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This Article uses original historical research and an array of anthropological sources to suggest that efforts by Western liberals to protect practitioners of same-sex intimate conduct in Africa may be relatively unsuccessful and could further endanger the intended beneficiaries of advocacy. In recent years, Western human rights activists, scholars, and politicians have worked to advance homosexual rights in Africa. Understandably, they have tended to frame their arguments in liberal, universalist terms. Given successful reliance on liberal values of equality and autonomy to enhance the status of homosexuals in the West, this approach is intuitive. Liberal ideology has also become fully entrenched in international law, and the language of constitutions of countries across Africa reflects the influence of liberal philosophy. Nonetheless, numerous African leaders have responded to liberal appeals with hostility, and often with claims that homosexuality is un-African, a disease of the morally corrupt West.
I am sympathetic to the liberal perspective, but consideration of the anti-essentialist arguments of queer theorists, communitarian philosophy, and the African anthropological record suggests reasons for caution in pursuing a liberal agenda to promote the well-being of people who engage in same-sex intimacies in Africa. Some of the anthropological evidence about the social significance of same-sex sexual intimacy in African cultures reinforces the claims of queer theorists, whose anti-essentialist arguments suggest that sexual identity is socially constructed, rather than the product of an immutable, biological imperative. In many African cultures, both historically and today, people who have engaged in same-sex intimacies have considered that behavior an insignificant component of their personal and sexual identities. This suggests obstacles for liberal nondiscrimination arguments. Likewise, the observation of queer theorists that essentialist claims can be used as effectively as tools of oppression as of liberation provides reason for caution; tyrannical majorities have frequently used the idea of fundamental, immutable difference as a means of subjugating disfavored minorities. In the end, categorizing all Africans who engage in same-sex intimacies as homosexuals may make the intended beneficiaries of such categorization easier targets for majorities in societies disinclined to accept Western conceptions of sexual identity.
Communitarian philosophy is also relevant to any discussion of the legal status of homosexuality in Africa because of the deep communitarian roots of traditional cultures across the continent. Although African countries have tended to adopt constitutions that proclaim liberal rights, many of the societies in which those constitutions have arisen have lacked the West’s profound cultural commitment to individualism. Instead, a broad range of African cultures have tended to emphasize group welfare and individual responsibilities over individual rights. As a consequence, communitarian values have frequently explained the actual operation of law in African countries better than the putative liberal loyalties evinced in African constitutions. This communitarian perspective also suggests obstacles to advancement of homosexual rights in Africa through liberal arguments.
Finally, a deeper appreciation of the sordid history of Western imposition of universalizing ideals to manipulate and subjugate African minds and bodies, and of Western denial of African agency, might alert liberals to the treacherous intellectual territory they inhabit and might help liberals avoid colonialist tropes that could further inflame resistance to policies aimed at enhancement of the status of people who engage in same-sex intimacies in Africa. Western liberals are correct to counter African claims that homosexuality is un-African by pointing out that European outsiders originally introduced religious intolerance and sodomy laws to African cultures that had been more amenable to same-sex intimacy. But African leaders who insist on the Western origins of homosexuality are also correct, though in an unintended sense: the presence in many contemporary African cultures of some people who define their sexual identities in terms congruous with Western conceptions of homosexuality may indeed be the consequence of Western influence. Additionally, even though there are now some Africans who consider themselves homosexuals, advocacy by Western rights advocates and threats by Western governments might cause backlash that could make their lives worse. Ultimately, if liberals hope to have a positive impact on the lives of Africans who engage in same-sex intimacies, we should structure our interactions with the cultures we hope to influence as conversations rather than as lectures or commands.