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July 15, 2004

Homophobia, Africa and Aids

Posted by Christie Davies

Homosexuals are being vilified in much of Africa by Robert Mugabe, the Anglican Church, and Islamic leaders. Yet Christie Davies argues, Africa owes a huge debt to the Western gay community. It is because of lobbying by gay men in the West that sufficient funding has been provided to make the development, by Western pharmaceutical companies, of a vaccine to fight the spread of Aids a real possibility.

Africa is in a bad way. It has had to face many calamitous threats, but the spread of Aids must be amongst the worst. In the past despite a high death rate, the populations of the African countries have continued to grow extremely rapidly. However, when the proportion of the population that is HIV positive has risen over a certain level there is always the possibility that it might rapidly spiral upwards with dire demographic consequences. Continued resistance to the use of condoms or the practice of safe sex in Africa has made this situation only worse. Ultimately Africa's best hope for fighting the disease is the development of a vaccine. The progress towards developing such a vaccine by the pharmaceutical companies and the provision of new resources - by amongst others, that bete noir of progressive opinion, George Bush - means that the threat that the disease would depopulate Africa could recede.

If a vaccine is developed, many African lives will have been saved by the chance fact that the disease spread from Africa via Haiti to the gay males of San Francisco at a time when the gay community was beginning to gain self-confidence and to act as an important pressure group. The development of new drugs to combat AIDS and now the prospect of vaccines has been very largely due to the lobbying for medical research on the part of gay men and their supporters. Nothing like as much progress has been made in combating malaria, the other scourge of Africa. The African countries do not have the scientists, the organisational capacity or the capital required to carry out the medical research needed to develop or manufacture sophisticated pharmaceutical products. If a vaccine is developed to successfully combat Aids this will be very largely due to the work of Western pharmaceutical companies and lobbying by gay men in the West.

African political leaders however do not wish to recognize this. First they clung to the KGB generated myth that AIDS was due to American germ warfare experiments aimed at exterminating black people. Then they took up the idea that it was the result of the careless use of polio vaccines from the West. In Northern Nigeria some Muslim leaders have been telling people to refuse to be vaccinated against polio on the grounds that it is an American plot to sterilize them. The Americans will be poisoning Muslim wells next. If the advice of these leaders is headed it is going to lead to a polio epidemic not just there but in adjoining regions and nations. Finally there was Mbeki's nonsense that the disease was not caused by a virus.

Gay men are hated and discriminated against in much of Africa. They are denounced as representatives of Western decadence and a colonial remnant. Mugabe used an accusation of sodomy to get rid of his potential rival President Canaan Banana. Worst of all have been the African Anglican bishops who have taken up the prejudices of Leviticus and even been able to thwart the moves towards tolerance and understanding that had begun in the West. No wonder that the liberal American Bishop Spong was pushed to denounce the African Anglican Bishops as primitive and uneducated and by implication as having a mentality close to that of witch-finders. Without their fierce bigotry and the size and strength of the African churches they represent, the reactionary forces within Western Anglicanism would by now have withered away. Like Aids, bigotry remains a huge problem in Africa.

African hostility to homosexual behaviour is rooted in tribalism, a tribalism so fierce that it is indistinguishable from racism. Hostility to homosexuality is always at its most fierce in societies with rigid but threatened social boundaries. Forms of sexual behaviour that appear to break down 'natural' categories are condemned because they are a metaphor for the destruction of tribal, national or religious categories and boundaries that the leadership is desperately trying to defend. This is why male homosexual acts were grouped together with bestiality in Leviticus, termed unnatural vices by the Medieval church reformers, and named the abominable vice of buggery in English law. Many tribal Africans see cause and effect in terms of the mysterious essentials of nature and not in the ways open to those who live in societies long used to written texts and to reversible machinery. In much of Africa the key loyalty remains to a tribe, a closed group whose membership is inherited not chosen.

Predictably the major exception to this is South Africa, a country long dominated by a single white tribe, the Afrikaners who were totally obsessed with categories and boundaries and used Roman Dutch law to persecute gay men. The Afrikaners had been there since the seventeenth century and had never experienced the Enlightenment. When they relinquished power and their system of apartheid and segregation was swept away, it was inevitable that the legal persecution of homosexuals would also come to an end. The gay community in South Africa like the Jews had campaigned against the racial policies of the Afrikaner tribe. The gay Anglo-Catholic Trevor Huddleston was particularly prominent in this struggle. It is sad to think that within another generation or so a resurgence of homophobia and anti-semitism may well have pushed both groups to the margins of South African society.

It is equally sad to see some English bishops trying to find excuses for the prejudiced behaviour of Africans bishops. One former Anglican Bishop has recently claimed that African prejudice has its roots in the pederasty practiced by Western missionaries in Africa. In his view this became mistakenly identified with all homosexual conduct in the minds of many Africans. Mark Santer, then Bishop of Birmingham, said:

'African Bishops with some justification, given the history of misconduct of missionaries tend to associate homosexuality with paedophilia. They do not reckon with faithful relationships between adults.'
It is certainly the case that many Anglo-Catholic clergy working in Africa did behave in this way but this is hardly the cause of the African bishop's virulent attacks upon homosexuals. This absurd explanation is just one more attempt to pass the blame for all of Africa's problems onto the West.

