Being African and gay

by Simon Collings

The tidy flower borders of the school were planted with signs: ‘Always say no to sex’, ‘Virginity is healthy, stay a virgin.’ One read: ‘Say no to homosexuals.’ I was visiting Kampala, the capital of Uganda, last year. My colleague on the trip was upset by the notice about homosexuals. A gay friend of hers had recently died and the sign made her angry. She challenged the headmistress about it.

Uganda, like many African countries, is not an easy place to be gay. Parliamentarians there recently voted to make homosexuality a crime punishable with life imprisonment. President Museveni declined to sign the measures into law, but made it clear that he views homosexuality as ‘abnormal’.

Always say no to sex

It takes courage to ‘come out’ in Africa. The declaration by Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainana earlier this week that he is gay was, in this context, headline news. The award-winning author made the announcement in a short essay entitled ‘I am a homosexual, Mum’ published on 19 January. He is the most high-profile African man yet to go public about his homosexuality. It was a defiant act which will encourage gay activists across the continent.

Wainana founded the cultural journal Kwani! which I blogged about last November. The issue I reviewed includes several contributions from gay writers, one from a Somali living in London who describes how he was harassed by his family after coming out.

Twenty-five years ago a Congolese colleague told me homosexuality didn’t exist in Africa. He seriously believed this. Today overt attacks on gays are increasing, perhaps a reaction to the growing demands from gay activists for the legalisation of same-sex relationships. The evangelical churches are among those fighting against liberalisation. But Africa is changing fast.