By Colin Wilson
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Imperialism and homophobia

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Recent years have seen increased international coverage of LGBT issues. While activists are rightly outraged by the attacks people suffer in other parts of the world, it's important to understand the broader context of homophobia in order to avoid promoting racist stereotypes, argues Colin Wilson
Issue 358

In February the BBC screened a documentary about Uganda, The World’s Worst Place to be Gay?, fronted by gay Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills. Mills documented the grim facts: serious attacks against lesbians and gays are going on in Uganda, with a bill under discussion in parliament which would introduce the death penalty for gay sex if the offender has previous convictions, is HIV+ or has sex with someone under 18. There is widespread public hostility to gay people, and gay activists face murderous attacks – such as that on David Kato, who was beaten to death in January.

The government of Malawi also received widespread publicity in May 2010, when Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga – who was born male but identifies as a woman – were sentenced to 14 years jail after being arrested at a traditional betrothal party. The couple were eventually pardoned after considerable international pressure. Homophobic attacks have also taken place in Muslim countries: in 2001 in Egypt 21 men were arrested at a nightclub in Cairo and eventually sentenced to three years jail for “habitual debauchery”, while the government of Iran has also executed and publicly flogged lesbian, gay and bisexual people.


These facts are bad enough. What is just as worrying is the perception that has now become “common sense” for sections of the LGBT media and community – that African and Middle Eastern people are generally homophobic, while white Western Europeans are on our side. This is just too close to colonial style racism – whites are enlightened, non whites are backward – for us to accept it. It fits all too well with Islamophobia against Muslims in this country, such as Johann Hari’s recent article in gay style magazine Attitude, in which he claimed that exactly zero percent of Muslims have positive views about gays. And it can give comfort to the English Defence League’s claim that they support LGBT rights against Muslim homophobia.

Such stereotypes about Muslims in the UK are entirely inaccurate. As with any group, some Muslims are homophobic – but most are not. Stonewall research has repeatedly found that religious people are no more likely to be homophobic than anyone else – and the group most likely to be prejudiced is not Muslims or people from ethnic minorities, but older white British men.

The fight against homophobia in the UK is also far from over. While Scott Mills assured a group of men in a Kampala gay bar that “In England it’s easy to be gay, everywhere it’s allowed” and that he can be openly gay in any bar in London, the truth is less rosy. Ian Baynham was kicked to death in Trafalgar Square in 2009 by homophobic attackers. Stonewall figures suggest that each year one in eight lesbians or gay men are victims of hate crime. We’ve only had an equal UK age of consent since 2000, all sex between men was illegal in Britain till 1967, and 41 US states still ban gay marriage – it’s absurd to talk about LGBT rights being an essential part of Western values.

Research by Stonewall, for example, shows that LGBT refugees frequently face appalling treatment from immigration authorities – they are expected to describe intimate and sometimes horrific experiences to officials without hesitation, only to have their sexuality questioned, or to be told to go back to their country of origin and live “discreetly”.

We need a better understanding than the “common sense” one, starting with the nature of the international political order. We live in a world divided up into countries in competition with each other. In each country political and economic power is integrated – oil is a crucial commodity economically, for example, so the US uses its political and military power to try to gain control over oil reserves. In this system – which Marxists call imperialism – some countries have much more power than others. The US currently uses economic and military power to dominate the world: in the 18th and 19th centuries Britain and France controlled vast and brutal empires. The British Empire was originally built on Caribbean slavery, and its crimes included one million deaths in Ireland during the 1848 famine – during which the authorities continued to export food from the country – and killing thousands of Indians to suppress the Great Rebellion of 1857-58.


The main motivation for imperialism has always been control of territory, resources and trade. Columbus sailed to America by accident because he was looking for a trade route to China. But sexual oppression has frequently been part of the picture too: as early as Columbus’s second voyage to America in 1495, the sailor Michele de Cuneo reported in a letter home that he had come across a beautiful Caribbean woman “and the admiral gave her to me”.

Different attitudes to sex became markers of the relative worth of different cultures – British respectability was judged superior to more relaxed Asian or African attitudes. Anal sex between men was banned throughout the empire by the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, creating a taboo which had not existed in many places till then. Because the non-European world was seen as an exotic, sensual place, it was also depicted as a European’s sexual playground. Gauguin painted naked young women from the Pacific Islands, while other painters depicted harems filled with luxurious furnishings and compliant sex slaves.

