The oppression of gay people in Africa: the answer lies in class struggle, not ‘democratic rights’

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The jailing of two gay men in Malawi for the crime of marrying each other (though the two were subsequently released) has brought the plight of gay men and women in Africa to the surface. Gay sex is illegal in 36 African countries and can carry heavy penalties; in Uganda a Christian fundamentalist MP is attempting to introduce a law prescribing the death penalty for ‘repeat offenses'. In areas under Sharia law, as in parts of Nigeria, the penalty is already death by stoning. In Zimbabwe two gay rights activists were arrested and tortured with Robert Mugabe, as usual, accusing the ‘west' of introducing this "sub-animal" practice, into the African continent, with the firm recommendation that Africans should "leave this sort of thing to the whites". In South Africa, although the state does not outlaw gay sex, social attitudes often seem to be just as inflexible, and many lesbians have suffered assault and ‘corrective rape': "Eudy Simelane, who played for the South African women's football team and lived openly as a lesbian, was gang-raped and stabbed 25 times; at least 20 other lesbians have been killed over the past five years" [1]

While Mugabe and many other African politicians and religious leaders claim that homosexuality is an alien import, it is equally facile to see this extreme homophobia as an expression of African backwardness. Let us recall that ‘sodomy' was illegal in Britain until the 1960s and is still illegal in some American states; that gay people have been viciously persecuted in Stalinist regimes, including Cuba, and that perhaps 15,000 gay people were murdered in concentration camps by the Nazis. Homosexual acts are illegal in over 70 countries worldwide and gay people have been systematically targeted by Islamic murder gangs in countries like Iraq.

So homophobia is a rather more universal problem. In fact, there is evidence that the brutal homophobia being expressed in Africa today is the real alien import.

"The researcher EE Evans-Pritchard described how until the early 20th-century, male Azande warriors in the northern Congo routinely married male youths who functioned as temporary wives...Similar customs were reported among the Tsonga people of South Africa. Among the Maale people of southern Ethiopia, some males dressed as women and performed what were considered female tasks - including having sexual relations with men. Among the Fon in Benin and the Naman in south-eastern Africa, homosexual relations were accepted among adolescents and not infrequently lasted throughout the life of the pair. The Nyakyusa in Tanzania, similarly, tolerated young men having sex with young men.

It was when the colonists arrived, as the Belgian writer Rudi Bleys has noted, that African tolerance of same-sex activity became used to justify the "barbarity" of a culture and the necessity of the European's "civilising" mission. "Homophobia was put into law under colonialisation," Tendi says. "In fact, homophobia is more colonial than the practice of homosexuality in Africa. The laws being used to prosecute homosexuals today are old colonial laws. They have simply never been repealed." (here the Guardian article mentioned above is quoting from research by Blessing-Miles Tendi, a Zimbabwean-born researcher in African politics at the University of Oxford).

The same could be said about tribal societies outside Africa - for example the phenomenon of the ‘berdache' or ‘two spirited' in North America, men and women who took on characteristics of the opposite sex and often engaged in same-sex marriage. These figures were not only accepted but were often seen as vehicles of spiritual power. Other researchers have argued that while homosexual activity is often found in tribal societies, people with an exclusively homosexual identity are less common. In any case, without making any premature generalisations, it is likely that the rise of private property and the elimination of the vestiges of primitive communism saw not only the growing oppression of women, as Engels argued in his Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, but also an increasing taboo on homosexual relationships.

Decomposition of capitalist society in Africa, and how the bourgeoisie makes use of it

If there is nothing particularly African about homophobia, it is true to say that the general effects of the decomposition of capitalist society - increasingly senseless wars, the descent of social life into an unending battle between murderous gangs - have hit the continent with particular severity. This is because it has for so long been prey to the plunder of the global imperialist powers, and its weakly developed economic structures have been so vulnerable to the storms of the world crisis of capitalism. ‘Failed states' like Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe  offer a terrifying foretaste of what lies in store for humanity if capitalism's decay is allowed to continue unchecked. Given the catastrophic state of numerous African countries, it is inevitable that there should be such a persistence and even renaissance of religious ideologies which appear to offer some explanation and alternative to the apocalyptic conditions facing millions of people. Fundamentalist Islam and Christianity, both of which institutionalise homophobia, exert a growing influence all over the continent.

But this is not a purely automatic process. Particular factions of the ruling class encourage these ideologies as a way of cementing their own power, or creating false divisions which prevent those they exploit from seeing their real enemy. In Nigeria, for example, there have been many bloody pogroms between Christians and Muslims, fratricidal massacres in which the poor and the exploited are encouraged to blame their own class brothers and sisters for the real, material misery they face in their daily lives. Whipping up suspicion and hatred against gay people offers the ruling class a very convenient scapegoat that can easily be used to strengthen the hand of state repression. The new legislation being considered in Uganda advocates draconian penalties not only for homosexual activities but also for people who fail to report the homosexual activities of others to the state!

Christianity and Islam were of course ‘alien imports' in Africa in the first place, ideologies that justified the colonial empires that established their rule in different parts of the continent. This form of colonisation continues today: the current wave of homophobia in Christian countries is actively encouraged by certain US missionary groups who, as elsewhere, serve as an unofficial arm of American imperialism.

