Gay Life In Africa Met With Complexity
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
We wanted to know more about how homosexuality is viewed throughout the continent of Africa, and we learned that in most African countries, homosexuality is a crime. One notable exception is South Africa, where discrimination against gays and lesbians has been prohibited in the constitution since 1996, and same-sex marriage has been legal since 2006.
To find out more, we called Neville Hoad. He's an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. He's the author of "African Intimacies: Race, Homosexuality, and Globalization." Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. NEVILLE HOAD (Associate Professor of English, University of Texas; Author, "African Intimacies: Race, Homosexuality, and Globalization"): Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: Can I just clarify one point? In most countries that you study, is being a homosexual a crime or engaging in same-sex activities a crime or both?
Mr. HOAD: Mostly the latter, and mostly those laws are sodomy laws from British common law. The Franco-African colonies in Africa don't have that problem.
MARTIN: So is it then the case that the countries that tend to take the harshest stance against same-sex intimacy are those that were previously British colonies?
Mr. HOAD: I mean, if one thinks of the places where the rhetoric has really been vitriolic, it would be Zimbabwe and now Uganda, which would both fit the profile you're sketching, yes.
MARTIN: And in those countries, as David Kato pointed out, you sometimes hear African leaders decry homosexuality as un-African. Why do they say that? Why do they think that?
Mr. HOAD: I think a lot of the time, it's the politics of distraction. I think it's important to remember that, you know, Uganda is a country that not only has a homosexuality problem, it has a civil-war problem, it has development problems, it has a democracy problem, and I think a lot of the time, these heated debates around homosexuality emerge as a cover for other kind of crises in post-colonial governance.
MARTIN: To that point, Kenya has announced that it will seek to conduct a census of its gay population for the first time, the explanation being that account would lead to more organized sexual safety network, whatever that means. So how do you interpret that? What do you think that's about?
Mr. HOAD: The moment the state gets interested in your sexual practices, I think people are quite right to be wary, and I think that would apply almost anywhere. What's interesting to me about that is you sort of see the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and it is a real crisis, being used for ends that one couldn't really imagine.
MARTIN: What have been the circumstances for gays and lesbians in these countries, particularly countries with a heritage of British colonialism? Is it such that people have to hide their orientation? Are they under physical threat, or is it more of don't ask, don't tell, as it were?
Mr. HOAD: I would say it's more of don't ask, don't tell. I think also, you know, the idea that if you indulge in certain sexual activities, you become a certain kind of person is a relatively recent idea even in, you know, the North Atlantic world.
So I think we're seeing in these places this emergence of something which we could call lesbian and gay identity, but - and that's new, but I think people have been, you know, people do interesting things with their bodies wherever they are; and that isn't.
MARTIN: And what about the pre-colonial period? Do we know anything about the attitudes about same-sex intimacy before the colonial period?
Mr. HOAD: Well, I mean, I think the important thing to remember about the, you know, Africa in the pre-colonial period is you're talking several hundred languages, a couple of thousand different ethnic groups, massively varying forms of social and sexual organization. So it would be very difficult to generalize across the board.
The first chapter of my book looks at an event in - it's actually on the cusp of the colonial period in what is now Uganda, in which the last indigenous ruler, the Kibaka Miwanga(ph), executes 30 pages at his royal court because they are now refusing to have sex with him because they have converted to Christianity.
So I mean, there is evidence of sexual activity, but I think, you know, the meanings of sexuality also shift in times and spaces.
MARTIN: So as I mentioned earlier, South Africa not only does not discriminate against homosexuality, that same-sex marriage is legal, and do I have that right, that it is�?
Mr. HOAD: No, you - I mean, South Africa is interesting because South Africa is the first country in the history of the world to have an anti-discrimination clause on the grounds of sexual orientation in its constitution.
MARTIN: And do you mind if mention you're South African by birth?
Mr. HOAD: I don't mind at all.
MARTIN: And so that begs the question: Why so different than the rest of the continent on this issue? And indeed, it has to be said, we don't have that here.
Mr. HOAD: I think South Africa's a very interesting case because it comes to independence or democracy very late. And sexual orientation rights agenda was prevalent in international progressive circles, and there was a sense that, you know, South Africa wanted to have the most progressive constitution that could be imagined in that moment.
And then the other reason that I think - and this is an interesting one - is because of the experience of migrant labor, which was - affected a lot of people over the course of the Apartheid era. And you know, most of the miners lived in these huge, single-sex compounds on the mines, and institution of male-male mine marriage emerged.
And the state sort of turned a blind eye to it. But I think those men who'd had boy-wives, when they went back to the countryside at the end of the contract, had experience of certain kinds of contingent homosexuality, which I think is good for building tolerance.
MARTIN: Interesting. What should we keep our eye on if we want to follow this issue on the continent of Africa, the whole issue of gay rights? What should we be looking at?
Mr. HOAD: Okay, I'm going to be slightly controversial here. I say you need to look at the international human rights Web sites and material with a fairly healthy degree of suspicion, because often they're invested in making asylum claims, so they're invested in making things look as bad as possible. And I actually think it's much more interesting to follow these debates in terms of cultural products - novels, films, poetry - to try and get to less-mediated voices on these issues rather than listening to people who have a clear ideological agenda on either side.
MARTIN: Neville Hoad is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. He's the author of "African Intimacies: Race, Homosexuality, and Globalization," and he joined us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Thank you so much, Professor.
Mr. HOAD: Thank you, Michel.
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MARTIN: Coming up, in the late-night mix of Letterman, Leno and Conan, is there room for a few more?
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Unidentified Man: Immigration is a big issue, right? Look how quiet it got.
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MARTIN: How George Lopez, Wanda Sykes and Mo'Nique are trying to spice up our late-night options. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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