anti-gay demonstration in Uganda
anti-gay demonstration in Uganda Reuters

Homophobia, including verbal harassment, physical attacks and even murder, has risen to “dangerous” levels across sub-Saharan Africa, warned a report from human rights campaigner group Amnesty International. In a document entitled, “Making Love a Crime: Criminalization of same-sex conduct in sub-Saharan Africa,” Amnesty detailed how laws in many African countries have increased the penalties for same-sex activity, up to and including the introduction of the death penalty.

Homosexuality is currently considered a criminal offense in 38 African nations. Over the past five years, the governments of South Sudan and Burundi have enacted new laws criminalizing homosexual conduct, while Uganda, Liberia and Nigeria have proposed harsher punishments against gays and lesbians. “These attacks -- sometimes deadly -- must be stopped,” said Widney Brown, Amnesty International’s senior director of Law and Policy in a statement.

“No one should be beaten or killed because of who they are attracted to or intimately involved with. In too many cases these attacks on individuals and groups are being fuelled by key politicians and religious leaders who should be using their position to fight discrimination and promote equality.”

Hostility toward homosexuals frequently leads to arbitrary arrest of persons based solely on their behavior or appearance in many nations, while the existing laws sometimes encourage police or other members of the public to commit abuse, blackmail or extortion against people perceived to be homosexual.

“The very existence of laws criminalizing same-sex relations -- whether they are enforced or not -- sends a toxic message that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are criminals and have no rights,” Brown added. “These poisonous laws must be repealed and the human rights of all Africans upheld.”

Uganda came in for particular excoriation from Amnesty. Noting that Kampala has repeatedly considered an anti-homosexuality bill since 2009, Amnesty suggests that the draconian punishments proposed (including a death penalty for homosexual acts) are designed to distract the public from the country’s real woes, like rising food and fuel prices.

In Cameroon in central Africa it is not unusual for homosexuals to be locked up for years without any charges being filed. South Africa, already reeling from a very high incidence of rape, also features the horrific sexual assaults (as well as murders) of lesbians as a form of “correction.” Ironically, South Africa includes the protection of gays in its constitution.

“It is time that African states stopped demonizing individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Human rights are about the dignity and equality of all people,” Brown added. “As the chorus for recognition grows stronger and stronger, African states have to stop denying that homophobia is a human rights issue. … It is their responsibility to protect, not persecute.”

BBC reported on a gay activist in the West African nation of Sierra Leone whose photo appeared in a local newspaper because he had written an article about his equality in a foreign publication. That unwanted publicity led to threats and worse.

"On my way to the hotel I was attacked by two bike riders,” he said. “By the time I could realize [what was going on] the glass on my side was smashed, so I moved to the passenger seat and later on the other glass was smashed. I managed to move out of the car and during that process I was severely beaten and I sustained bruises and injuries on my back, some lashes. Then I had to escape from the scene and report the matter to the police station.” He added that a note was left in his car which warned: “We know you people, we're coming after you, you bloody homosexuals.”