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Sexual rights and wrongs in Southern and Eastern Africa (LGBT History Month Lecture)

Oliver Phillips, Reader in Law, University of Westminster, and Board Member, International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission

Date/Time: 14th February 2013

Advances in LGBT rights in the UK seem a world apart from what is happening in some African countries; as gay marriage seems imminent here, some African states go out of their way to prohibit it. The Ugandan proposal of the death penalty and Mugabe’s labelling as “worse than pigs and dogs” are two of the threats to African gays and lesbians that seem so extreme as to be incomprehensible; we are shocked by how far removed they seem from our experience and our understanding. But a closer look at the dynamics between sexuality and human rights in Southern and Eastern Africa suggests that the distance between our experiences is not as great as it initially seems. The historical interactions of race and sex in the region, the politics of post-colonialism and African nationalism, and divisions within Christian churches about homosexuality, all come together to make lesbian and gay rights symbolically significant and more contested. This highlights our historical involvement as we are and have long been deeply implicated in bringing this issue to where it is today; similarly, our view of these events in Africa continues to have a role in shaping how we see ourselves. This lecture asked: how do we reconcile our respect for cultural difference and national sovereignty with our belief in human rights and equality? How do we engage positively in a post-colonial setting without inadvertently reproducing the politics of the past and actually making things worse?