From government leaders such as Robert Mugabe labelling homosexual men as “worse than pigs and dogs” to the classification of homosexuality as a disease, and no legal ramifications for those who participate in homophobic behaviour, life within Sub-Saharan African countries can be very difficult for LGBTQ+ people. Surveys taken in Zimbabwe show that 50% of gay men have experienced physical violence as a result of their sexual orientation, and 27% of lesbians report disownment from their families.
Currently, 28 out of the 49 states in Sub-Saharan Africa have anti-LGBTQ+ legislation written into their penal codes, with 3 of those having the death penalty as punishment for male same-sex relations. Whilst the laws against homosexuality date back to the colonial era for the overwhelming majority of Sub-Saharan African countries, many of them are used in the present day to legitimise violence towards members of the LGBTQ+ community.
In South Africa, we see perhaps the most progressive LGBTQ+ laws across the entire African continent. For example, same-sex marriage was legalised in 2006. Same-sex relationships are not only recognised by the state, but the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals are also protected through law, with anti-discrimination legislation in place. Binary trans individuals are also protected under the law, which forbids discrimination against any person based on their gender identity, and trans individuals have the ability to change their gender legally on documents such as passports and birth certificates.
And it appears that other African countries are beginning to follow suit. This June, a historic moment took place in Botswana, when they overturned their colonial-era laws which criminalised homosexuality. However, despite the changes there is still a long way to go in changing the minds of people. Passing laws that superficially benefit LGBTQ+ individuals does not necessarily eliminate homophobic sentiment amongst the general public. Despite South Africa having legalised gay marriage and having one of the world’s most progressive constitutions in the world, homophobia is still rife in the country.
According to a recent survey by Out, a South African rights organisation, within a two-year period, 39% of LGBTQ+ people had been verbally insulted, and almost 10% had been victims of physical violence. Unfortunately, the physical violence does not stop there – the rate of sexual violence in South Africa is amongst the highest in the world and disproportionately affects the black LGBTQ+ community. The homophobia in the country is still deeply linked to the sexism and racism left over from the Apartheid-era.
The face of the LGBTQ+ community is still extremely white, cisgender and male, and thus those outside of that group face the most extreme violence. Black lesbians bear the full weight of the misogynoir interwoven with the homophobia that they experience, with over 31 recorded instances of black lesbians being murdered in the last 20 years – only one of these cases resulted in prosecution.
It is estimated by the Triangle Project in 2008 that 500 lesbians were victims of corrective rape, and 86% of black lesbians in Western Cape live in fear of this kind of sexual assault. One case that attracted worldwide media attention was the gang rape and murder of Eudy Simelane, a high-profile lesbian player for the South African football team.
In countries where same-sex relations are legal, this still does not empower people enough to live their lives in the same way as their heterosexual counterparts. For example, in the case of the Republic of Congo, which has never outlawed homosexuality, there is still no social acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, and in 2017, a report was published in which it was shown that a policeman had beaten and forced five gay men to flee from their neighbourhood.
LGBTQ+ individuals are often targets of violence in countries where their rights are not protected. Although same-sex relations are not illegal in the Congo, LGBTQ+ people are not protected by law against any discrimination they face as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and conversion therapy is widespread with no legal ramifications. From this it is clear that although the law may claim that it is legal to be LGBTQ+, it is, in fact, also legal for a that person to be discriminated against on the grounds of their sexual orientation. Members of this community are the victims of violence that widely goes without punishment.
These are only examples of crimes being committed against LGBTQ+ individuals in perhaps the safest country for them on the continent. Elsewhere, within Sub-Saharan Africa, individuals are subjected to all kinds of violence. Often, it is far more hidden than simply being attacked in the open. Emboldened by the fact that same -ex relations are illegal, in Kenya, criminals have taken to blackmailing their victims and extorting money from them, in exchange for not “outing” them.
This is also often paired with physical violence, and leaves LGBTQ+ individuals helpless, as they cannot go to the police for fear of imprisonment, violence or both. As same-sex relations are illegal, despite them being unlawfully blackmailed and extorted, their crime is more severe than the crime of the person extorting them.
As we can see in the cases of most of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, members of the LGBTQ+ community are disproportionately the victims of discrimination and violence. Countries like South Africa, which have the most progressive same-sex equality laws still have a massive problem with violence and attacks towards the LGBTQ+ community. In the case of other countries within Sub-Saharan Africa, this problem is so finely nuanced that it cannot be solved by simply changing a law. Changes and development in the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals must come from the bottom up; equality and visibilities in communities will invariably lead to equality in law, as has been the case in other countries.