Single story homophobia and gay imperialism revisted

Two excellent articles by Keguro Macharia [Gukira]. The First was published on  Kenya Imagine and is a response to an article on homophobia in Africa by Madeline Bunting in which she attempts to explain “African Homophobia”.. Keguro’s criticism first points to her claim that the West should “rightly” be concerned and hugely angry about homophobia in Africa.

Being “rightly” concerned is, as far as I can tell, a full time occupation where Africa is concerned. To be western, Bunting suggests, is to have “the right” to be concerned and angry about what happens in Africa. 40 years after African’s independence from colonialism, I remain puzzled at what gives “the west” any rights over Africa. And because I am an intellectual, I wonder at Bunting’s need to posit an autonomous “west” against a knowable “Africa,” even after more than 30 years of scholarship that has emphasized the cross-hybridization of these two spaces.

Keguro goes on to question the source of Bunting’s “authoritative voice” considering  she makes no attempt to seek out scholarly voices such as his and Canadian Marc Epprecht and those of others easily accessible online with a little effort and Google.

Given the article’s authoritative tone, I would have assumed that, at the very least, Bunting would take the time to read the body of activist and scholarly work available on African homosexualities and African homophobia, much of which lives online. Had she bothered, she might have found the long-standing website Behind the Mask, which offers a range of resources and reports on Africa. She might have discovered the erudite scholar writer Sokari Ekine whose blog is a historical and scholarly resource. A little digging might have turned up Feminist Africa , which has devoted special issues to questions of sexuality in Africa, including a moving article by Uganda-based professor Sylvia Tamale .

If Bunting had cared to actually study her subject, she might have discovered scholarly monographs by South African  Neville Hoad and Canadian Marc Epprecht, both of which offer nuanced, historically grounded analyses of homosexual and homophobic practices and discussions in Africa.

In the second piece published in  yesterday’s  Guardian, he challenges the notion that homophobia in Africa  is somehow unique and that homophobia exists in continental or regional forms.  In reality there is no single story.   In answer to the question “how do we account for what APPEARS TO BE  the intensification of homophobia in Africa?” he provides two examples, one from Kenya where the first mass attack against gay men took place recently.  Unlike the usual reports in the Western media where Africans are presented as passive and unengaged, Keguro  names local activists organisations and their responses…..

So what has changed? Activist organisations such as Minority Women in Action (MWA), Transgender Education and Advocacy (TEA) and Gay Kenya have been established and run educational workshops across the country. As with other human rights groups in Kenya, their efforts have been met with mixed reactions, ranging from acceptance to indifference to hatred. Their increased visibility has led to increased vulnerability, a trajectory shared by progressive organisations across the world.

The second example he uses is the  marriage of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza and again challenges the “unique” single story…

To grasp the Malawi case, we need to understand the meaning of the engagement ceremony chinkhoswe. Chinkhoswe certifies marriages in the eyes of the law and also creates stable ideas about gender. It is worth noting that Tiwonge Chimbalanga identifies as a woman, so this case is also about transgender politics.

Notably, despite some gains in gay marriage in the west, transgender politics remain contested. Without a locally based understanding, rooted in a history of Malawi and a grasp of its cultural politics, we cannot comprehend what is at stake in the case. Discussions that frame the case as Malawians opposing westernisation tell only a very partial story.

Last week British Gay activist Peter Tatchell published HIS response to the sentencing of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza in which he, in the style of the single story, reduces homophobia in Africa to a simplistic colonialist and passive explanation.

Before the British came and conquered Malawi, there were no laws against homosexuality. These laws are a foreign imposition, they are not African at all. Despite independence, these alien criminalisations were never repealed.

Today, the minds of many Malawians — and other Africans — remain colonised by the homophobic beliefs that were drummed into their forebears by the western missionaries who invaded their lands alongside the conquering imperial armies.

By contrast, Phumi Mtetwa of the Gay and Lesbian Equality project, South Africa  made this more considered and contemporary statement on the sentencing of Chimbalanga and Monjeza.

