When word began to whip around the world that the Ugandan parliament would take up a bill making lesbian or gay sex a capital crime, my thoughts went first to a nightclub I frequented when I lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, a few years ago.
It was always a revelation to spend an evening at Simply Blue. The club was a collecting spot for Africa’s gay diaspora, and its patrons came from every part of the continent. The age range was wide, class lines were smudged, and there was a symphony of languages. The very existence of the place posed an answer of sorts to the claim of homophobes that there was something un-African about being black and gay.
To get to Simply Blue’s curved bar and large dance floor, patrons had to climb a long flight of stairs and go through a security pat-down. You could always spot newcomers because they usually sat off to the side in the shadows, on broken-down couches, their eyes wide and jaws slack. Many of them literally had had the idea beaten into them that they were part of a cursed, despicable, tiny minority.
There was the middle-aged man from Zimbabwe, formerly married, whose brother had plotted to have him killed because of the shame he’d brought to his family when he’d switched to dating men. There was a young Nigerian who lingered on the sidelines for weeks before inching out onto the dance floor, but then moved in an explosion of long-suppressed joy at finding himself dancing in public across from another man. I met an older fellow, a soft-spoken farmer from Uganda who’d raised his children before leaving his home, his wife and his country. He’d finally decided he couldn’t live to the end of his life without having the chance to express his truest self.
One night at Simply Blue, I found myself in a long, confusing and infuriating conversation with an evangelical preacher from Soweto, who was the guide for a group of conservative, anti-gay white American evangelicals traveling around the country. He belonged to a sect that inveighed against homosexuality.
Here’s how he reconciled the two halves of his existence: He felt an irresistible need, he said, to occasionally be in a place like Simply Blue with other black gay Africans because it helped him feel less strange, and a little less lonely. But he was also proud that he had so far stayed true to his theology by never acting on his desires. He watched -- but never touched.
I thought about that preacher’s story -- about the intensity of the pull he felt and also about his shame and self-revulsion -- in the context of the three American anti-gay evangelical pastors who recently took their message to Uganda, and now seem shocked at the proposed law introduced in the wake of their visit. They participated in the March conference that sparked the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009, though they insist they had no intention of inspiring legislation that calls for the death penalty for homosexuals. But by posing as experts who offered testimony about how gay men rape teenage boys and how homosexuals are plotting to destroy marriage and the family, they helped build an explosive device and light a fuse.
One of them, at the time of the conference, announced that these sorts of revelations were like a “nuclear bomb” that would eliminate the entire country of homosexuals. They can’t now disclaim responsibility for the bomb having been detonated.
South Africa is far from nirvana for lesbians and gay men: There’s certainly no shortage of homophobia within its borders. But it’s the one place on the continent -- and one of the few places in the world -- with a constitution that explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In 2007, when I spent a year in Johannesburg, I heard the deputy chief justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Dikgang Moseneke, address the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. In his speech, he paid tribute to liberation heroes like the late Simon Nkoli, a courageous black revolutionary and an out and proud gay man. Nkoli, like the men and women with less well-known names who regularly turn up at Simply Blue, countered the lie that same-sex attraction is a relic of colonialism.
The theme of homophobic African politicians is that gay identity is a perversion imposed on black people by white oppressors. The historical fact is the reverse, of course: Legal prohibitions on homosexuality were originally imposed by white colonial rulers. So it’s no small twist in the plot that the new wave of threats to Ugandan gays should be reinforced by American religious extremists.
The proposed legislation places in stark relief the persistence of deadly prejudice. The roots of hatred can be traced to myriad traditions -- indigenous and foreign, white and black. What’s more important than identifying the sources of the poison is to find the antidote. The first step is listening to the voices of African lesbians and gay men, and taking our cues from them about how to offer the most effective support.
I’ve been logging on daily in recent weeks to the Box Turtle Bulletin, the website widely credited with alerting Americans to the Uganda legislation, and also to Gay Uganda, the distinctive, irrepressible blog of a partly closeted young gay blogger who’s broken important news, and provided bracing perspective, ever since the anti-gay panic began to build in Uganda. “I am fighting for our lives and freedom in my country,” the Gay Uganda blogger wrote on New Year’s Day, as government officials and preachers called on Ugandans to join in a nationwide demonstration against homosexuality on Jan. 19.
“I want to stay home in 2010,” the blogger wrote. “I would love to be here, as a Ugandan, who is free and not persecuted for his sexuality. I would like my family to grow, my family to know, my family to accept me.”
Most of the gay refugees from all over the continent who gather at Simply Blue once felt the same way. They were migrants to South Africa not by choice but by necessity.
And now they’re part of a burgeoning mass of women and men across the continent who reject the impossible, insulting, ahistorical, cruel and utterly false choice: Are you African, or are you gay?
Douglas Foster is a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.