On April 3, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, addressing a delegation of parliamentarians from more than 22 African countries, who had attended a conference on “family values and sovereignty” in Entebbe, addressed the continent’s leaders to the world to save from homosexuality.
In his speech, Museveni — a longtime proponent of conversion therapy, the pseudoscientific practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender expression — claimed that homosexuality is “reversible and curable.”
Not so long ago, I would have supported these dangerous and baseless statements and would have supported the controversial anti-LGBTQ bill passed by the Ugandan parliament in March. The law proposes the death penalty for certain homosexual acts and life imprisonment for “recruiting, promoting and financing” “same-sex activities”. It prohibits Ugandans from identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ).
I wasn’t born homophobic but hated the LGBTQ community for many years.
As a student at the University of Cape Town, I had several altercations with an affable and openly gay colleague about his sexuality. Although same-sex relationships were decriminalized by the post-apartheid South African Constitution in 1996, I couldn’t stand the fact that he remained true to his character and sexuality.
For someone who grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe — a conservative society where homosexuality has long been illegal under the law — family and friends took my unequivocal displeasure with gay men and women as perfectly normal.
I was socialized to believe that lesbians and gays were anathema to the natural, God-fearing, and traditional family that every man and woman should aspire to.
Our then president, Robert Mugabe, often said that Zimbabweans (and Africans) had strong moral values, while Westerners, who allowed homosexuality, were clearly immoral. Meanwhile, he continued to equate homosexuality with bestiality and implored the church to preach homophobia in its sermons.
It came as no surprise when a mob of University of Zimbabwe students ransacked a stand of the Gays and Lesbian Association (GALZ) of Zimbabwe at the 1996 Zimbabwe International Book Fair. Most people – myself included – supported their violent and unacceptable behavior.
In our indoctrinated minds, GALZ was the guilty and mischievous protagonist, as it tested our collective resolve to defend our culture and country against an intrusive horror and nefarious foreign agenda.
I was young, impressionable and fell hook, line and sinker for the contrived opposition to widespread social inclusion. Nor did I see Mugabe using homophobia as a political gimmick – even when his ally, former Zimbabwean president Canaan Banana, was convicted in 1997 of forcing an aide into a three-year homosexual relationship.
Today I am happily proud that I am no longer a bigot. I have thrown away my once toxic and narrow-mindedness. I wish I could somehow offer my long overdue and heartfelt apology to my former colleague at the University of Cape Town. My traditional and Anglican denominational beliefs no longer influence my feelings and behavior towards LGBTQ people. I love and embrace them as family, as righteous fellow Africans, who deserve equal human rights and opportunities in life.
But around Africa, unfortunately, state-led homophobia is on the rise. Politicians and religious leaders continue to label homosexuality as a foreign vice. This callous and careless post-colonial quest to invent cultural and moral exceptionalism has led to attempts to reject and stifle the longstanding presence of homosexuals in African societies.
In Tanzania, the government has banned a number of books containing LGBTQ-related content from schools for allegedly violating local cultural norms. Meanwhile, in neighboring Kenya, President William Ruto is mobilizing public opposition to a Supreme Court ruling allowing the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) to register as an NGO.
And the extreme anti-LGBTQ law passed by the Ugandan parliament in March strengthens the criminalization of same-sex behavior, according to global NGO Human Rights Watch. At the moment, Museveni has not signed the bill – he agrees with the punishments, his spokesman has said, but apparently wants to show more compassion for those who have been guilty of homosexuality “in the past” and are now “back to normal lives”. want to lead. .
Like Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Museveni has portrayed homosexuality as an existential threat to humanity in order to divert public attention from his failed and illiberal leadership, leaving Ugandans to grapple with growing poverty and rights violations.
It was under his supervision that Red Pepper, a Kampala-based newspaper, published a list of Uganda’s “Top 200 Homosexuals” in 2014, a shameful and malicious act that endangered the precious livelihoods and lives of innocent people . Under Museveni’s rule, LGBTQ activists such as David Kato and Brian Wasswa were murdered.
And like Mugabe, Museveni’s political schemes project homosexuality as a conspiracy transported to Africa from former colonial nations — a point he reiterated in a State of the Nation speech in March. “Western countries must stop wasting humanity’s time trying to impose their practices on other people,” he said.
To be clear, colonialism ended decades ago – in 1962, to be precise, for Uganda.
There is no plausible reason to consider sexual and gender inclusion within African societies through the distant and unimportant prism of Western morality.
Members of the LGTBQ community in Africa, born and raised by African men and women, are no less human or African than Museveni. All Africans – including heterosexual, homosexual or asexual individuals – should be free to express themselves without conflicting with imaginary moral and legal norms that contradict timeless human norms and desires.
The limited and former description of family and family values, as endorsed by the likes of Museveni, is clearly wrong and outdated.
In early April, Sarah Opendi, the president of the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association, who often sounds like a rambling clone of Museveni, stated: “We want all Africans, traditional leaders, religious leaders and legislators to make sure we promote our African values”. .
I used to wrongly subscribe to such views.
Now I know that a family is not a rigid social construct limited to heterosexuals, but a strong and fundamental manifestation of love, devotion and happiness accessible to all.
Africa needs to embrace all its beautiful people and allow the LGBTQ community to flourish. If anyone deserves rejection, it’s Museveni.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.