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Words by Hamish McKenzie
Illustration by Mahalia Lodge

The global gay rights movement has just entered a dark new chapter with rising economic giant Nigeria snatching the limelight as Africa’s new poster child of homophobia. On 7 January, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act which not only criminalises gay marriage, but carries penalties of up to 14 years imprisonment for all organisations and individuals that support the LGBTI community, and open displays of homosexuality.

The fallout has been gut-churning: arrests, allegations of torture of homosexual men, death by stoning in some areas of the country, and one police unit declaring it was ‘on the hunt’ for homosexuals. And Nigeria, where homosexual sex and relationships have long been outlawed, is just one of 38 African countries that actively persecute LGBTI people. When defending the Nigerian law, a government spokesperson argued ‘this is a law that is in line with the people’s cultural and religious inclination… Nigerians are pleased with it’. He is not lying. One poll suggests that Nigeria is the most homophobic country on the planet, with 98% of the population opposed to homosexuality.

Proponents of homophobic laws in many parts of Africa, Nigeria included, defend their position by claiming that homosexuality is the latest in a series of Western cultural incursions, that have served to disrupt and denigrate African cultural values since colonialism. In this antagonistic framing, homosexuality is posited as alien and incompatible with African culture. Moreover, in its current guise, homosexuality is framed as a reason for the plethora of social ills which plague many of these countries. President Mugabe in Zimbabwe has claimed that gays literally “destroy nations” and that they must be wiped out. This is the kind of logic at play. Homosexuals are imbued with the full threat of pernicious Western modernity.

It is widely acknowledged that these claims are a smokescreen for incompetence, scapegoating LGBTI people, and deflecting attention from inept governments. Nigerian commentator Udoka Okafor argues that “the Nigerian government seek to ingratiate themselves to the Nigerian people and the only way to do that is to give them a common enemy, one they can condemn together”. As President Jonathan faces an uncertain election in 2015, this latest move is seen as a “distraction from their political, social and economic failing as a governing body”. We see a similar scapegoating of LGBTI people when they are accused of causing natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or Black Saturday. This is not some exotic African quirk to be safeguarded. It’s very human, and it is very dangerous.

Moreover, the notion that these laws merely reflect an intrinsic African cultural preference and should therefore be respected is untenable. Most African countries, Nigeria included, inherited their anti-sodomy laws from their colonial occupiers. In the decades since decolonisation, the missionary work of the Western Christian right has unconscionably exploited this legalistic and cultural conservatism with the zealous propagation of an ultra-homophobic brand of Christianity in many parts of Africa. American evangelical Scott Lively has been one of the worst culprits, and is currently on trial for crimes against humanity for his support and indirect authorship of Uganda’s ‘Kill the Gays’ Bill. These homophobic revivals are the result of a confluence of factors, in which a corrupt government’s desire for political expediency dovetails with the agitation of Western religious extremists. This is no noble stand for the protection of African culture; this is cynical, Machiavellian realpolitik, meets religious bigotry.

The temptation is to respond with aggressive punishment in proportion to the crime. The UK has already threatened to withdraw aid to Nigeria, which would follow Germany’s similar move with Uganda last year. Gay rights activists across the world are seething, but to follow through on that rage could be catastrophic.

If we respond to these homophobic laws with punishment, derision and militant activism, then that very notion that homophobia is a Western conspiracy to infiltrate and denigrate Africa, which is clearly false, starts to seem legitimate. By reacting angrily, we risk transforming a chimerical delusion into a real threat, and the bizarre and demonstrably false justification for homophobic laws becomes at least superficially plausible. In doing so, we fuel the very flames we sought to quell, and do nothing for our LGBTI sisters and brothers who can least afford our moral indignation.

What then, can be done? The advancement of LGBTI rights in Nigeria can only take place within a broader human rights agenda. So long as there is poverty and social dysphoria, there will be a witch-hunt against the marginalised. LGBTI people are scapegoated because it is easy, not because it is right. The homophobia that is sweeping many parts of the world—Russia, Uganda, India—must be considered, taken seriously, and redirected towards the true perpetrators of human misery, be they dodgy governments, exploitative companies, corrupt NGOs, bigoted religious groups, or unpropitious socio-economic structures.

In this sense, we could take heart from what we see in Nigeria. People are willing to mobilise against agents of injustice. The task is to correctly identify those agents, and to unleash the human urge for self-improvement towards them, and away from the disgraceful crimes to which we instead bear witness.