Nor was sexual subordination confined to art. In 19th century British India, for example, most ranks in the British army were not permitted to have their wives live with them. Instead the army authorities organised brothels where Indian women and girls, some as young as 12, provided sexual services for the British troops. The memoirs of colonial administrators tell the same story: a 1950s British rubber planter in Malaysia recalled that he was provided with a female servant who cooked his meals and had sex with him.

This sexual playground was also open to men who sought sex with other men, if they could afford to travel there. British novelist E M Forster lost his virginity in Egypt in 1914 with another man. 1960s gay playwright Joe Orton took holidays in Morocco because teenage male prostitutes were available. These encounters reflected a general perception that Muslim countries were more accepting of sex between men than Christian ones. In the 1840s a Moroccan visitor to Paris wrote with surprise about French customs: “Flirtation, romance and courtship for them take place only with women, for they are not inclined to boys or young men. Rather, that is extremely disgraceful.”

For the African and Asian independence movements which developed through the 19th and 20th centuries, sexual exploitation was an example of imperialism’s moral bankruptcy. The great anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon wrote in his book The Wretched of the Earth about sexual exploitation in the Caribbean, where “centres of rest and relaxation and pleasure resorts [are] organised to meet the wishes of the Western bourgeoisie”. A concern for sexual dignity, a rejection of racist stereotypes of Asians and Africans as exotic and sexual, an end to exploitation – in particular, that of women – were thus all part of anti-colonial movements.

Activists in the nationalist movements were not typically the rural poor, peasants or workers, but middle class urban people. Generally men, they had been educated in schools run by missionaries, spoke English or French, and worked in professional, European-style roles as doctors, lawyers or civil servants. They felt that they were fitted to rule their “own” countries – a view which led them to oppose white colonialists, but also set themselves apart from the mass of the people.


Such leaders were concerned to show that they would make capable, respectable rulers. The end result of many anti-colonial struggles in the mid-20th century was that societies changed largely at the top – black rulers replaced white rulers, and while this was a real step forward, much of the existing structure of society was left intact. This separation from the masses was crucial to the attitudes nationalist leaders took to sexuality. Along with European concepts like the nation- state and modernisation, they accepted the ideas about sexuality which dominated Europe at the time. For example, Arab nationalist intellectuals in the 19th and 20th centuries argued that their society had been colonised because it had become decadent. To gain independence its national culture must be revived. But that national culture was now reinvented to fit European standards, and so, for example, poems by the great 9th century Arabic poet Abu Nuwas which mentioned the pleasures of boys and wine began to be left out of anthologies.

One final element in nationalist attitudes to sex is that most anti-colonial struggles were won in the mid-20th century. In this period the rapid economic development of the Soviet Union seemed an attractive model to many nationalist movements. Many nationalists were influenced by Stalinist politics, which provided an apparently radical alternative to those of their former colonial masters. But the Soviet Union was far from radical in any sense – including over homosexuality, which was illegal there.

This explains how ideas about sex which were typical of 19th century Europe came to be accepted in anti-colonial movements. But to give a more detailed picture of recent events in Malawi and Uganda, we have to look at some issues particular to Africa.


Like everywhere else on earth, pre-colonial African societies included sex between women and between men. An anthropologist in the 1950s reported that among the Iteso people of Kenya and Uganda “people of hermaphroditic instincts are very numerous”. Still today there exist in parts of Africa traditions of hugging and kissing, and sometimes also sex, between young women. In 19th century Uganda, King Mwanga insisted that his pages have sex with him, as was traditional. They had recently converted to Christianity and refused: the king demonstrated his authority by executing 30 of them.

Yet it’s common for Africans to assert – as they did repeatedly in the Scott Mills documentary – that homosexuality is non-African, a destructive European import. Such ideas go back, once again, to the colonial period, and attitudes that developed in different parts of the empire.

It was impossible for Europeans to deny that Asian history had included advanced civilisations. But since Europeans had now conquered them, they concluded that Asians must have become decadent, a decadence which included sexuality. So Europeans didn’t deny that sex happened between men and between women in the Middle East or India.

