When I posted a photo of CNN Anchor, Anderson Cooper on my Facebook Timeline holding his surrogate new born baby, Wyatt Morgan Cooper, some of my friends recoiled, even threw tantrums and insults at the thought of a gay man being a father. Cooper made the announcement on his show on Monday night in a characteristically eloquent speech.
This made me realize that Africa such a difficult place for the LGBTQ+ community. Especially sub-saharan Africa. There are many reasons, but colonial laws, religious morality, and the idea that homosexuality is imported by the West are among the most influential according to scholars say.
Colonial-era anti-sodomy laws still exist in most of Sub Saharan countries. Of the 72 countries worldwide that criminalize homosexuality, 32 of them are in Africa, where punishments range from imprisonment to the death penalty in countries such as Mauritania and Sudan.
More than half of these are former British colonies where colonial administrators introduced laws prohibiting “unnatural acts”.
The degree to which the laws are enforced varies greatly. Uganda has seen a flurry of recent anti-gay arrests while the Gambia hasn’t prosecuted anyone under its anti-sodomy laws since the change of government in 2017.
Even when not enforced, such laws prolong the stigma attached to homosexuality and provide a “justification” for homophobic behavior.
Religion plays a huge role
Africans among the world’s most religious people, and this another reason for the homophobic traits of most of sub-Saharan Africa.
Around 93% of sub-Saharan Africans are either Christian (63%) or Muslim (30%), making the continent one of the most religious in the world. These beliefs influence many facets of people’s lives, including their attitudes to LGBTQ+ communities.
Religious people are more likely to take religious precepts seriously, according to research. When a large proportion of people are highly dedicated to their religion, everyone within the country tends to develop more conservative views.
Muslim and Christian leaders are often vocally opposed to gay sex, and studies show that African media often quote a religious official when discussing homosexuality — much more so than in countries such as the United States.
Some researchers also believe that American evangelical Christians are playing a significant role in shaping negative attitudes to homosexuality in countries such as Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe by deliberately promoting conservative religious agendas.
Homosexuality promoted as ‘un-African’
Africa’s elites, which include political, religious and community leaders, often claim that homosexual practices are an imported Western evil.
The Majority leader of the ruling party in Kenya, Hon. Aden Duale, was quoted in 2014 as saying that homosexuality in Kenya is as bad a problem as terrorism.
The Ugandan President described gay rights as “unreligious” and “sinful”.
Most of us have been raised with pretty simplistic ideas about sex and gender. Namely, that there are two sexes, male and female, and that they align with two genders, man and woman. Society typically tells us that these are the only two sexes.
But gender isn’t an either/or scenario. It’s a spectrum.
Although a majority of people in our society do identify as men or women, there’s a wide range of possibilities between and beyond the two. Some people identify as nonbinary, an umbrella term for people whose gender identities don’t align with the man-woman binary.
Others identify as bigender, meaning they identify as both men and women at varying points, or agender, meaning they don’t identify with any gender.
Ultimately, the concepts of gender and sex are socially constructed. This means that we as a society assign sex and gender to people based on socially agreed-upon characteristics. This doesn’t mean that body parts and functions are “made up” — it just means that the way we categorize and define each of these things could actually be different.
People often like to separate gender and sex by saying things like “gender is in the brain” and “sex is in the pants.” Although accepting someone as their correct gender is a good first step, beliefs like these can actually be harmful to trans people.
What is gender expression?
We all have something known as a gender expression. Many people associate women with having a feminine gender expression and men with having a masculine gender expression.
But as with gender identity, gender expression is a spectrum. Femininity and masculinity may be the bookmarks, but there are countless points in between — and they’re open to anyone.
In Western cultures, stereotypically feminine traits include nurturing or caring for others, emotional vulnerability, and an overall docile demeanor. Stereotypically masculine traits include the need to act as a protector, engaging in competitive or aggressive behavior, and a high libido.
Most of us possess both masculine and feminine traits. This means that someone who considers themself to have a fairly normative gender identity can still fall closer towards the middle in terms of gender expression.
For example, a cisgender woman can have a more masculine gender expression but still identify as a woman.
Gender vs Sex
Sex refers to a set of biological attributes in humans and animals. It is primarily associated with physical and physiological features including chromosomes, gene expression, hormone levels and function, and reproductive/sexual anatomy. Sex is usually categorized as female or male but there is variation in the biological attributes that comprise sex and how those attributes are expressed.
Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and gender diverse people. It influences how people perceive themselves and each other, how they act and interact, and the distribution of power and resources in society. Gender identity is not confined to a binary (girl/woman, boy/man) nor is it static; it exists along a continuum and can change over time. There is considerable diversity in how individuals and groups understand, experience and express gender through the roles they take on, the expectations placed on them, relations with others and the complex ways that gender is institutionalized in society.
Gender consists of two components – our internal sense of gender (our gender identity), and how we express our gender or present ourselves to the world (our gender expression/presentation).
Sexuality or sexual orientation is about who we’re sexually and romantically attracted to – whether that’s people of the opposite gender identity as us (heterosexual), the same (gay or lesbian) or to people of more than one gender identity (bisexual), or no sexual attraction at all, asexuality.
Gender diversity is a person’s inner sense of gender identity and the sex they feel they belong to, which is different from their biological sex assigned at birth. For example, someone born male may identify as female. They may have a strong sense of this throughout early childhood or become aware during adolescence or later.
There are many different ways that people describe themselves. People who identify as having no specific gender may use terms such as ‘gender queer’, ‘gender neutral’, ‘gender fluid’ or ‘gender diverse’ to indicate they feel they don’t fit into traditional gender categories of male or female.
Gender diverse people may be gay, lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual, may choose to identify as queer or describe their sexual identity in other terms.
The bottom line
As we’ve seen here, sex and gender are far more complicated than many of us were raised to believe. The most important thing to remember is that it’s up to each individual to determine their gender, and indeed, sex.
The best thing you can do is respect the sex and gender identity of the people you encounter and treat each individual you meet with sensitivity and care.