African leaders target gays as cause of continent's ills
WINDHOEK, Namibia - (KRT) - As a boy, Telwin Owoseb wanted to wear lime green. His mother told him blue was for boys and pushed him out the door to play ball, over his protests.
At the end of high school, he told his family he was gay. While his mother accepted the news, his brothers and family friends were horrified.
"A man should be a man and marry and have kids," he remembers them saying.
Since then he has been called a "moffie" - an Afrikaans slur for homosexuals - on the streets of Namibia's capital, and he has faced trouble finding work and a partner in this nation where being gay is considered unnatural, un-Christian and un-African.
But he considers himself lucky compared with Namibia's rural gays and lesbians, an estimated eight out of 10 of whom are forced to marry and have children as a result of fear, ignorance and social pressures, according to gay-rights activists in Namibia.
"The government says homosexuality is a European import," said Owoseb, 21, a member of the country's Damara ethnic group, one of the nation's more accepting of homosexuality. But "if it were European there wouldn't be names for homosexuals in our own languages, from before the Europeans arrived. It's not a European thing. I'm not a European."
Africa is not an easy place to be homosexual. Across the continent, millions of gays and lesbians find themselves increasingly under threat and pointed to as a source of Africa's ills.
Homosexuals have been shot by warlords in lawless Somalia and stoned in northern Nigeria, activists say. Hundreds have been arrested in Egypt on debauchery charges. Zanzibar has proposed 25-year prison sentences for men convicted of sodomy.
Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, the most homophobic of Africa's presidents, dismisses gays as "lower than pigs and dogs." Uganda's Yoweri Museveni has threatened them with arrest, prosecution and deportation. And former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi long characterized them as a "scourge."
In Namibia, homosexuals have been blamed for severe drought by religious leaders, who insist their wicked behavior displeases God. Government officials, who have threatened to deport gays, accuse them of trying to depopulate the country and describe their lifestyle as a kind of cancer, threatening to spread and lead to "social disorder."
While gays generally are not blamed for the spread of AIDS in Africa - the disease is a largely heterosexual one on the continent - they are dismissed as "unnatural."
"Homosexuality is an unnatural behavioral disorder, which is alien to African culture," former Finance Minister Helmut Angula once observed.
Some Namibian gays find themselves subject to brutal "cures." Families arrange to have lesbian daughters raped to show them the "right" way to behave. Gay men are held down by police and earrings are ripped from their ears. A leading government official has written a treatise describing how homosexuals can be "cured" by sawing off the top of the skull and washing the brain with a chemical solution.
What is remarkable is that Namibia's outspoken homophobia is relatively new. A decade ago, gay men held hands on the streets of Windhoek, seen as a homosexual mecca for southern Africa. For generations lesbians and to a lesser extent gay men were quietly accepted in at least some of Namibia's ethnic cultures.
What has changed, gay activists believe, is the country's confidence in its future. Since Namibia won its independence from South Africa in 1990, "the euphoria has been wearing off," said Ian Swartz, director of The Rainbow Project, a gay-rights organization.
Namibian leaders promised better times after independence but have found stubborn problems such as poverty and southern Africa's AIDS epidemic difficult to solve. In frustration - and sometimes to divert the public's attention from their own shortcomings - they have begun looking for someone to blame and have settled on minorities, including homosexuals, according to human-rights activists.
"There's a sense of economic and political powerlessness, and when you feel powerless about your economy and your country's politics there's a tendency to turn to culture as the one thing you can exert control over," said Scott Long, director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Rights Project at Human Rights Watch.
Namibia's public campaign against homosexuals began in 1996, after a group of cross-dressing gay men used the women's bathroom during a meeting of the ruling South West Africa People's Organization. Days later, President Sam Nujoma gave his first anti-gay speech, insisting that "homosexuals must be condemned and rejected in our society."