Africa and the Pacific, meanwhile, were seen by the colonial powers as peoples without a history, living in a “state of nature” – primitive, but natural. Europeans used this idea to make both liberal and reactionary arguments. The anthropologist Margaret Mead, for example, claimed that Pacific people had a relaxed attitude to adolescent sexuality: by implication, this was natural, so Europeans and Americans should take the same approach. But the assumed “naturalness” of African sexuality also implied that Africans were incapable of “unnatural” same-sex practices.


Against this background, we can begin to understand the growth of homophobia, for example, in Uganda. Uganda is a poor and undeveloped country: one in three people live on less than $1 a day, and four out of five people work in agriculture. This is a legacy of empire: the role of a colony is to produce raw materials, not manufacture goods. Since the 1970s imperialism has further undermined African development through debt and privatisation. Since coming to power in 1986 Ugandan president Museveni has done nothing to resist such attacks: early in his first term he agreed to a structural adjustment programme with the IMF and the World Bank, privatising state enterprises for a pittance and cutting government spending. He became popular in Washington: in 1997 the US Clinton administration described him as a “beacon of hope” who ran what they called a “uni-party democracy”. In fact he has remained in power thanks to the use of torture and intimidation of political opponents.

Promoting a homophobic panic suits Museveni. Scapegoating a minority diverts attention from his own corruption, and allows him to pose as a defender of a supposed traditional African culture against the corruption of Europe and America – when in fact he has worked hand in glove with global financial institutions and multinational companies.

The Christian right in the US has also played a major role in developing Ugandan homophobia. The New York Times reported in January 2010 that American evangelical Christians prompted the original introduction of the Anti Homosexuality Bill by speaking at meetings involving thousands of Ugandans the previous year. They had spent three days telling audiences that gay people could choose to be straight and that homosexuality is linked to paedophilia.

The Church

The Anglican Church in Uganda also has a poor track record: the Anglican priest at gay activist David Kato’s funeral chose that moment to deliver a homophobic rant, Anglican bishops unanimously gave a standing ovation at a conference last year to anti-gay speakers, and the church has cut the pension of a retired bishop who opposes the Anti Homosexuality Bill.

So Ugandan homophobia has developed in a context of poverty and lack of democracy, in which Western governments are complicit, and has been provoked and sustained by right wing Christians from the US, and others who are part of a church based in Britain. So it makes no sense for LGBT people in imperialist powers like Britain and the US to side with their goverments against African and Asian governments. Nor does it help LGBT people in the countries concerned. European interventions can, firstly, help reinforce the claim that homosexuality is not part of African or Asian culture. British activists need to take particular care regarding countries like Zimbabwe, Jamaica, Uganda and Malawi, all former British colonies – for someone from Britain to complain about these countries’ human rights record can look ridiculous to people in them, many of whom can remember the brutality of empire.

Second, attitudes will only really change in Africa or Asia if those changes are won by people in those countries. Of course, you can understand why LGBT people here are horrified when they see witch-hunts going on: they want to express solidarity and do what they can to help. But just as real change in Egypt and Tunisia only happened when people there fought back for themselves, so Western ideas, support or money aren’t the main things that will bring change for LGBT people in Africa or the Middle East. Just as we fought to change attitudes here, rather than someone handing us our freedom, sexual minorities in other parts of the world must find their own way to liberation.


Such change is a concrete possibility. The end of apartheid in South Africa was won amid a near-revolutionary situation as huge strikes by black workers created social upheaval in which all accepted ideas were called into question. Gay members of the liberation movement came out – in some cases in prison, while facing a death sentence from the racist regime. The fact that LGBT people were part of the movement helped activists to argue that the new South Africa had to include justice for lesbians and gays as well as racial justice. Gay and lesbian rights were included in the 1996 constitution – a first for any country – and laws were passed which guaranteed equality in employment, in service provision and regarding civil marriage. In each of these areas equality was gained in South Africa before it was won in Britain.

These changes are a first step, and they can be reversed, but they make the key point: imperialism has created the context within which homophobia can grow. We fight for sexual liberation not by siding with the imperialists, but by forming part of the struggle against them.

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