Skip to main content

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education.

"There's no African word for homosexuality," Kenyan independence leader Jomo Kenyatta once said. His son Uhuru said something similar during his meeting last weekend with U.S. President Barack Obama, after Mr. Obama urged Kenya to stop discriminating against gays.

"There are some things we must admit we don't share; our culture, our society don't accept," explained Uhuru Kenyatta, the country's current President. "It is very difficult for us to be able to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept."

You can hear echoes of that claim across the continent, where people insist that homosexuality violates indigenous cultures and traditions. In Ghana, where I have been teaching periodically since 2008, friends have assured me that gay rights are simply alien to Africans.

But there's also change in the air, fuelled by satellite television and other popular entertainment. Although many Americans still imagine Africans living in "the bush" – that is, in isolated villages – more than a third of people on the continent live in cities; by 2030, a majority of Africans will make their home in an urban area.

So they're increasingly exposed to global media images, including gay-related themes. Meanwhile, prominent African entertainers – who have started to cultivate their own global presence – are taking up the banner of gay rights.

In Ghana, for example, several celebrities spoke out in February to condemn a brutal mob attack on a music promoter who was suspected of being gay. "The world is changing. Get with the program," tweeted Efya, a popular soul singer and actress. "Gay people are here. … It's who they are. So you be you … let them be them."

Another musician pleaded for new protections for gay people in Ghana, where – as in 36 other African nations – homosexual activity is illegal. "Maybe you just hate free people because you lack their courage to be free," Romanian-Ghanaian star Wanlov the Kubolor posted on Facebook, pleading for Ghana to abolish its anti-gay law.

There's little chance of that happening soon in a country where 96 per cent of people view homosexuality as "unacceptable," according to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll. Yet police announced they had arrested a suspect in the beating of the music promoter, who was not under investigation himself. That's an important step in Ghana, where victims of anti-gay violence have often been jailed while their assailants got off scot-free.

Elsewhere in Africa, Mozambique recently decriminalized homosexuality. And last May, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights adopted its first-ever resolution condemning anti-gay violence and prejudice.

In Kenya, meanwhile, a court recently ruled that gay and lesbian groups may register under constitutional provisions that bar discrimination. Homosexual acts remain illegal, punishable by 14 years in jail. But gay organizations have grown markedly in size and prominence, in Kenya and across Africa.

That hasn't prevented politicians such as Uhuru Kenyatta from insisting that homosexuality isn't "really" African, of course. Never mind that the continent has a long history of same-sex love, going back many centuries. Homosexuality wasn't banned until the colonial era, when missionaries brought anti-gay attitudes and laws to Africa.

But as Western countries began to decriminalize homosexuality, after the Second World War, many new African nations stepped up their campaigns against it. Homosexuality isn't a legacy of colonialism, as Africans often charge; instead, homophobia is.

And legacies can change. During his Kenya visit, Mr. Obama denounced forced marriage of young girls and other patriarchal practices on the continent. "Treating women and girls as second-class citizens, those are bad traditions," he said. "They need to change."

I didn't hear anyone suggest that those traditions are timeless features of African culture. They're shifting, as more women get access to education, health care and employment.

So are attitudes about gay people, although the rate of change is slower. But one day, I predict, the eloquent appeal last weekend by "the first Kenyan-American president" – as Mr. Obama proudly called himself – will be seen as a landmark for equality in Africa and around the world.

"If somebody is a law-abiding citizen … the idea that they are going to be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong," Mr. Obama declared. "Full stop."

Homophobia won't stop in Africa so long as Africans persist in seeing homosexuality as alien to the continent. I'm glad America has a president of African descent, to remind them that it isn't.

Interact with The Globe