Lesbians and gay men in several African countries who come out of the closet may land in a prison cell. A number of political leaders in recent months have sought to shore up wavering support by denouncing homosexuals, hoping this is at least one issue the electorate, otherwise shaken by conflict, crumbling economies, and the world's worst AIDS epidemic, can agree upon.
So last fall, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda ordered police to find homosexuals, charge them, and jail them. Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi complained that gays have "a funny way of dressing, which includes wearing earrings," and that homosexuality is abnormal, un-African, and un-Christian.
Namibian president Sam Nujoma declared that sexual minorities possess psychological and biological deviations. Zambian president Frederick Chiluba suggested that being lesbian or gay is the deepest form of depravity, violates sodomy laws, and should lead to arrest. The government of Botswana not only has an antisodomy statute but also a new law banning lesbian sex.
Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe started the bashing in 1995 by refusing to allow lesbian and gay activists to participate in the country's prestigious international book fair. He has denounced homosexuals as lower than pigs and dogs and claimed that homosexuality is a white, colonial preoccupation, never mind that he helped exonerate a former Zimbabwean president convicted of raping his male aide.
Only South Africa stands apart when it comes to policies on homosexuality. In 1994 its well-organized lesbian and gay movement lobbied to make the country's new constitution (ratified in 1996) include a clause banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; it is the only constitution in the world to have such a clause.
But South Africa's neighbors are still struggling, and often failing, to forge new national identities out of their legacies as European colonies. "These countries face serious problems of freedom, economic development, justice, and conflict," says Kamal Fizazi, the Africa regional program coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, in San Francisco. "Homophobia is a cultural campaign these leaders can initiate to detract attention from serious issues."
Ironically, many of the antisodomy laws that can send gay men to prison for anywhere from a few years to life are the result of former British colonies creating new national legal systems out of the British Penal Code. Fundamentalist churches have also taken advantage of the climate of uncertainty. Uganda's Museveni is fond of saying that God created Adam and Eve, not man and man.
Gay women bear the extra burden of gender discrimination. "Lesbians seriously challenge the male ego, and those who are out in public risk attack," says Keith Goddard, the program manager of the activist group Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ).
And the private realm isn't much safer. When Tina Machida, another GALZ activist, told her parents at age 18 that she was a lesbian, they had her raped to prove she could be with a man. "Like a lot of people, my parents think that homosexuality is unnatural and needs to be wiped out," she told the Los Angeles Times.
In Namibia, where a slightly more tolerant climate means there has never been legal action against homosexuals, "lesbians have been most visible and irritating to homophobic politicians," says activist Elizabeth Khaxas. Khaxas directs the feminist Sister Namibia Collective, which has successfully lobbied mainstream media to speak out against homophobia. In 1997 the collective created the Rainbow Project, Namibia's first rights group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, and transgendered people. Khaxas expects to go before Namibia's Supreme Court this year to ask for permanent residency for her German partner, based on their relationship.
Khaxas believes that lesbian activists have been so outsp