...With all due apologies to Darren Lenard Hutchinson.
Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings points us to (and excerpts extensively from) a stellar article in the Washington Post on the status of gay rights in Africa. If you think the climate is bad here, you should hear what's going on over there. This is not to say that gay rights is an issue we've "won" in America, only that what is a major problem that occasionally spills into violence in America appears to be a violent problem that occasionally lapses into merely a "major" one in Africa. I've already once before blogged on how race intersects with homosexuality in shifting the nexus of oppression--and since I read an excerpt from Chandra Mohanty's "Under Western Eyes" for class today, an analysis of how "third world" modifies homosexual also seems appropriate (note to the uninitiated: Mohanty's article is considered a classic critique of how western feminism constructs third world women to fit within certain prefigured norms, and why this is harmful).
What's most depressing is that you get the feeling that this is rooted in the tradition of Western colonialism--that homophobia at the level described in this article is not "native" to the continent. This isn't a "blame the West" game--just an acknowledgement of history. The article notes that at worst, the status of homosexuals was ambiguous in pre-colonial Africa--sometimes scapegoats for droughts and crop failures, but sometimes seen as mystical healers and shamans. The primary organs of modern homophobia in Africa today are the Church and politicians trying to distract the masses from pressing problems at home (hmmm...sound familiar?). Scapegoating may be universal, but surely the fact that homosexuals seem to be one of the few classes in the west exempt from protection from explicitly expressed animosity by public officials, surely African leaders have gotten the message that this is a human rights violation for which they'll pay no price. If they choose a different characteristic that Western nations value (like Mugabe's racism toward White people), then the West will protest ferociously--for most countries, this isn't worth the cost. In other words, the status of gay rights discourse in America incentivizes African leaders to scapegoat homosexuals because insofar as they have to scapegoat somebody, this is an "freebie" that won't bring trade sanctions or any other such bad things.
Another thought I had after reading Mohanty was whether or not Western leftist ideologies also have aided African leaders in the suppression of homosexuals. Essentially, what struck me was how often the justification for the suppression of gays and lesbians was premised off it not being "African." The charge for local norms and customs taking precedence over universal human rights standards has been led, by and large, by the left. The rhetoric being used here (though not the effect) doesn't strike me as conservative--rather, what I'm hearing (and this has been heard from terrorist groups in the middle east too) is a co-opting of the leftist attack on culture imperialism and using it to proclaim that homosexuality is a Western value imposing itself on African(/Arabic) culture.
Leftists will argue that this isn't true because, as noted above, homophobia isn't actually rooted in African history at all but is primarily an import from the West. Okay, maybe. But this was still a foreseeable harm that needs to be addressed. By splitting off "African" norms from "our" norms, the left has shoved a wedge between what might be a necessary alliance between first world and third world gay activists. This doesn't mean that the first world should simply absorb the third world into its own framework--acknowledgement of difference is obligatory (for example, "tradition" is a strike against first world gays but perhaps an argument in favor for third world homosexuals). However, at some level I believe that severing human rights in the third world from human rights in the first world by extolling cultural differences and moral relativity is a convenient cover for activists who simply do not wish to address third world oppression. The division serves to allow us to turn the other way, and that shouldn't be acceptable (even if the goal is to focus on "our own" problems, doesn't that betray the sort of provincialism that liberals should try to avoid?).