The recent passage of yet another anti-homosexuality bill in Africa—this time in the small West African country of the Gambia—is being condemned by LGBTQ and human rights advocates around the world. The bill, which will likely be signed into law by President Yahya Jammeh, would amend the criminal code to increase the punishment for the charge of “aggravated homosexuality” to life in prison (currently the punishment for those convicted of “homosexual acts” is up to 14 years in prison).
Jammeh, who came to power in a 1994 coup, has made no secret of his anti-LGBTQ views. On the occasion of the 49th anniversary of his country’s independence earlier this year, Jammeh took the opportunity to attack his favorite scapegoats: “We will fight these vermins [sic] called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively,” he declared. “We will therefore not accept any friendship, aid or any other gesture that is conditional on accepting homosexuals or LGBT as they are now baptized by the powers that promote them. … As far as I am concerned, LGBT can only stand for Leprosy, Gonorrhea, Bacteria and Tuberculosis; all of which are detrimental to human existence.”
In 2008, Jammeh said he would “cut off the head” of any gay person caught in the country, though he later retracted this threat, according to Agence France-Presse.
While Christian missionaries from the U.S. and elsewhere are certainly present in the Gambia, it is a predominantly Muslim country, so their influence is limited. Unlike Uganda, the chance of infamous U.S. culture warrior Lou Engle successfully attracting a crowd of thousands for a prayer rally there is pretty slim. Nonetheless, the influence of the American Christian Right is unquestionably at play.
For starters, the text for the Gambia’s new bill contains language identical to Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA, formerly known as the “Kill the Gays Bill”), which was signed into law earlier this year (the law was later overturned by the country’s Supreme Court on technical grounds, but it maintains popular support and is expected to return soon). In Uganda’s case, the influence of American culture warriors in the creation and promotion of the AHA is thoroughly documented and crystal clear.
The saga of Uganda’s AHA has also served to influence the foreign relations strategies of numerous African leaders. Increasingly, Western nations are responding to a wider range of human rights abuses, including those that threaten the safety and humanity of LGBTQ people. On International Human Rights Day in 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton boldly declared to an audience of U.N. diplomats in Geneva, “[G]ay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
In its efforts to live up to that proclamation, the U.S.—along with several other Western nations—has begun taking diplomatic actions against countries that fail to protect the human rights of LGBTQ people. After Uganda’s AHA was signed into law, the U.S. was quick to impose visa restrictions and economic sanctions on the country.
With much-relied upon aid being withheld, LGBTQ people and their allies are no longer the only ones suffering as a result of these new laws. Concerned that the burden of these cuts will threaten their political standing, leaders are now seeking ways to defend themselves against Western critiques while maintaining their domestic power and influence. A primary strategy has been to leverage the threat—and historic harm—of Western colonialism, recasting themselves as heroic resisters who are bravely standing up to big, imperial, Western nations seeking to ‘impose their evil immorality.’ (Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni uses the term “social imperialism.”) This David & Goliath rescript gains broad support from constituents, securing—and further entrenching—the long-held positions of these questionably democratic leaders (Jammeh has been in power for 20 years, and Museveni has held the Ugandan presidency for 28 years).
Responding to post-AHA sanctions, Uganda government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo said “Uganda is a sovereign country and can never bow to anybody or be blackmailed by anybody on a decision it took in its interests, even if it involves threats to cut off all financial assistance.”
Similarly, Jammeh has declared, “One thing we will never compromise, for whatever reason, is the integrity of our culture, our dignity and our sovereignty. … Sometimes you hear of a lot of noise about the laws of this country or my pronouncements. Let me make it very clear that, if you want me to offend God for you to give me aid, you are making a great mistake; you will not bribe me to do what is evil and ungodly.”
Further highlighting his bold resistance to historic and present-day colonialism, Jammeh announced in March that English would no longer be the Gambia’s official language. While in some sense, Jammeh’s anti-colonial stance is deserving of praise and support, suggesting that homosexuality is a symptom of colonization is simply wrong. As PRA senior religion and sexuality researcher Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma has observed, “[I]t is not LGBTQ people who are foreign to Africa, but rather the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that is being used against them.”
Kaoma goes on to say, “It is true that Western nations have not always acted in the interest of Africa (to put it mildly), but to use the West as an excuse to persecute and imprison innocent persons is appalling. Politicians like Mugabe and Jammeh, who have robbed their respective nations of billions of dollars, are also responsible for their countries’ dire economic states. These African leaders condemn the West and scapegoat gays to distract from real issues facing their nations and to hide their own incompetence, corruption, and despotism.”
The reality, however, is that Jammeh and Museveni are well-positioned to call out any sort of diplomatic bluff. Both Uganda and the Gambia play important roles in regional peacekeeping efforts. The U.S. Embassy in the Gambia notes that the Gambian government “has provided steadfast, tangible support for the war on terrorism,” and in its FY2014 budget justification submitted to Congress, the U.S. State Department called Uganda a “key strategic partner to the United States … instrumental to security efforts throughout the region.”
And even if they were to play their cards wrong and wind up getting cut off from Western aid entirely, Jammeh and Museveni both know that there are other options on the horizon. China is eagerly expanding and strengthening its political and economic ties across the continent, and stipulations regarding human rights tend to not come up in negotiations with Africa’s new favorite investor.
While it’s unlikely that LGBTQ Africans will ever be confronted by a Chinese version of Scott Lively, like the ongoing effects of colonial-era anti-sodomy laws, the impact of neocolonial American culture warriors is unlikely to disappear with any new economic—or political—regime change. The work of opposing and ultimately eliminating these laws and reversing this current trend toward increased persecution of LGBTQ people will require ongoing, dedicated, multifaceted, and necessarily African-led resistance. For those in the West who seek to support and be in solidarity with these courageous activists, there is a critical role for us to play that extends beyond providing financial resources and advocating for diplomatic sanctions: we must hold accountable the ones among us who lit the proverbial match, setting this anti-LGBTQ firestorm in motion.
These culture war culprits are based all across the United States. Learn more about who—and where—they are, and then let’s start talking about how we can effectively confront and contain their influence.