Historical evidence dispels the notion that LGBT people as well as alternative gender expressions and identities are alien to African culture, writes Gerbrandt van Heerden. Gerbrandt van Heerden is an analyst at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.
Tanzania's recent intensified efforts to clamp down on the country's queer community highlights the risk of statements by Africa's political, business and social elites normalising hate and discriminatory actions against sexual minorities.
In the latest development, regional commissioner of Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, announced that he had set up a 17-member task team to target and arrest LGBTQ people in the region.
Makonda's announcement aligns with Tanzania's reputation as one of the most homophobic countries on the continent, with a study by Afrobarometer indicating that only 21% of Tanzanians would strongly like, somewhat like, or not care to have gay neighbours. Still, the establishment of the task team is a major setback for LGBTQ rights and has led to widespread panic and fear within the community which fears it could lead to an escalation in violence, invasion of privacy, discrimination and stigma.
Many factors contribute to the marginalisation of the LGBTQ community, but categorising same-sex attraction as a foreign concept and a form of neo-colonialism has proven to be a powerful tool in oppressing this vulnerable group.
Historical evidence, however, dispels the notion that LGBT people as well as alternative gender expressions and identities are alien to African culture. An early researcher in Africa, John Weeks, reported in 1909 that sodomy between men was quite common among the Bangala of the Congo and was "regarded without shame".
Homosexuality was commonplace among unmarried Tutsi and Hutu men in Rwanda, while lesbian relationships were common among the Nandi of Kenya, and basically universal among unmarried Akan women of Ghana. In the Langi tribe of northern Uganda, people who were born intersex or who were regarded as impotent would be labelled as a third gender known as mudoko dako. Mudoko dako people were legally and socially allowed to marry a man or woman and acquired either traditional male or female roles.