Policing Sexuality: The Criminalization of Africa’s Queer Population

Recently, the global queer rights movement has been receiving a lot of attention in the media, both domestically and abroad. One of many recent incidents that has received a lot of press in the media is the anti-gay legislation, which was signed into law by Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda. The anti-homosexuality bill which was signed into law criminalizes any individual who identifies as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Intersex (LGBTI) for willingly engaging in same-sex relations.  After the bill was signed into law President Museveni stated, “society can [now] do something about homosexuality to discourage the trend.” After hearing such a statement, one must wonder does such an executive act reinforce homophobia in Uganda?  Will this law allow society to police their fellow man/woman’s sexuality based on patriarchal or religious beliefs?  I would argue that President Museveni’s response to homosexuality in Uganda is clearly an attempt to create and control Uganda’s prison-nation.  In Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence and America’s Prison Nation, criminologist Beth Richie argues the creation of a prison nation “depends on creating fear, identity scapegoats, and reclassifying people as enemies.” (Richie 2012, p. 3) In this case, it is Uganda’s queer population that is being reclassified, all because queers in Uganda choose not to conform to societal norms.  Furthermore, Richie argues that “prison-nation” is a term scholars use to describe “a neo-liberal, law-and-order oriented social agenda” (Richie 2012, p. 103).  Furthermore, President Museveni feels as if homosexuality is a choice and gay people are ‘disgusting‘ and therefore policing and stiffer penalties must be instituted to control the queer population.  Whether or not one wants to argue if homosexuality is biological or a choice is not the main concern. What one should be concerned with is the patriarchy and religious beliefs that reinforces homophobia.

Historically, patriarchy and sexuality have been used as mechanism of control during colonization, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and chattel slavery.  Moreover, masculinity and sexuality are a social construct that has different meanings based one’s race, ethnicity, religion, age, geographic location, and socio-economic status.  Traditional ideologies of manhood in post-colonial Africa revolve around sex and man’s ability to dominate woman.  In African Sexualities, Kopano Ratele asserts, “manliness is closely associated with our sexual partner(s), the sexual appeal of our partner(s), the size of one’s penis, sexual stamina, being able to maintain a healthy erection, and one’s fertility” (Tamale 2011, p. 399).  Many African societies support one predominate form of manhood, which is heterosexuality. Anything that does not conform to patriarchal heterosexual structures are deemed abnormal.  Patriarchal heterosexual structures encourage men to “sow their wild oats, teach boys and girls that female bodies are dirtier and weaker than those of males” (Tamale 2011, p. 413). Such heterosexual structures posit a double jeopardy ideology which asserts boys should be promiscuous, while girls are expected to remain a virgin until marriage.

Gender dynamics play a huge role in how black men define masculinity, which includes being the breadwinner, the provider, and protector of his family. Manhood in general is a social construct that has different meanings at different times.  In an essay titled “Masculinity as Homophobia,” Michael Kimmel asserts one’s manhood is defined in relation to groups who are labeled as the “other — racial minorities, sexual minorities, and above all, women” (Ward 2006, 81). Believe it or not, “men are under constant surveillance and scrutiny of other men” (Rothenberg 2007, p. 86) which often fosters a homo-social environment among men. For example, homophobia goes beyond the irrational fear of gay men. It also acts as fear of being labeled effeminate, sissy, gay, or a faggot. It is that fear that influences men to constantly prove their manhood to one another and makes one feel ashamed if he is not manly enough. “The fear of being seen as a sissy dominates the cultural definitions of manhood” (Rothenberg 2004, p. 215). For example, when a young boy falls down and scrapes his knee he is told ‘to be a man and not to cry about it.’ A young boy crying over a scraped knee will not gain self-respect among his peers, because he will seen as being effeminate.

The institution of religion plays a key component in laws that oppress queer populations. Oftentimes, the black community is perceived as being more homophobic than other communities, because individuals are willing to verbally express their disdain for homosexuality much quicker than others.  In Sexuality and the Black Church, Kelly Douglass argues “the fear of homosexuality perpetuated in the church is related to the church fear of sexuality in general” (Douglass 1999, p. 89).  In her study, Douglass presents a controversial yet compelling argument that biblical versus customarily referred to as proof against homosexuality have been misconstrued and taken out of context. For example, verses such as “(Leviticus 18: 22; 20: 13), story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19: 1-9), and Paul’s Epistle to the Romans do not present a compelling case against homoeroticism” (Douglass 1999, p. 90). Anti-homosexual rhetoric in the black church often contributes to the homophobia in the black community.  Three types of arguments are commonly put forth to justify the condemnation of homosexuality in the black church: (a) religious beliefs, (b) historical sexual exploitation, and (c) race survival consciousness. In Sexuality and Social Justice in Africa, Marc Epprecht discusses how Nigeria used the law to punish gender non-conforming individuals who willfully engage in acts of same-sex relations. Epprecht argues Nigeria’s passage of anti-homosexuality bill is a byproduct of Christian leaders feeling as if “Africa is nothing less than ‘God’s own continent’ (Epprecht 2013, p. 77), therefore outlawing any and all homosexual practices ensure religious beliefs are adhered to.

So where does the global queer movement go from here? First of all there needs to be some serious discussions for protecting LGBTI’s and their constitutional rights. Although a handful of African countries are working with the United Nations to address civil rights issues, there are more countries in Africa who believe religious beliefs should trump human rights. Withdrawing foreign aid from countries like Uganda is not a sufficient act, because at the end of the day those laws are still in place. More importantly, LGBTI citizens who live in countries where tolerance is low often flee to Southern Africa because at least that way their sexual persuasion is protected constitutionally. Just like the fight against apartheid, human rights activists both domestically and abroad need to come together to address LGBTI inclusion within African societies and come up with viable solutions.


  1. Chris Cameron says:

    Thank you for this post Ramon. In my own research on African American freethinkers, one of the principal reasons I have found that blacks in the U.S. are rejecting traditional black denominations such as the AME and AMEZ church is their views on sexuality. Do you see a big parallel between the views you explore among Ugandans and other black populations throughout the Diaspora?

    • Ramon Jenkins says:

      Hello Dr. Cameron thanks for that question. I would argue that the parallels are not all that different understanding that the dominant Abrahamic faiths practiced in Africa are Christianity and Islam. In African Religion and Philosophy, Mbit argues, “religion in African societies are not written down on paper, but reside in the hearts, minds, oral history, and rituals of people like priests, rainmakers, officiating elders, and even kings” (Mbiti 1992, p. 4). Now when you look to the Diaspora religous practices vary from region to region based on a mixture of various traditional African religions. However, that doesn’t mean homophobia is not present in the African Diaspora (i.e.: Jamaica, Dominican Republic, or Cuba) considering colonial powers and their missionaries were not attempting to convert people within those areas pre-independence because they did with every attempt they could.

  2. Phillip Luke Sinitiere says:

    Thanks for the post, Ramon, and I appreciate the transnational focus. I want to follow Chris’s question in a similar vein. You mention the influence of religion, specifically Christianity, and its impact on anti-gay legislation in Nigeria. I wonder where else on the continent your research has documented this connection, as well as the influence of US-based clergy active in Africa such as Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes? Also, with the popularity of Pentecostalism in Africa, I wonder as well the extent to which the transnationalism of prosperity gospel movement has fueled similar opinion?

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