Postcolonial theory builds on the notion that today’s world cannot be separated from the imperial juncture of history, which was essential “in the construction of contemporary relations of power, hierarchy, and domination” (Chowdry and Nair, 2003, p.11-12). In other words, colonialism has left colonial legacies, which are deeply ingrained in structures and systems of today’s societies. Investigating societal issues, especially those of the global south, can thus only be sufficiently undertaken if the impact of imperialism is brought into the equation.
In the following article I want to illustrate this understanding through the case of LGBTQIA+ rights. Although some European countries have arguably come a long way in advancing LGBTQIA+ rights (yet there are regressing activities in countries such as Hungary), a liberal observer might be shocked to find that in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 30 countries still criminalize LGBTQIA+. As you might have guessed by the argument of this article, the answer is not as simple as just to be outraged about “how this can still be the status quo in the 21st century?”.
Recently having worked for a LGBTQIA+ organization in Ghana, the case of queer rights in the country has allowed me to understand how complex it is to see through systems of oppression in the global south. Although anthropological evidence shows that queer people have always existed on the African continent, a common narrative in Ghana is that LGBTQIA+ is just another neo-colonial import by the west, ought to corrupt the society. Yet, the counter argumentation of the pro-LGBTQIA+ supporters is that not LGBTQIA+ was imported, but rather that the homophobia itself is a colonial legacy. And in fact, it was the British imperial project which left its legacy in form of a criminal code which is LGBTQIA+-discriminatory. Even more influential in terms of leaving a legacy, Christian missionaries propagated their religion and spread moral codes which rejected homosexuality, all the while disrupting traditional religious beliefs. Despite both narratives being so contradictory, they have one aspect in common: The west plays a role in the LGBTQIA+ situation. It is thereby either the origin of homophobia, or the importer of the whole “concept” of LGBTQIA+ itself.
Yet one must not even go back in history to provide evidence that western forces are behind the homophobia in the country. As an under-cover investigation in 2019 showed, it is in neo-colonial fashion especially the American-evangelist churches in form of the “World Congress of Families” which fund homophobic opinion leaders in Ghana (Nketiah, 2019). The ultra-conservative World Congress of Families is known for wanting to preserve the “traditional” family structure and its hardline stance against LGBTQIA+. Paradoxically, these evangelist movements preach to African audiences about African sovereignty, and how homosexuality would endanger it, implying the claim that LGBTQIA+ is un African. A quick internet research shows that organizations such as the World Congress of Families however have “links to Islamophobic, far-Right and white supremacist movements” (Nketiah, 2019). Their true motifs of rejecting LGBTQIA+ and support for the traditional family structure are different from what they publicly proclaim:
“Only this type of family, they contend, can quell the “demographic winter,” the idea that European populations, especially, are in decline because of homosexuality, abortion, feminism, women in the workplace, and a variety of other things that deviate from the “natural family.” (World Congress of Families, n.d.)
Shining light on colonial and neo-colonial practices and detecting them as the root of homophobia in societies such as the Ghanaian one is not to excuse or take away the agency of homophobic forces on the ground. But it allows for some important learnings.
First, it deconstructs stereotypical notions that societies in the global south are inherently homophobic and reluctant to sexual progressiveness. Instead, deeply internalized concepts have altered the collective knowledge and practices. Homophobia is learned, and thus can be un-learned again. This understanding also links to what in academia has been described as the concept of “homo-developmentalism” (Rahman, 2014; Klapeer, 2018). There, the global north uses sexuality as a marker of modernity and as a development paradigm. It frames an exceptionalism in terms of sexual progressiveness, which serves to stigmatize the global south and reasserts its own supposed supremacy. The insights of postcolonial theory allow to understand that it is not feasible to categorize some societies as modern or not modern, but instead they all must be considered in light of historical (and not so historical) processes.
Second, it is apparent that western forces still have an interest in shaping and imposing upon the collective ideas of societies in the global south. Non-state actors such as the World Congress of Families actively push their conservative agenda and interests. On the other side stand institutions such as the European Union which try to oppose these movements and defend sexual rights on the African continent. Ergo, it seems as the Global south, in places like Ghana, functions as an external battleground for the Global North to fight out cultural issues.
In the end some questions remain: Who do progressive forces in the Global North want to be in terms of supporting LGBTQIA+ rights worldwide? How can they find a middle ground between coming after their historic responsibility to protect human rights, and developing context sensitive approaches to do this? Reflecting about legacies and internalizations is only the first step towards answering these questions.
Article by Christoph Ilg *CI, Karls Alumnus (B.A. in International Relations)
Chowdhry, G., & Nair, S. (2003). Introduction: Power in a postcolonial world: Race, gender, and class in international relations. In G. Chowdhry & S. Nair (Eds.), Power, postcolonialism and international relations: Reading race, gender and class (pp. 1–32). Routledge.
Nketiah, R. (2019). God Has A New Africa’: undercover in a US-led anti-LGBT ‘hate movement’. openDemocracy. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/god-has-a-new-africa-undercover-in-a-us-led-anti-lgbt-hate-movement/
World Congress of Families. Retrieved September 9, 2021, retrieved from https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/world-congress-families
*Karlshochschule is an educational institution and a non-profit organization as well. We want to encourage individuals and young people to take responsibility, find their own voice and initiate change in a sustainable and tolerant way. Listening to different opinions not only promotes different perspectives, but also discourse. The content of this blog is characterized by the diverse experience and opinions of the authors, which may not be the majority opinion of the university, but provokes reflection and discussion.