During a time when the United States has been experiencing rapid change in the area of gay rights, politics in many African nations has been heading in an opposite direction.
On August 25th, the Gambian National Assembly passed an amendment to the Criminal Code which increases the sentence for “aggravated homosexuality” to life in prison. The bill must be either signed by the president or sent back to the National Assembly within thirty days of its passage. Will President Yahya Jammeh sign it, though? Well, I mean, it’s a pretty strict law, and consensual sex between people of the same gender is already illegal in the Gambia–in fact, the law permits up to a 14 year prison term, and was thoughtfully updated in 2005 to include us lesbians. Wouldn’t want to feel left out. Under the “aggravated homosexuality” law, “repeat offenders” and anyone considered to be gay who is also living with HIV/AIDS are among those who can receive life in prison. But since gay sex is already illegal, is there any chance that the president will approve this bill?
Yeah, I’d say there’s a good chance. Of course, I’m just speculating. Ah, but wait.
In February, in a public address on the Gambia’s independence day, Jammeh said:
“Homosexuality will never be tolerated and in fact will attract the ultimate penalty since it is intended to bring humanity to an inglorious extinction. We will fight these vermins called Homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes; if not more aggressively. We will therefore not accept any friendship, aid or any other gesture that is conditional on accepting Homosexuals or L.G.B.T. as they are now baptised by the powers that promote them. As far as I am concerned, L.G.B.T can only stand for Leprosy, Gonorrhoea, Bacteria and Tuberculosis; all of which are detrimental to human existence.”
Furthermore, in a speech at a celebration in 2008, Jammeh told the crowd that all homosexuals must immediately leave the country, or he would “cut off the head” any who remained. “Any hotel, lodge or motel that lodges this kind of individuals will be closed down, because this act is unlawful,” Jammeh said. “We are in a Muslim dominated country and I will not and shall never accept such individuals in this country.”
Okay, so, scratching “the Gambia” off of my list of vacation destinations. And I was really looking forward to seeing those beaches, too. In any case, the National Assembly Minority Leader Samba Jallow was one of two legislators to vote against the amendment, saying that though his party did not support homosexuality, he and the other man who voted no believed that “[homosexuals] did not commit a crime worthy of life imprisonment or any treasonable offense.”
This law bears a great deal of resemblance to Uganda’s repressive anti-homosexuality laws, the origins of which are perhaps best described here by the incredible John Oliver. It’s a long video, but totally worth watching.
Many people in sub-Saharan Africa regard homosexuality as a Western invention, when really, it’s laws against homosexuality that come from the West. According to the Daily Beast, in pre-colonial Africa, “over 20 cultural varieties of indigenous African same-sex intimacy have been recorded by anthropologists.” But when Western empires like Britain and France began to colonize and enslave Africans, they also instituted their own legal systems which outlawed homosexuality. When they finally left, their laws remained. Additionally, American Evangelicals, whose ideas have largely been rejected in an increasingly progressive country, have continued to travel to various African nations, using their influence and wealth to spread ideas which many Westerners no longer accept.
Here’s a video of Rachel Maddow talking about Western influence in Uganda…because Rachel Maddow. She also did a series of segments on the same topic back in 2009, entitled “Uganda Be Kidding Me” for which she won a GLAAD Media Award, but this one’s more recent, so:
It would be easy to look at Gambia and dismiss it as a “backward” nation, in a continent full of “backwards” nations, as many people do. But we did this. By exploiting their ancestors, our ancestors created a legacy of political, economic, agricultural, and social instability. This is our legacy. And we have a responsibility to address it.