We Need To Talk About Colonialism Before We Criticize International Anti-LGBTQ Legislation

On January 7th, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed a law that sentences LGBTQ individuals to 14 years in prison if convicted of same-sex relations. This law also bans same-sex marriage as well as encourages imprisonment of any who support LGBTQ organizations — whether the suspected ally actually identifies as queer or not.

The Same-Sex Prohibition Act explicitly states, “Any person who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organizations or directly or indirectly makes public show of same-sex amorous relationship in Nigeria commits an offense and shall each be liable on conviction to a term of 10 years in prison.”

Although President Johnson just signed the anti-LGBTQ bill into law earlier this month, ordinances with provisions similar to this law have been brought unsuccessfully before the Parliament since 2006. In 2011, the Senate adopted the original anti-gay act that eventually would give rise to the current Same-Sex Prohibition Act, and the lower house of parliament passed it in May of 2013.

Source: Amnesty/ILGA

Source: Amnesty/ILGA

Unsurprisingly, various Western nations have jumped at the opportunity to respond to Nigeria’s ruling. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about the United States’ “deep concern” by asserting that “no one should face violence or discrimination for who they love” (because that does not happen in the U.S.). Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union, commented in a released statement, “I am… particularly concerned that some provisions of the [Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition] Act appear to be in contradiction with… fundamental [human] rights.” Some media outlets even go as far as to compare Nigeria’s new law to legislation passed in other Western countries, like France’s marriage equality ruling.

It is important to defend human rights and to speak out against human rights violations around the world. However, the West, in its attempts to endorse freedom across the globe, has invoked — once again — the White Savior trope that ignores and erases any Western culpability in anti-LGBTQ policies that occur in other parts of the world, especially in the Afro-Diaspora. To talk about anti-gay legislation internationally, we need to talk about a history of white supremacy that brought homophobia and anti-LGBTQ legislation to various countries.

Well, let’s start with a little country called England. You may have heard of it! Recently, the U.K made a lot of queer folks happy by agreeing to legalize same-sex marriage, a ruling that will go into affect for only England and Wales in March 2014. Before England decided to do right by same-sex couples who want to get married, it tried to take over the whole damn world (with the exception of 22 countries) and colonized more than a handful.

England invaded all the pink countries Image via: The Telegraph

England invaded all the pink countries
Image via: The Telegraph

England was not playing around with its colonies, so after a lot of fuss about how to rule all of their territories, it came up with the Colonial Laws Validity Act of 1865, also known as “An Act to remove Doubts as to the Validity of Colonial Laws”. Basically, it set the standard for British laws applying to any territory claimed by the Monarch unless someone gave a really good reason why it shouldn’t.

What kind of laws then applied to English colonies? One law crucial to queer politics today is the Buggery Act of 1533, first passed under the reign of King Henry VIII. King Henry VIII was that upstanding fellow who split the Church of England’s ties to the Roman Catholic Church so that he could get it on with Anne Boleyn and her four successors, and who also got two of six wives out of the picture by chopping their heads off. Our boy Henry was so outstanding in the bedroom that he must have figured he should make laws about what kind of sex other people were allowed to have.

Buggery, in the 1533 Act, originally condemned anyone found guilty of an “unnatural sex act” to death and loss of property. By 1885, although the law replaced the punishment of death and loss of property with imprisonment, the Courts specified that anal sex between men, whether in public or in private, was a crime. As determined by the aforementioned Colonial Laws Validity Act, the Buggery Act carried over to all British territories throughout the world.

When England gave up most of its colonies and dependent territories by 1997 (they still have several dependent territories in the Caribbean), it did not take all of its laws with it. So even though England and Wales got rid of the sodomy laws in 1967, the “Motherland” didn’t try too hard to repeal the sodomy laws it consequently had established practically everywhere else in the world. Oops!

