African myths about homosexuality

A political spat about gay rights in Zimbabwe is symptomatic of the homophobia prevalent in many African communities

by Blessing-Miles Tendi

Zimbabwe’s Sunday Mail newspaper, which is controlled by Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF party, ran an article last week headlined “Gay rights furore”. It claimed that “Zimbabwe’s major political parties are on a collision course over the inclusion of gay rights in the new constitution” because Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC is campaigning for the recognition of gay rights, while Zanu PF is against the idea for cultural reasons.

In turn Tsvangirai’s MDC has denounced what it regards as “attempts by Zanu PF to distort the MDC constitution principles through media reports that the party is lobbying for gay rights in the new constitution:

“Nowhere in our principles document is there any reference to gays and lesbians. For the record, it is well-known that homosexuality is practised in Zanu PF where senior officials from that party have been jailed while others are under police probe on allegations of sodomy. It is in Zanu PF where homosexuality is a religion.”

Zanu PF and the MDC’s use of the gay rights debate for political mileage and in order to deflect attention from other subjects are superficial explanations for these homophobic political developments. They are symptomatic of a broad disinclination for open and factual discussion about gay rights in many African states and black communities around the world. Myths about African culture, the strength of religion and black masculinity are the main reasons.

The standard explanation offered by Africans opposed to gay rights is that homosexuality is alien to their culture and was introduced to Africa by European colonialists. A good deal of African-American homophobia relies on the same justification. But late 19th-century records on Africa and African oral history show that homosexual practices existed in pre-colonial Africa. One case in point are the Azande people in the north-east of modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where it was acceptable for kings, princes and soldiers to take young male lovers.