The answer to oppression is not bourgeois democracy, but class struggle

Some of the gay activists being persecuted in Africa have argued that the new crackdown on gay people is the state's response to the fact that they are becoming more visible, less willing to hide their sexuality; a response also to the increasingly open activity of gay rights' groups. This may well be the case; but the question is, how will the frightening situation confronting gay people in Africa be improved? It is obviously necessary to denounce the repressive laws and physical attacks against gay people. Nevertheless, the limitations of organising to achieve ‘rights' for gay people, guaranteed by legislation, are shown by the situation in South Africa. On paper gay people there have rights, in reality they are subject to assault and persecution. As with religious and ethnic pogroms, pogroms against gay people are the product of a social situation where society is shaken by crisis, but where the working class is not yet strong enough to develop its own alternative - a massive movement which integrates the struggles against all forms of oppression into the fight against the key problem of capitalist exploitation. Such a movement could only be directly counter-posed to capitalist ‘democracy' as much as to capitalist ‘dictatorship', which are just two sides of the same coin. We are still far removed from a movement of this kind, but its seeds are certainly germinating in Africa as elsewhere in the current resistance struggles of workers, of the unemployed, of township residents; and those who already see the need for these struggles to take on revolutionary, political goals have the task of arguing that they can only advance in this direction by challenging and overcoming all forms of division in their ranks, whether ethnic, religious or sexual. 

Amos 1/6/10 

Appendix: the workers' movement and the struggle against homophobia

Homophobia has deep roots, and the workers' movement, including its most advanced elements, has not been free from it. In Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, a magnificent broadside against the historical oppression of women, Engels himself presents homosexual activity in the ancient world as a pure product of decadence: "but this degradation of the women [Engels is referring to prostitution in ancient Greece] was avenged on the men and degraded them also till they fell into the abominable practice of sodomy and degraded alike their gods with the myth of Ganymede." Some of Engels' private views, expressed in correspondence with Marx, are even more obviously influenced by the dominant ideology[2].

Nevertheless, the workers' movement has consistently stood against laws repressing homosexuality. In the late 19th century, while countries like France had already, in the wake of their bourgeois revolutions, abolished such laws, Germany and Britain still retained them. Representatives of German social democracy such as Lassalle, Bebel and Bernstein all spoke in favour of abolishing these laws and any interference by the state in the private lives of its citizens. Bernstein, responding to the furor created by the trial of Oscar Wilde in Britain, wrote a series of articles on the question in Neue Zeit in 1895, using the historical method to show the relative character of sexual mores and challenging the notion that homosexuality was ‘unnatural'. However, he still tended to present homosexuality as an ‘illness' or a ‘pathology' that could perhaps be cured by the appropriate therapy.

The Bolsheviks in Russia continued the tradition of opposition to laws that repress different expressions of sexuality. All such laws were abolished in the immediate aftermath of the October revolution. However, with the Stalinist counter-revolution, with its cult of motherhood for the socialist fatherland, there was a flagrant regression and homosexuality was again subject to brutal punishment.

Since the onset of the counter-revolution in the 1920s, there appears to have been very little elaboration of marxist theory on the question of homosexuality, aside from the ‘negative' critique of the separatist and legalist campaigns and the ‘identity politics' that appeared from the end of the 60s onwards.

Contribution of psychoanalysis

However, the development of psychoanalysis at the beginning of the 20th century provides a theoretical basis for questioning the idea of homosexuality as a kind of illness. In a 1935 letter to a woman who asked Freud if he could cure her son of homosexuality, he wrote:

"I gather from your letter that your son is a homosexual. I am most impressed by the fact that you do not mention this term yourself in your information about him. May I question you why you avoid it? Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them. (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime -and a cruelty, too. If you do not believe me, read the books of Havelock Ellis.

By asking me if I can help [your son], you mean, I suppose, if I can abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place. The answer is, in a general way we cannot promise to achieve it. In a certain number of cases we succeed in developing the blighted germs of heterosexual tendencies, which are present in every homosexual; in the majority of cases it is no more possible. It is a question of the quality and the age of the individual. The result of treatment cannot be predicted.

What analysis can do for your son runs in a different line. If he is unhappy, neurotic, torn by conflicts, inhibited in his social life, analysis may bring him harmony, peace of mind, full efficiency, whether he remains homosexual or gets changed".

In fact, Freud's theoretical premises go further than the conclusion enunciated in this letter, where he defines homosexuality as a product of a "a certain arrest of sexual development". Throughout his work, Freud consistently posits an original bisexuality (sometimes referred to as the "polymorphous perversity" of the infant human being) which is then channeled in a particular direction through the process of repression - the origins of which lie in social relations conditioned by the struggle against scarcity.  That would imply that heterosexuality as generally expressed in the context of present-day society is, no less than homosexuality, a product of arrested development. In any case, the debate about what a truly liberated human sexuality would be like in a society no longer dominated by exploitation and the day to day struggle for survival remains to be pursued by the revolutionary movement.



[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/22/malawian-gay-couple-jailed-14-years

[2] See in particular Engels to Marx, June 22, 1869 where he comments on a book by a ‘gay rights' activist of the time, Karl Heinz Ulrichs