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and non-binary family members,” McCaulay says.

He concedes, however, that “speaking out, especially in Africa, could be costly to families and indeed anyone who [does] not believe in homophobia or transphobia”.

Families need to stand up for their lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and non-binary family members

In Nigeria, Kinaade*, the 39-year-old brother of a gay man, navigates this tension on a daily basis.

I am Christian and my religion is very important to me,” Kinaade says. “I am devoted to my religion [but] my faith is highly against homosexuality. [And this] society is highly conservative, based on our religious beliefs and cultural beliefs. But despite that, I cannot discriminate against my brother. Of course, yes, there is discrimination from the society — even from the religious bodies there is discrimination. But [he] is my blood and I just have to stand behind him and support him.”

Kinaade concedes that he still struggles to come to terms with his brother’s sexuality, and “that someone from my family is actually practising homosexuality”. But, he adds, “this is my blood. I cannot chase him out of the house”.

For Kinaade, the fact that his brother cannot live his life openly is “unfair”.

You know, there is freedom of expression. Freedom to love who you want to love. So I feel that the discrimination is not necessary… I feel very bad, because my brother has been the best brother ever: kind, obedient and well-disciplined… If I had the opportunity to speak to people — especially the religious bodies — I would just remind them that the scriptures tell us about love, love and love. We should spread love to one another. Not be judgemental. Judgement is only for God,” he says.

While McCaulay sees the upswing in anti-queer movements across the continent as concerning, he sees in it an opportunity for religious leaders “to unlearn the bad theology and to relearn the good and inclusive theology”.

I pray for a world where inclusivity is something that is normal in the future

Says McCaulay: “We know today that there’s ample evidence of [queer-inclusive] translations of scriptures, especially the Bible. So religious leaders, in my opinion, need to set a better standard of inclusion when it comes to looking out for minority communities. Because, if it is not the gay or lesbian community today, it will be another community tomorrow.”

Alishba sighs as she says: “You know, there is this misconceived notion that every person who’s LGBTIQ+ is sexually immoral. They’re not. I have found some who are even more religious than me; who inspire me and make me want to be a better Muslim and a better mother. So… I wish there’s a way we could abolish [this discrimination]. I pray for a world where inclusivity is something that is normal in the future — for the sake of our children, for the sake of our families, and for the sake of our society”.

*For security reasons pseudonyms are used.

Carl Collison*

*Carl Collison is a journalist, photographer, filmmaker and researcher, who focuses specifically on producing LGBTIQ-related content from across Africa. While a researcher with Human Rights Watch, Collison worked on projects centred around LGBTIQ+ migrants and asylum seekers in South Africa as well as the impacts of Uganda’s most recent Anti-Homosexuality Bill. He is currently pursuing a Masters Degree (in Religion and Theology) at the University of the Western Cape, where his research will focus on the intersections between queerness, religion and forced migration. He is also the founder and editor of the online publication, Beyond the Margins

An article for the Hirschfeld Eddy Foundation project “We believe in change”: Human rights, freedom of religion or belief, and non-discrimination. All publications for the project can be found under the tag WBIC-2023 (some content in English)


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