Homosexuality in Africa: A Christian’s perspective

Author: Muniini K Mulera. PHOTO/FILE 

What you need to know:

Without doubt, homosexual acts are sins. However, are they worse than the sins that heterosexuals commit?

Dear Tingasiga:

I had hesitated to make public comments on homosexuality and Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill because the polarised positions taken, complete with abusive language, may not allow room for sober consideration of this complex subject.  However, my conscience reminds me of my duty as an African, a Christian, and a paediatrician (children’s doctor). These three identities impose beliefs, knowledge and expectations that can potentially clash. However, many years of reflection, scholarship, and experience enable me to hold a clear position on the matter. 

The claim that homosexuality is un-African and foreign is false. Several papers and books by ethnographers, historians, and anthropologists reveal that homosexual activities were common in precolonial and early colonial Africa. In Uganda’s case, the practice was well documented among the Langi (Driberg 1923), the Iteso (Laurence 1957), Abahima (Mushanga 1973), Abanyoro (Needham 1973), and Abaganda (Southwold 1973).  However, it is correct to say that colonial regimes, and the principal Christian religious sects, successfully suppressed public displays and engagement in homosexuality. In their book “Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities” (London: MacMillan, 1998), Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe observe that “some say the colonialists did not introduce homosexuality to Africa but rather intolerance of it and systems of surveillance and regulation for suppressing it.” 

By the 1960s, homophobia had taken root, and historical amnesia had relegated homosexuality to a misty past as though it had never existed.  It is therefore more accurate to say that colonial and post-colonial Africa rejected homosexuality, which is now considered to be foreign to our modern way of life.  Notwithstanding our love of copying foreign traditions and behaviours, including destructive ones, we are very conservative in the matter of sexuality, gender identity and sexual behaviour.

Africa is a culturally binary world, where sexual identity is perceived in reproductive terms. We are a socially conservative people, with a long and deep tradition of enforcing group norms. We expect people to look like and to function in the gender and sexual roles they were assigned at birth. To the African, sexual desire and activity is only meaningful when understood as an avenue for reproduction.  That is the basis for rejection of homosexuality and the whole LGBTQQIP2SA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Pansexual, Two-Spirited, and Asexual) community.

This is not different from the homophobia that was prevalent in North America when I set foot on this continent 42 years ago. Western leaders and diplomats who are shocked by the homophobia in Uganda should cast their eyes back to their countries a few decades ago. Indeed, they should look at the states in the United States that have recently enacted legislation that curtails the rights of members of the LGBTQQIP2SA community. To be sure, the acceptance of non-traditional gender identities and sexual lifestyles in Canada and the USA has been a slow and gradual process. To expect Ugandans and Africans to act faster is unrealistic.

Furthermore, threats from Western capitals that they may withhold aid and impose economic and financial sanctions on Uganda are unhelpful and hypocritical. First, the threats feed into the false narrative that the West has an agenda to impose “Western ways” on Africa. Second, the threats fall flat in the face of the West’s failure to impose sanctions against the rulers who abuse other human rights of Africans. By ignoring stolen elections, torture and killings of political activists and other citizens by state agents, the West’s leaders demonstrate that they do not care about the human rights of Africans. If Western advocates of tolerance and protection of the rights of the LGBTQQIP2SA community in Africa hope to be listened to, they need to first educate themselves about our culture, our traditions, and our attitudes. Their governments need to abandon the patriarchal, condescending attitude that uses money to hold Africans at ransom. Their approach will be counterproductive as African people place their beliefs above their financial dependence on the West.

As a born-again Christian, I believe that the Bible is the Word of God. I am very conversant with the Old Testament texts that very clearly condemn homosexual acts. I have also read the Apostle Paul’s statement in Romans 1:24-27, in which he writes: “For this reason God gave them over to dishonourable passions; for their females exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the males abandoned the natural function of the female and burned in their desire toward one another, males with males committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.”

Without doubt, homosexual acts are sins. However, are they worse than the sins that heterosexuals commit? For example, many married men, among them those with political power, line up at young student girls’ hostels, to pay for sexual favours. How different are they from homosexuals whose blood the country is baying for?

Paul answers that question in the next five verses of the same chapter: “And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to an unfit mind, to do those things which are not proper, having been filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, violent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the righteous requirement of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but  also give hearty approval to those who practice them.”

As a Christian, I am called upon to love the Lord my God with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind, and with all my strength. I am also called upon to love my neighbour as myself. There is no commandment greater than these. I recognise that, besides blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, there is no hierarchy of sins.  Sin is sin against God’s holiness.  The sin of a heterosexual person is no less than that of a homosexual person.  That is why Paul warns us in Romans 2: 1-2 – “Therefore you are without excuse, O man, everyone who passes judgement, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.”

The Church should stand with the LGBT community, offering them a safe place, full of genuine love and support. We need to be humble, so that we do not miss the logs in our eyes while pointing out the specs in the eyes of our brothers and sisters. Instead, we should share the Word of God, especially the liberating Gospel of Him who died so that we may be saved.

My third identity, that of a medical doctor, gives me access to evidence-based scientific knowledge, long experience in professional support for developing children and youth, and an insatiable hunger for learning about the development of gender, sex, and sexual orientation. What should the doctor’s role be in the lives and communities of the LGBTQQIP2SA?  Can a homosexual person be restored to heterosexuality with “conversion” or “reparative” therapies? It is to these questions that we shall turn next week.

Muniini K. Mulera is Ugandan-Canadian social and political observer.