American and European human rights activists are right to decry the conviction on Tuesday of a gay Malawian couple for behavior “against the order of nature.” They are also right to denounce the way some Americans, particularly fundamentalist Christian clergy, have taken an active part in promoting the persecution of gays across Africa (see Jonathan Wolfman’s OS post today). But the West’s effort to demonize gay people actually reaches much deeper than most of us imagine.
Homophobe Malawian cleric Felix Zalimba
(Source: All for Jesus Church)
Many of those who regard anti-gay laws like those of Malawi as “barbaric” are unaware that it was the “civilized” European powers and American missionaries who introduced them in the first place. The Malawian law dates back to 1940, when the country was a colony of Britain. It only gained its independence in 1964. According to human rights activist Peter Tatchell, writing in a guest commentary for The Independent,
Before the British came and conquered Malawi, there were no laws against homosexuality. These laws are a foreign imposition, they are not African at all. Despite independence, these alien criminalisations were never repealed. Today, the minds of many Malawians – and other Africans – remain colonised by the homophobic beliefs that were drummed into their forebears by the western missionaries who invaded their lands alongside the conquering imperial armies.
Citing historian Rudi C. Bley’s book The Geography of Perversion: Male-To-Male Sexual Behavior Outside the West and the Ethnographic Imagination, 1750-1918, Tatchell reveals that
[t]he missionaries preached a harsh, intolerant Christianity, which has been so successfully internalised by many Africans that they now claim homophobia as their own culture and tradition. While many African leaders decry homosexuality as a “western disease” or a “white man's import”, the truth is very different.The Malawians, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, both in their twenties, had already been living together for five months without incident in Chirimba township when they decided to invite their neighbors over for a chinkhoswe or traditional engagement ceremony. After the local newspaper presented a front page story on the ceremony, they were arrested on December 28 and have been held in a maximum security prison ever since. Far from wishing to start a sexual revolution, the men claim they were merely naïve about the legal consequences of what they regarded as a harmless public declaration of love. They were sentenced to fourteen years of hard labor yesterday.
Upon hearing the news, "Apostle" Rev. Felix Zalimba, pastor of the “All for Jesus Church” in Blantyre, proclaimed to a jeering homophobic crowd that “God calls homosexuality an abomination, which is greater than a simple sin. … These two must repent and ask God’s forgiveness. Otherwise, they will surely go to hell.” Thirty-eight out of fifty-three African nations have passed legislation criminalizing gay sex between consenting adults, and they have received a lot of outside help in doing so.
Prior to colonisation, many tribal societies and kingdoms had a more relaxed attitude to same-sex relations than their subsequent colonial occupiers. …[T]he existence and, sometimes toleration, of same-sex acts was used by the colonising European nations to justify what they saw as their “civilising” mission. To them, homosexuality among the indigenous peoples was proof of their “barbarity” and confirmation of western theories of racial superiority.
None of this can justify the cruel sentence that a spiteful Malawian judge has imposed on two of his fellow citizens. But it should serve as a reminder that in this case too, Africa’s path to “modernity” has had to take a long detour through what we were once proud to call “Western civilization.”