With this brief history lesson in mind, let’s take a look at some of the countries with the most discussed anti-LGBTQ policies today. There’s Uganda, with its proposed anti-gay bill that also punishes LGBTQ people with life imprisonment (even though President Yoweri Museveni has chosen not to sign the bill into law); Nigeria, as mentioned earlier, now has imposed the Same-Sex Prohibition Act in full force, already making several arrests; LGBTQ individuals are facing an increasing amount of persecution in English-speaking Caribbean islands like Jamaica and Barbados; President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, even suggested last year that gay men should be beheaded. What do all of these countries have in common? They were all subject to England’s colonial influence.

However, nineteenth century historical records demonstrate that homosexuality existed in many African societies, and that members of royal families often took same-sex lovers. Even with British colonial laws in place, there is not much evidence that governments in colonial territories actively prosecuted individuals for homosexual behavior. So how did these countries go from relatively tolerant views to oppressive legal measures concerning LGBTQ communities? This is where modern Western culture, specifically Christianity, comes into play. The legacy of toxic Western influences on Afro-Diasporic cultural practices is long and convoluted.

Still from the film, God Loves Uganda. The film explores the relationship between US Evangelicals and religious groups in Uganda

Still from the film, God Loves Uganda. The film explores the relationship between US Evangelicals and religious groups in Uganda

The American evangelical right spends about as much money and dedicates as many resources advocating for religious African groups to denounce queer rights efforts as pro-LGBTQ organizations working in Africa. Groups like the Kansas City-based International House of Prayer and leaders like Lou Engle, and Scott Lively, visit religious communities in African countries and endorse their harmful views about homosexuality. For example, in 2009, three American Christians, presented as experts on homosexuality, informed Ugandans about the dangers of the “gay agenda” in a three-day conference. One month after the conference, a Ugandan politician with alleged connections to American evangelicals proposed the now infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009. Even as recently as this past December, MassResistance founder Brian Camenker encouraged Jamaicans to defend the nation’s sodomy laws and not to indulge LGBTQ rights. These “activists” act as White Saviors, spreading the gospel against the “gay agenda” and truly embody a modern form of colonialism. We in the West, especially in the U.S., cannot dissociate ourselves from this poisonous, white supremacist, imperialist tradition that sanctions some Western “prerogative” to barge into other countries and impose our views. With these factors in mind, we certainly don’t have the right to turn around and call those same nations we continually colonize “backwards”. Karl T. Muth explains the Western position perfectly:

“Fascinating is Americans’ enduring ignorance about their country’s relationship with Africa and their unshakable belief that things being imported to Africa from America include democracy, goodwill, and happiness… Meanwhile, the actual imports from America (political and religious extremism, messages of white supremacy, people and organizations encouraging homophobia, quasi-government agents peddling weapons, etc.) go either unnoticed or purposefully ignored.”

Queers in the West may not be in favor of anti-LGBTQ evangelicals invading Afro-Diasporic countries with horrible belief systems, but we cannot ignore the religious right’s actions. Before Westerners criticize policy makers and government systems in the Diaspora, how about we challenge our government’s imperialist relationships with other nations. Before Westerners decide that Afro-Diasporic nations are so “backwards,” how about we take a look at our own histories, how after centuries of unjust laws we are merely beginning to move towards equal rights legislation, and the way that oppression often begins with us. Before Western countries talk about cutting off aid to states with homophobic legal policies, how about we talk about how much harm Western “aid” has done in the past.

For those of us queer people in the West, we must support human rights everywhere in the world; however, standing up for our LGBTQ siblings’ rights also means acknowledging how we are culpable. We must stop pretending that we are ahead of the world when we talk about LGBTQ rights and democracy. If being “ahead” of other nations means that we export our hate instead of confronting it, we are not only backwards, but we are also hypocrites. We cannot call attention to other LGBTQ people’s voices if we only want to hear half of the story. Our struggles are not all the same, but they are definitely connected.


feature image from africanhealthmagaine.com

Helen McDonald is a 20-something Black lesbian feminist living off of pizza, social justice and a lil snark. By day, she's a community educator, teaching young people about healthy relationships. She also discusses the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality on her personal blog sapphosistah.tumblr.com and is a contributing writer at ElixHer.com

Helen has written 40 articles for us.