The increasing incitement, in multiple African countries especially Zimbabwe, Malawi and Uganda, against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people is a gross violation of human rights. Homophobic laws are being used as political decoys by politicians instead of facing the real problems of poverty and declining standards of living on the continent. The door has been opened to reverse and retard a post-colonial progress on all human rights. Human rights can only be ensured through an unwavering commitment to equality, freedom and justice for all. The South African government, as the only state in Africa to recognise equality for sexual minorities, must be called to defend the South African constitution by offering asylum to the two men convicted in Malawi and negotiating their immediate release from prison.

What I find  disturbing about Mr Tatchell’s perspective and work around LGBTI rights in Africa is his constant failure to ever recognise the many country and issue based grassroots human rights defenders / activists working on the continent and who in many cases put their lives at risk.  Africans are presented as passive and  silent justifying his need to act on our behalf and often compromising the work of frontline defenders. [see below].   The focus is more often than not on those with a homophobic agenda rather than the struggle against it and the victories that have been won by in Uganda, Cameroon, Nigeria, the campaigns and work of many activists across the continent.     Language is powerful and more so when the user has an “authoritative” [in the UK] voice  and white privilege such as Peter Tatchell.

In his article, Tatchell then goes on to quote Rudi Bleys clearly missing the irony as he uses the very language of the colonialists he blames for homophobia as he pursues his own “civilising mission”

As Rudi C Bleys documented in his book, The Geography of Perversion, the existence and, sometimes toleration, of same-sex acts was used by the colonising European nations to justify what they saw as their “civilising” mission.

To them, homosexuality among the indigenous peoples was proof of their “barbarity” and confirmation of western theories of racial superiority.

Some questions to consider about the language in the Independent article;  why did Tatchell choose such aggressive language which conflates Africa into a single homogeneous space, historically, culturally and geographically  and which feeds into the notion, as Keguro states,  that  homophobia in Africa is somehow unique?  How does such language support the struggle on the ground in Malawi, in Uganda, in Nigeria?  What stereotypes does this language reinforce?

As I write I am minded that criticsing Peter Tatchell has it’s perils as the authors of Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the ‘War on Terror’” (Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality, – 2008),  can attest.   Their voices silenced by the very gay imperialism they critique…..

white gay discourses in Germany and Britain that trade in Islamophobic constructions of a gay-friendly, sexually liberated ‘West’ and a homophobic, sexually oppressive ‘Islam’ as the West’s Other.  They argue that these constructions are validated in the politics of the ‘war on terror’ and the erosion of migrant citizenship, and that racism is “the vehicle that transports white gays and feminists into the mainstream” (p. 72)

Peter Tatchell who together with his organisation Outrage were named in the book, was issued an apology by the publishers  Raw Nerve who in an act of censorship and white privilege  then declared “Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality,” Out of Print.

In February 2007,  20 African LGBTI activists issued a “Statement of Warning” against Tatchell and Outrage which  the authors of Gay Imperialism, Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem, referred to  in their article.  The statement begins…

In order to prevent Peter Tatchell and Outrage! from causing further damage through their unfounded campaigns and press releases, we issue this public statement of warning.

As Human Rights Defenders from across Africa, we strongly discourage the public from taking part in any LGBTI campaigns or calls to action concerning Africa that are led by Peter Tatchell or Outrage!

Collaboration across continents is both important and valuable. We are willing to work with those who respect our advice and expertise regarding our continent.  However, Outrage! has been acting in contempt and disregard of the wishes and lives of African Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and
Intersex (LGBTI) Human Rights Defenders. We have made every attempt to address this matter with Outrage!, personally, and they have refused to listen. We now take this matter to the public, requesting
you not to take part in any of Peter Tatchell or Outrage!’s campaigns regarding Africa, as they are not factually-based and are harmful to African activists.

Through the following actions, Outrage! has repeatedly disrespected the lives, damaged the struggle, and endangered the safety of African Human Rights Defenders: [Continue reading the Statement here or here]

Peter Tatchell has been at the forefront of LGBTI rights in Britain for the past 25 years or more and for that there is much respect.  But surely it is not too much to ask for some reflection of the statement issued by African LGBTI activists and the article written by Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem?   There is a degree of arrogance around those who refuse – for whatever reason – to engage in self-reflection, to question their language, motives, ambition.

Tatchell ends his diatribe with a call for the African liberation to be completed through the liberation of African gays – considering his primary audience is a British one – who is he calling to complete this liberation? The Africans he cannot  bring himself to mention or the gay imperialists waiting at the door?

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