Words by Phoebe St John

It’s time. Dust off that mink coat, retrieve your finest Russian vodka, and switch on ye olde telly box, because the 22nd Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, have officially begun.

If you’re anything like me, Russian geography isn’t exactly your speciality, so allow me to enlighten you of the Olympics’ whereabouts. Sochi is a city in the Krasnodar Krai territory just north of Georgia, along the border of the Black Sea directly opposite Turkey. This city, which boasts a population of 400,000, is apparently so far removed from the icy throes of winter it is affectionately labelled the “Russian Riviera”, or the Florida of Russia. Famously remembered as the location of Stalin’s summer home, some news sources have even gone so far as to call Sochi “subtropical” and “balmy”. Temperatures rarely drop below 8 degrees Celsius, and at press time, there was no snow to be seen other than in the 500 faux snow guns specially imported from Finland. Yes, a seaside town seems a questionable choice for a Winter Olympics in an otherwise arctic Russia, particularly if it means Speedos could be involved.

Still, who are we to judge? No doubt these Games will be spectacular, if its total expenditure of US$50 billion is anything to go by. President Putin is footing the bill of one of the costliest Olympics of all time, with brand spanking new infrastructure including the Fisht stadium, rumoured at 14 times over its initial budget, and some highly fascinating double toilets. For the next ten days, we will watch as 6,000 athletes from 85 countries compete in 89 events and, according to CNN, consume 265,000 litres of Russian borscht in their Olympic Village. More importantly, we will see some outrageous uniforms that may make you simultaneously snort and cry (Norway, anyone?), and even the return of another Jamaican bobsled team, “Cool Runnings” style. We’ve already witnessed the Olympic torch being shot into space and completing a space walk, so no doubt future Games antics will be, well, out of this world.

Still, not everything about this Winter Olympics is as pure as the driven snow (oh yes, pun definitely intended). Russia’s recently adopted, draconian legislation banning gay “propaganda” to minors has been internationally criticised, with the global spotlight now shining on Russia’s LGBTQI community. With politically motivated social conservatism at a momentous high, things are unbelievably tough for gay and lesbian people in Russia right now. There are widespread calls for the criminalisation of homosexuality, only encouraged by public figures, such as TV anchor Dmitriy Kiselyov, and growing anti-gay violence in city centres. As a result, it seems calls for boycotting the Winter Games have quite literally snowballed. 27 Nobel laureates have signed a letter demanding a repeal of the laws essentially denying homosexuality. A 200,000 signature strong petition headed by Amnesty International has condemned Putin’s new legislation ahead of the Games. Even the International Olympic Committee asked its Russian organisers last week to respect press freedom and freedom of speech during the event, when it comes to athletes speaking out about the controversial legislation.

When coupled with the country’s already controversial political situation, threats of terrorism, and the 150th anniversary of the Circassian genocide, Putin may have hit a bit of an iceberg. Barack Obama, Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel and David Cameron, to name a few, have announced they will not be attending the Games as spectators, citing the Kremlin’s anti-gay legislation as highly contrary to the Olympic spirit (China’s leader Xi Jinping will be attending, however- his third trip to Russia in just 12 months). While the United States is not withdrawing their team, Obama has made a statement of sending openly gay LGBTQI sportsmen along to Sochi. “If Russia doesn’t have gay or lesbian athletes, then that would probably make their team weaker,” he said in August.

None of this seems to be an issue, of course, because Sochi mayor Anatoly Pakhomov has told the BBC in an interview that aside from foreign tourists, there are no homosexuals in his city (and don’t we all believe that?). Luckily, then, it appears no one will have the urge to protest at Sochi. But if they were to, surely any one of the 37,000 security officers deployed for the Winter Olympics could step in and, er, break the ice.

Thankfully, Russia’s horrific treatment of their gay and lesbian community hasn’t deterred too many athletes from going for gold. “I want to be proud of who I am and be proud of all the work I’ve done to get into the Olympics,” openly gay Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff revealed in a recent interview.  And she’s not too pleased with President Putin. “After I compete, I’m willing to rip on his ass,” she has said.

This is the first time Russia has held a Winter Olympics, and it seems the event is already sending chills down some international spines. So, the expected global television audience of 3 billion waits with bated (foggy) breath for news of the shenanigans in the snowy city by the sea.