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By Peter Kenworthy, Communications- and Project Assistant
Human rights are indivisible and the precondition for any true democracy. The right of any human being to choose their identity, including interpretation of their own gender, and thus to diversity and non-conformity in general, is equally important. Whether the rights of marginalized or minority groups such as homosexuals are protected is therefore a good test of the democratic nature of any nation.
Homophobia is a global problem. 80 countries around the world criminalize homosexuality, mainly in Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean, and in several countries (mainly in the Middle East and Africa) homosexuality carries the death penalty. Other regions, such as Latin America, have also experienced widespread homophobia and homophobia-related killings, but have tried to deal with it through legislation in an effort to protect the rights of homosexuals. Europe also has its share of homophobia, as a survey that found that over a third of all European homosexual youths had experienced bullying at school indicates.
Many African leaders in particular see homosexuality as “un-natural” and “un-African” and do not believe that homosexuals should have any rights at all. Homosexuality is therefore not only illegal and punishable in many African countries, but homophobia is also legitimised by the leaders of these countries, and African homosexuals are frequently assaulted, expelled from their jobs, or chased from their homes. The cultural claims that homosexuality is alien to Africa are rarely if ever substantiated, however, and homophobic laws and opinions could also be seen as colonial imports based on European 18th or 19th century Puritanism. Homosexuality has, obviously, always existed in Africa, as it has everywhere else, and many accounts and examples of an acceptance of homosexuality have been recorded from pre-colonial oral accounts from several African countries.
African homophobia is not only a case of culture or more or less invented traditions, however. African politicians use homosexuals as scapegoats instead of addressing the many real problems that their nations face such as poverty and AIDS, and attacks on homosexuals are also used to erode other basic human rights by creating a general atmosphere of intolerance and an assault on the principle of respect for diversity. And intolerance in one area causes intolerance in other areas, so when human rights organisations and civil society remains silent about the human rights violations of homosexuals, they are in effect undermining their own cause.
Homophobia in Swaziland
Homophobia in Swaziland is less publicised than that of Zimbabwe or Uganda, and Swazi homosexuals are perhaps less likely to flaunt their homosexuality, but the level of homophobia in Swaziland is no less worrying. Male homosexual acts are illegal in Swaziland and there are no laws against discrimination against homosexuals; the International Gay and Human Rights Commission reported in 2005 that “societal discrimination against homosexuals [in Swaziland] was strong, and homosexuals often concealed their sexual preferences”; the press often refer to homosexuals in hateful terms; and homosexuality is seen by many as ungodly, unSwazi and unacceptable. A recent example of homophobia in Swaziland is the case of lesbian woman and human rights activist, Thuli Rudd, who has been repeatedly and publicly condemned for her relationship with her girlfriend. Their relationship was extensively covered in the media, most of this coverage and the subsequent public reaction to it being overwhelmingly hostile. There are voices of reason in Swaziland on LGBT-issues, however, as the defense of transgender Patricia Dludlu by both the deputy Prime Minister and Swaziland National Union of Students' President, Maxwell Dlamini, shows.
South Africa is an exception to the rule of African institutionalised homophobia, at least nominally, as the South African constitution protects the rights of homosexuals. The homophobic utterances of president Zuma and other show, however, that signing international treaties or having minority protection in ones constitution is not enough. Rights must be realised, not only recognized to be of any use.
An even more concrete example of such lack of realisation is the non-appliance of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Many African countries that have laws that discriminate against homosexuals, including Swaziland, have signed this treaty that nominally protects the rights of homosexuals. The Covenant maintains that “the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (article 26), and the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled in 1994 that any anti-homosexual laws are in breach of the Covenant.
Gay rights movement
The main impetus for the promotion of gay rights came from America where the gay rights movement successfully challenged the American establishments homophobic laws, the medical profession’s belief that homosexuality was a disease, and the populations' homophobia. The gay rights movement was inspired by other civil and human rights movements, particularly the black civil rights movement, and used many of the tactics of these movements such as marches and sit-ins to good effect. Homosexual AIDS-activists also used their platform within the AIDS-movement to address more general human rights related issues such as homophobia and gay oppression.
The preconditions for the success of the movement were a combination of the social disruptions of the post-war period and the sixties, and intense and continuous protest and action by gay rights activists. While human rights activists in Africa that wish to eradicate homophobic laws and attitudes on the continent might do well to learn from the experiences of their colleagues in America, the social disruptions that Africa experienced had the opposite effect. The uprooting of family traditions and village life and the sense of insecurity that this caused meant an increase in homophobia in Africa, not a reduction of it. This combined with the fact that the majority of Africans seem to believe that homosexuality is wrong, and the increasingly vocal homophobia that accompanies this, are the reasons that the gay rights movement in Africa is struggling.
For an African gay rights campaign to be successful it therefore needs to align itself with the human rights movement and civil society in general, as does any fight for the rights of minorities or the underprivileged. African civil society movements also need to more consistently understand that advocating human rights means doing so for everybody – including African homosexuals.