At a material level the solution to the Aids problem, as with so many of our problems, lies with the big multinational pharmaceutical companies. In their profits lies all our future.

Anti-gay bigotry will long remain widespread in Africa. Perhaps the start of healing the division could be by providing the Africans with sympathetic hagiographies of the many saintly gay celibate priests who left their comfortable parishes and religious communities in England to toil as missionaries and colonial bishops in Africa. I have in mind men such as the much persecuted Anglo-Catholic Bishop Twells, first Bishop of the Orange Free State in the late nineteenth century who had to flee into the veldt. Such men would have been horrified to learn that the very peoples they had rescued from heathendom had now not only joined their persecutors but come to lead them. It is time to evoke and revere the memory of such men.

Professor Christie Davies has lectured in several Indian universities on racial intolerance in Africa based on his work in that continent. He is the author of 'Sexual Taboos and Social Boundaries', American Journal of Sociology, 87, 5, March 1982, :1032-1063; 'Religious Boundaries and Sexual Morality' in G D Comstock and S E Henking (eds), Que(e)rying Religion, New York, Continuum 1997 pp 39-60; and 'The Collapse of the National Morality and National Moral Boundaries of Small Peripheral Countries: not Globalisation but the Imposition of Liberty', ProtoSociology, vol 15. 200i,: 216-231. His most recent empirical research on morality, identity and sexual diversity is to be found in his new book The Strange Death of Moral Britain, New Brunswick NJ USA , Transaction Publishers 2004.


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What an insightful and temperate blog. But it seems strangely at odds with Prof. Davies' thoughts in 'Creationism in schools: a small price for a big reward'. Surely he cannot be unaware that christian fundamentalists like the car salesman Sir Peter Vardy, whom he clearly deeply admires, are deeply homophobic. Vardy's apparently boundless benevolence in bestowing three academies on the unsuspecting population of the North in order to promulgate his distasteful views is charity of the basest order. Davies argues that at least the pupils will get a decent education, despite being indoctrinated with an antedeluvian world view. A small price to pay indeed - but by his own argument it will surely increase homophobia and the rise of AIDS worlwide. A small price, but for a colossal reckoning?

Posted by: Mr Root at September 9, 2004 12:31 PM
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A very curious piece - especially from a professor - has he actually done any research on Africa? The 'gay Anglo-Catholic Trevor Huddleston'?!?? An unfounded allegation. 'The gay community in South Africa like the Jews had campaigned against the racial policies of the Afrikaner tribe': there were gays such as Dr Ivan Toms and Shiela Lapinsky who did so - but there were also plenty of white gays who acquiesced to apartheid - the National Party in fact won the Hillbrow seat in the '87 election by campaigning on pro-gay rights (whilst subtley pointing to the fact that they would uphold the Group Areas Act and playing on the racism of many white gay men). Furthermore - 'African hostility to homosexual behaviour is rooted in tribalism, a tribalism so fierce that it is indistinguishable from racism.': far from homophobia being 'African' - there is ample evidence that African societies have embraced homosexuality in the past and present (Davies' library must have' Boy-wives and female-husbands : studies in African homosexualities' edited by Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe?) - Western Christian evangelising has introduced intolerance, Mugabe et al is just a tyrant using all means to maintain social control - homophobia being one of them - he is not expressing an inner African homophobia. The 'Bishops' of whom Davies writes do not include South African Bishops - who have come out in support of gay rights. Furthermore, AIDS is spread mainly by heterosexual intercourse in Africa. AIDS is viewed as a disease that affects everyone - because it does. So what is the point about homophobia again?
I would suggest that Davies' comments are ill-informed, unfounded and bigoted.

Posted by: Dan at November 15, 2004 05:01 PM
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AIDS IS A DELIBERATELY SPREAD DISEASE DESIGNED TO CARRY OUT A GENOCIDE OF AFRICA.
IF YOU ARE DARK-SKINNED AND YOUR HAIR IS A CERTAIN TEXTURE, THIS IS THE REASON PEOPLE LIKE THE THOUGHTLESS ASSHOLE WHO WROTE THIS PIECE WOULD WANT TO GET RID OF YOU. AND THE FREAKS WHO DO NOTHING BUT TALK ABOUT AFRICA ALL THE FUCKING TIME LIKE THEY ARE OBSESSED SERIAL KILLERS TRYING TO GET THEIR FIX, WENT SO FAR AS TO CREATE A DISEASE THAT WOULD HARM AND KILL MILLIONS OF PEOPLE, BECAUSE THEY ARE AFRICAN AND THEY ARE DARK BROWN.
IF YOU NEED TO LEARN THE MEANING OF THE WORD "SICK" PEOPLE LIKE THIS WOULD RIGHTFULLY BE IN THE DICTIONARY.
BUT, I KNOW ONE THING, WHAT GOES AROUND, CERTAINLY DOES COME AROUND, AND WE ALL GET A TASTE OF OUR OWN MEDICINE.

Posted by: NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS at August 28, 2005 09:17 AM
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