45 Comments

  1. This was such an interesting read on a topic I have been waiting for AS to cover for a while. It’s something that is so often missed when we discuss these horrible laws. And obviously the context is of the utmost importance for understanding the conditions that have brought forth such backwards policies.

    I would really love to read more about perspectives on queerness before European colonization.

  2. Thank you for this article. I’m in the process of applying to global health jobs, many of which are in countries where homosexuality is criminalized so these sorts of things are on my mind a lot. I agree that the issues you bring up are very important and yet lacking in global lgbtqi rhetoric (just like the same is true for a lot of issues with western feminisms and the ever-pervassive imperialist campaigns to save the “other” women). I would be curious to take the conversation further and reflect how the acknowledgement of the points you bring up ought to shape future conversations on the topic. Sure, maybe a lot of the anti-gay agenda has western roots (I wouldn’t say it’s all western [neither did you], oppression and hate don’t operate on a geographical binary like that). But it’ll take a whole lot more than a History in Homophobia 101 lecture to change the pervasiveness of anti-gay sentiment in many parts of the world. My first two roommates in college were each from a non-western country, and they were pretty quick to announce that they were both fundamentalist Christians who 1) didn’t believe in evolution, and 2) “didn’t have gay people” in their respective countries. Me being the young budding women’s studies scholar that I was, my initial reaction was to think “but Christianity is a result of White Western imperialism, how can you accept the imported teachings of the oppressor?” Luckily, I kept my mouth shut because even though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I still realized that insulting and shaming someone for adopting the beliefs that you insist your ancestors forced upon their ancestors to is in itself an act of snotty, let-me-tell-you-poor-uneducated-folk-how-it-is western imperialist fuckery of the highest caliber.

    I’ve been trying to decide what my actual question is to end this comment, but really I guess I’m just looking for reflections. ???

    • I’m a queer Nigerian-American atheist/agnostic and I am also at a loss to express my feelings towards family who say the same things as your roommates. I used to be obnoxious about it and I have mellowed out as I got older. However lately…rage.

      I cannot go to my birth-country and it hurts, it is not mentally healthy for me to be closeted. it’s life or death for me. I had dreams to go back but now? Fuck no. I also get frustrated because the same relatives often accused me of being white-washed because of my sexuality and lack of belief.

      I am so hurt and frustrated. I’m so angry at the smug comments of my relatives knowing I am out to them and being aware of the news in Nigeria. I cannot stand the hypocrisy and I can almost feel myself becoming a militant atheist every time I am around them.

      I need *more* therapy and will be seeking pet therapy because kittens and puppies are not smug Christian assholes who pray to a fucking white Jesus despite this “pro-Africaness, blah blah motherland bullshit.”

      I’m done with it, I don’t have the spoons to deal with these conversations with anyone really. I understand that by being white [western] it’s complicated with LBGT activism because in my case having an US citizenship, I have lots of privileges and can oppress due to arrogance of my upbringing and attitudes and not knowing any better because I’m talking over these people.

      I just have so many feelings and this is sometimes triggers the deep anger I had in my heart of my oppresive Catholic upbringing.

      • Thank you for sharing- I’m sorry you have to deal with those attitudes from family members. On some levels I understand those sentiments of betrayal and rejection from your motherland- I was born and raised in Greece until I was teenager and moved to the US. While Greece certainly has pockets of tolerance and I am lucky to have siblings who are accepting (or apathetic, it depends how you look at it), it’s an Orthodox Christian country with a lot of conservative views (want to talk about a country that used to be gay-accepting pre-Christianity? Big time. Not that I’m blaming it all on the Church. I blame it on people’s interpretation of Church dogma). I still go back about once a year for a short visit, but except to my friends and siblings I keep my sexuality to myself. I get a lot of “when are you going to marry a nice Greek boy??” questions from family friends (they’re getting nervous as I approach the big 3-0 and seem resigned to a life of spinsterhood). I shrug and tell them I’m focussing on my career.

