Nations from all over the world—including the Mother Land—conceived and signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. They understood that all human beings have inherent worth and are deserving of protection by the governments of their respective nations.
However, many Africans believe that some human beings should not be permitted certain inalienable rights. Perhaps foremost among such human beings are Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans-gendered persons (LGBTs). Indeed, many Africans maintain that homosexuality is un-African, and therefore, not to be tolerated in African societies.
This raises the question: Does a supposedly static African culture and tradition take precedence over mutually-agreed-upon and universally recognized basic human rights? Put another way: is it acceptable that human rights be sacrificed on the altars of culture, tradition and religion?
Essentialism is always problematic. Do all Africans think alike? More importantly, would that constitute real thinking? A wise man once said, “where everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much.” What person or group decides which thoughts and practices are authentically African? More importantly, if a practice is deemed un-African, does that mean the law should prohibit it and punish those that embrace it?
Most people do not engage in sexual relations with members of the same sex. However, homosexuality is not only African, but it is human. Further still, according to the June 16, 2009 issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, a yearlong study finished at the University of California at Riverside found that same-sex behavior occurs in practically all animal species.
Still, there are those that argue that such behavior is alien to Africa. However, Leo Igwe of the Center for Inquiry/Nigeria wrote an excellent article titled “Tradition of same gender marriage in Igboland” in the June 19, 2009 issue of the Nigerian Tribune (http://www.tribune.com.ng/19062009/opinion.html). Igwe wrote of married women living together and raising families, a practice dating before the Christian era. Certainly, regardless of what one thinks of such an arrangement, no one could argue that these women were brainwashed by the cultural imperialists of the West. Love it or hate it, if Africans have been doing it for centuries, is it not African?
It has been said that “tradition is the dead hand of human progress.” While this is not always the case, it all too often is. Why are so many Africans reluctant to change? Today Blacks are just as likely to engage in kinds of “unnatural,” “perverted,” and “un-African” acts as are Whites. And who’s trying to stop them?
There are numerous gay rights groups all over Africa. Many of them attended the World Social Forum in Nairobi in 2007. Courageous gay activists in Uganda are working against proposed legislation designed to make their lives a living hell.
What if it turns out that homosexuality is genuinely un-African? Why would that mean that it should not be allowed? Is this allegedly un-African behavior hurting anyone? Should not consenting adults be allowed to engage in allegedly un-African actions as long as they are not causing harm to anyone?
There are those that claim the children of same-sex couples will be harmed, even if only from the teasing they might receive from their peers. However, this was the same rationale that White supremacists provided for outlawing interracial marriage (which they, incidentally, deemed unnatural and against the will of God).
One need not go way back in time for an example of the absurdity of this position. In October, 2009, Keith Bardwell, a Louisiana justice of the peace, refused to issue a marriage license to Beth Humphrey, 30, a White woman, and Terence McKay, 32, an African American man.
Bardwell expressed concern about any children that might be born of such a union. “I think those children suffer and I won’t put them through it,” he said. After receiving criticism from all over the country, including the governor of Louisiana, Bardwell resigned. Good riddance to him.
What the critics of interracial and same-sex marriage do not understand is that children are much stronger than they realize. After all, Black children survived slavery and apartheid. Certainly they can withstand some ridicule. Indeed, many of them do quite well. For example, that Barack Obama turned out okay, and Tiger Woods isn’t doing too poorly either.
When discussing the topic of allegedly un-African behavior and cultural traits, one must grapple with the relationship between the individual and society. Should African society be able to dictate how every African must think and act? If so, the concept of individual rights is a sham. Is freedom of expression African? Is sexual freedom African?
It’s certainly not African according to African cardinals that met at the Vatican in October, 2009. Cardinal Wilfred Fox Napier of Durban, South Africa said, “There are certain cultural norms that are inherent in Africa. One of them is that sexual activity is for bringing babies into the world. It’s not so much for enjoyment.” On a related note, many Africans consider the use of condoms to be un-African.
The bottom line is that consenting adults—including Africans—should have the right to live as they see fit as long as they are not hurting anyone. If that’s not African, it certainly ought to be.
By Norm R. Allen Jr.,
Executive Director, African Americans for Humanism.