Joyce Banda and Gay Rights

Post by Travis Ferland

Malawi’s new president, Joyce Banda, has said that she will push for the repeal of her country’s anti-homosexuality laws. Of course this depends on her ability to secure popular support in parliament. Even if these laws are repealed, will public animosity towards gays and lesbians change? Will protective laws be created in their place? Will life be any different for Malawi’s sexual minorities?

In October of 2011, David Cameron proposed cutting aid to countries that discriminate against gays and lesbians. Just a couple months later, Hillary Clinton made a statement on “gay rights as human rights” in anticipation of International Human Rights Day. She explained that US foreign policy would take each country’s treatment of LGBT persons into consideration. Ban Ki-Moon also threw his weight behind gay rights. Most recently, Barack Obama has declared that he backs same-sex marriage in the United States. None of these statements were well received on the African continent, and even African LGBT activists said that such grandstanding could lead to a backlash against Africa’s sexual minorities. However, Ms. Banda’s decision shows that the Cameron-Clinton approach might hold weight.

Ms. Banda has been clear about her desire to appeal to Western donors in order to improve Malawi’s economy. Some of Africa’s more economically powerful countries (Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Senegal to name a few) might reject Western pressure, but is it still possible for the aid card to work in smaller or poorer countries? Will other countries follow Malawi’s lead, or is Joyce Banda simply an exception to the norm?

* Travis Ferland’s earlier contributions can be found here.


7 thoughts on “Joyce Banda and Gay Rights

  1. Yes, the circumstances (public attitutes, employment opportunities, freedom of expression, representation, etc.,) eventually will be better. How long? Well, one just needs to look at similar issues in other countries to begin to get a sense of that task. Dispite the pasing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, racism is still alive and well in the USA. How entrenched is homophobia in many African countries (and countries in other regions of the world) ? Answer: severe.

  2. Even if Banda fails to get the law repealed, her willingness to open the debate and make the attempt has value. Attitudes towards gay marriage and other issues relating to LGBT rights have shifted enormously in the US in a relatively short period of time, about 20 years. This has been a process driven by thousands of debates, millions of conversations, the courage of gay citizens making their case within their own families and in the public square, and also by political leaders understanding their responsibility to all of their citizens.

    Interesting the way the success of the LGBT community in the US has pushed some American evangelicals and cultural conservatives to “export” their brand of hatred to Africa…

    As for the way the post conflates Obama’s recent statements on gay marriage rights in the US with the very different issue of using aid dollars to push countries in a particular direction, that’s really off the mark in my opinion, and I can’t really believe that African LGBT activists think Obama should be silent on this pressing civil rights issue for fear of backlash in their countries.

    Whether a “dollars for tolerance” approach makes any sense at all, I doubt…

    • Hi Susan – it wasn’t my intent to say that African LGBT activists think Obama should be silent on LGBT rights in the US. Perhaps this should have been worded more clearly. African activists had reacted mostly to David Cameron’s remarks, but also to Hillary Clinton’s more nuanced speech. Nonetheless, the gay rights movement in the West, including Obama’s statement on marriage (which I fully support), have contributed to backlash in many African countries. It’s important to keep in mind that our social progress in the West can sometimes have a deleterious impact in other parts of the world – especially if we don’t engage civil society in those areas. Western LGBT movements increasingly have a responsibility to support the efforts of their counterparts in the Global South.

      • Yes, I get that. I just thought shoe-horning Obama’s remarks in with Clinton, Cameron, and Ban-Ki Moon wasn’t quite on target. I would like Western supporters of LGBT rights to step up and do what they can to counter the influence of Western conservatives, working with African churches, to pass ever-more-restrictive laws. However, your post makes very clear one of the problems with that…how to support without inflaming the opposition. The West needs to be guided by African gay rights advocates in this regard, but with our globalized media etc. there is no way to shield communities in one country from backlash against events in another. It’s a puzzle.

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