Africa’s Struggle Toward Inclusive LGBTQ+ Laws

Africa’s Struggle Toward Inclusive LGBTQ+ Laws

Protesters picket against Uganda’s anti-gay bill at the Uganda High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa.
Protesters picket against Uganda’s anti-gay bill at the Uganda High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa. Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Countries in Africa have some of the harshest and most discriminatory LGBTQ+ policies in the world. But some governments are taking hopeful steps toward inclusion.

June 13, 2023 4:12 pm (EST)

Protesters picket against Uganda’s anti-gay bill at the Uganda High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa.
Protesters picket against Uganda’s anti-gay bill at the Uganda High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa. Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images/Getty Images
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Communities worldwide celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride each June, but in African countries such as Uganda, restrictive new laws are casting a pall over the festivities. Uganda isn’t an outlier, and Africans as a whole still face more anti-LGBTQ+ laws than their peers in many other parts of the world. However, the policy landscape for LGBTQ+ rights is overall becoming more varied: despite several countries recently rolling out stringent legislation, other governments, such as Namibia, are moving to adopt more inclusive policies.

What is the status of LGBTQ+ rights in Africa?

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Rights watchdogs such as the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA World) have found that most African countries impose restrictive policies against LGBTQ+ communities, with few offering basic protections. Penalties for gay sex generally include fines and prison time. Nigeria permits flogging, and a handful of countries allow the death penalty, though it is unclear whether any actually impose it [PDF].

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As in many parts of the world, legal recognition of transgender individuals is much more limited than that for people attracted to the same sex. For example, about half of the continent bans transgender and gender-nonconforming Africans from altering the gender markers on their legal identification, which is possible in dozens of non-African countries. Conversely, South Africa is one of only twelve countries in the world, and the only one in Africa, to explicitly protect LGBTQ+ people in its constitution. Its policies have helped pressure some of its neighbors into rolling back anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.

What’s behind laws targeting LGBTQ+ Africans?

Historical evidence shows that people with diverse sexualities and gender expressions have always existed in African civilizations. While these identities were likely not the norm, some of these individuals enjoyed significant visibility and tolerance in certain traditional communities, though others likely still encountered prejudice.

Today, however, most African countries criminalize same-sex relationships, and most Africans surveyed have held generally negative attitudes on the question, although tolerance varies between and within countries.

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Still, experts point to several related contributing factors, including the legacy of colonialism, the influence of Christian and Islamic faiths, and modern African electoral politics. Much of Africa’s anti-LGBTQ+ legislation originated under European colonial rule. Along with religion, experts say racism was a factor: Europeans viewed Africans’ traditional sexualities as examples of their supposed racial inferiority, and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation served as one means of subjugation. Additionally, fundamentalist Christianity and all major schools of Islamic law condemn homosexuality, and both religions have hundreds of millions of adherents in Africa. Critics have specifically called out U.S. evangelical organizations for exacerbating anti-LBGTQ+ sentiments in certain African countries over the past two decades.

Anti-LGBTQ+ laws are also a product of some divisive political rhetoric employed by African leaders. To win support and distract from their shortcomings, some African politicians demonize LGBTQ+ identities as a Western import that threatens social cohesion. They often push for more repressive anti-LGBTQ+ policies during election cycles, says University of Cincinnati Professor Ashley Currier, whose research focuses on LGBTQ+ rights and organizing in South and West Africa.

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What are the implications of anti-LGBTQ+ laws?

LGBTQ+ populations suffer a number of consequences:

Physical violence. Long prison sentences, death penalty laws, and in some cases state violence force many Africans to live in fear of their identity being exposed. Anti-LGBTQ+ policies also reinforce societal rifts, placing LGBTQ+ people at increased risk of violent hate crimes. Even in countries where homosexuality is decriminalized, such as Egypt, LGBTQ+ people face state-sanctioned violence. The true extent of violence is difficult to ascertain, as experts believe most instances go unreported.

Repression. Limits on freedom of expression are some of the most significant restraints on LGBTQ+ rights. Several countries ban LGBTQ+ community organizing. Pride events are often raided by police and targeted for violence by the public. In some countries, laws prohibit LGBTQ+ rights groups from even registering as nongovernmental organizations.

Discrimination. Even where same-sex activities are legal, almost no African countries have laws in place to protect LGBTQ+ populations from discrimination, which is pervasive in schools, workplaces, health-care facilities, and other social settings. Additionally, media outlets often spread false information about LGBTQ+ people, often due to reporters’ own biases or political pressure in their operations, says Rita Nketiah, a queer feminist activist and researcher who works on the continent. Disinformation campaigns by politicians and other prominent figures perpetuate stigma, and low literacy rates across the continent make it harder for people to seek accurate information, she says.

Health. LGBTQ+ populations, especially men who have sex with men, are disproportionately burdened with serious illnesses such as HIV. Studies show that the high prevalence of these diseases is at least in part linked to homophobic laws, as fears of being identified as LGBTQ+ prevent individuals from seeking medical attention. Mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, and psychological trauma are often also more common in LGBTQ+ people than in the general African population.

Political blowback. Some attempts by Western governments, including the United States, to punish an African country for enacting anti-LGBTQ+ laws can actually backfire. While some in the LGBTQ+ community may endorse the support, others say it risks stoking further animosity and violence from the public.

Is progress being made on LGBTQ+ rights?

Most African governments still have harsher policies than those in regions outside Africa, and several have recently restricted LGBTQ+ rights further. Ghana, for example, introduced a strict anti-gay bill in late 2022, and this year countries in eastern Africa, such as Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, have introduced or passed more stringent legislation. Meanwhile, countries such as Egypt and Tunisia use vague laws against prostitution, cybercrime, and “debauchery” to surveil and entrap those deemed to be LGBTQ+.

At the same time, several countries have moved toward more inclusive policies, especially in the southern region. South Africa, for example, was the first country in the world to prohibit discrimination of LGBTQ+ populations in its constitution, and Angola, Botswana, and Mozambique have all decriminalized homosexuality in the last decade. Most recently, in May 2023, the Supreme Court of Namibia ruled to recognize same-sex couples who marry abroad. 

Activists have often used moments of social upheaval to amplify calls for LGBTQ+ rights, including during the Arab uprisings that began in 2011 and Nigeria’s 2020 #EndSARS protests against police brutality. Even where laws restrict LGBTQ+ identities and organizing, local groups continue to agitate for change, and Pride celebrations are still on the agenda, Nketiah says. “Despite everything that’s going on, folks are still celebrating their existence.”

Will Merrow contributed to the graphics for this article.

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