Since then government officials - most of them from northern Owamboland, Namibia's richest, most populous and most traditionally homophobic region - have tried to criminalize gay sex and threatened to deport homosexuals. In heavily Christian Namibia, the government has promoted a view of homosexuality as un-Christian and as an imported European deviation.
The problem with that view, gay-rights activists say, is that Christianity itself is a European import in much of Africa. Over centuries of colonization most of the continent's rich oral tradition was lost, making Africa's traditional views on homosexuality unclear. What is evident, however, is that gays were an accepted part of at least some African societies.
In northern Namibia, many homosexuals traditionally served as healers and spiritual leaders, said Daniel Somerville, editor of Behind the Mask, a Web site for gay Africans. Even today, large numbers of lesbians practice as traditional healers in neighboring South Africa, one of the few nations worldwide where homosexual rights are protected under the constitution. And Namibia's Damara people are relatively relaxed about homosexuality.
"People say it's imported colonial behavior," Somerville said. "But in fact the opposite is true. The colonialists, if anything, tried to stamp it out. They were, after all, the Victorians."
The All Africa Rights Initiative, a gay-rights movement that met in Johannesburg in February, issued a statement saying "we have and have always had a place in Africa." African traditional culture, the statement said, is based on "principles of welcoming and belonging," not on exclusion.
Reversing the image of homosexuality as a European import has been difficult, largely because Africa's gay activists have tended to be white. That is changing, but only slowly. Most gay Africans, like their heterosexual neighbors, are too busy trying to feed themselves, earn a living and take care of their families to get involved in politics.
"That white people brought (homosexuality) here is a lot of nonsense, but our own black community believes that," said Linda Baumann, 21, a lesbian who lives in Windhoek. "The only answer is education, and more of us speaking up for ourselves."
That isn't easy, particularly in the conservative Owambo community that Baumann grew up in. Her partner and housemate was thrown out of the home where she grew up when her family discovered her orientation a few years ago. Baumann, who said she lost most of her friends when she came out, counts herself lucky that she got only a lecture, largely because her strict father had moved out years ago.
"I was lectured about the Bible and God, and mom cried and said I wasn't raised this way," she said. Today her mother and one of her two sisters accept her, but it is an acceptance forged out of necessity_her salary puts food on the table.
"If my father knew he would say I am no longer his child, that the devil is in me and I need to go to a traditional healer and be healed," she said. But she is thankful she doesn't live in a rural Owambo community. If so, "I would have a husband and kids by now."
Many Namibian gays who emerged from the closet in the 1990s have gone back in as a result of the government support of homophobia, activists said. Gay men who married and later divorced have married again, Swartz said.
But the attacks have spurred new activism. Gay Namibians have turned to the country's hugely influential churches, seeking their acceptance and help in rebuffing myths about homosexuality. The response has been mixed, but at least some denominations, especially the Lutherans, have been relatively welcoming.
Gay-rights activists also have teamed with other troubled minorities - white farmers, AIDS patients, abused women - to work for improved human-rights protections for all. The country now has an annual human-rights parade, dominated by gays.
Across the continent, gay-rights groups have formed in nations including Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and Uganda, largely in response to government hate speeches. That mobilization suggests "it's not always a bad thing to have these outrageous statements," Somerville said.
Perhaps the best news for Africa's gay men and lesbians, however, is that plenty of their neighbors do not take homophobic government messages to heart. Gays and lesbians have quietly been part of African society for centuries, anthropologists argue.
And on a continent struggling to feed itself, "a whole number of issues come before worrying about other people's sexual behavior," Somerville said. That means "the levels of homophobia one hears about in the press and from leaders is not necessarily reflected in the populace. People could care less."
Activists say the best way for gay Africans to overcome prejudice is simply to live as good neighbors.
"You have to take away all the myth, and the best way to do that is just to live and be open," Swartz said. "When all you talk about is sex, you forget there's a person behind that label."
© 2004, Chicago Tribune.
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