        These days with the economic crisis and refugee migrant crisis, the country is collapsing as bigotry and hatred grow, as can be seen by the growing popularity of the Golden Dawn party, Greece’s neonazi party. It’s so upsetting and I often feel guilt for not being there to fight the good fight where it matters most. But like you said, I don’t know if I have the spoons to deal with it either.

  3. So, I wholeheartedly support the sentiment outlined in this article, and fully acknowledge that we should be taking responsibility for many of the anti-LGBT laws in former colonies, but I wonder how this looks in practice. I worry that by *not* standing up and saying that these laws are wrong, what message that sends to the LGBT communities in those countries. I guess my point is that the religious right is going to keep going there and spewing their anti-gay vitriol, regardless, and I would really rather that they are not the only people from my country (or my adoptive country) doing the talking.

    I guess I don’t really know what you *are* endorsing that we do, and I’d love to hear how you do think we should handle the situation. Keep quiet and let other countries sort themselves out? Continue to speak up but in some other tone/fashion? I’m really not sure what *I* think, and I’d love to hear your opinion.

  4. Hi Helen,

    It is a nice piece of writing and very well articulated.
    I also feel some anger towards anything Western or White. I understand some of it. I would like to turn the clock back but I cannot.
    You describe the Buggery Act of 1533 as a start of all the problem and stop there. You seem satisfied that your story starts in “White” England.
    There is a long history before that… I guess you write from an American (USA) point of view, I may be wrong.

    This law came into existence due to Christianity which has nothing linked to being White or “Western” or some kind of “Whiteness”.
    It is probably why it works so well in any country. I would like to point out that a country like Ethiopia was Christian long before any country in Western Europe as an example.
    Also there is no picture of Jesus; so saying “Jesus was White” is silly.
    Jesus said very little things about sexuality but some writings in the Old Testament and Saint Paul are purely homophobic (natalist and misogynistic).
    I would like to point out that South Africa has a very modern constitution regarding LGTBQ right thanks to Nelson Mandela (a reference not only for Africa but for the world). LGTBQ rights in SA have been adopted shortly after the apartheid.
    Why no African leader has followed this example?

    Also to follow your title we could study:
    1. Religious texts and its use by political powers (root cause of many problems still today).
    2. Sexuality before Judaism Christianity or Islam anywhere in the world (Africa, Europe, Asia…).

    PS: I am a White French gay guy living in the UK and from a catholic education. I consider myself as an agnostic. I hope that my message will not make you angry.

  5. Well, to answer my own question about what we can actually *do* in this situation, here’s an option: The Center for Constitutional Rights is working to stop Scott Lively from continuing to export his hate to Uganda. They’re fundraising to help defray costs. Seems to me that this is a great way to contribute to prevent the spread of one American’s anti-gay message to other countries. Their site is here: http://www.crowdrise.com/stopscottlively

  6. Interesting article with an excellent point to make but I was disappointed by the sneering anti-English tone. It’s vital to remind those who claim being gay is ‘un-African’ about where these laws came from. But I don’t see how blaming England, the English or even Western society as a whole will get us anywhere. Should we blame Germans today for the Nazis, or Norwegians for the Vikings? If the legacy of colonialism teaches us anything it’s that all people everywhere must be treated equally. No exceptions. I cannot imagine how distressing life must be for today’s LGBT Africans. Surely it is our duty to stand up for them and act. Guilt-ridden soul-searching will not make their lives any easier. However sanctions, albeit a horribly blunt instrument, just might. Unless anyone has any better ideas?

  7. I come from Ireland, we were also invaded by England, homosexuality was banned until 1993.
    As a democracy we have the agency to change our laws. The fact that we didn’t is our own fault.
    We were also affected by a foreign religion (Roman Catholicism) that we adopted as if it was our own.
    I don’t see Uganda or any African country as any different and I’d expect that they will probably follow down our path should they see economic prosperity, increase the efficiency of their education system and the usual decrease in birth rate that comes with affluence.

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