On April 14th, Dr. Timothy Horner gave a presentation entitled “Out in Africa” to a large lecture Bartley classroom – and few seats were left empty. “This is the strange story about how the West made it dangerous to be gay in most of Africa… this is a very complex picture,” began Dr. Horner. For all its complexities and taboos, Dr. Horner gave voice to a human rights issue that is not on the radar for many Villanova students or perhaps Western students in general. His presentation had clear scope and a focused mission. Dr. Horner would use case studies and overviews to give students a context that would allow them to understand the on-going dialogue about homosexuality Sub-Saharan African society. In addition to social theories, Dr. Horner emphasized that he would also consider what his role was in this issue is as a white American male. The presentation began with a summary of the state of affairs in Africa, later transitioning into the influence of colonialism on African perception of sexuality.
Since about 2004, Africa has witnessed a wave of anti-homosexual legislation, ranging from the death penalty to imprisonment, incorporated into sodomy laws. Politicians in Africa often use anti-gay legislation as a form of political distraction from other structural issues and widespread problems in their country. African leaders such as Goodluck Johnathan of Nigeria see their numbers skyrocket when they pass anti-homosexual legislation. The conversation in Africa can be broken down quite simply. Africans are asking: is homosexuality indigenous, a western import, or neither? Some fear that LGBT activist are coming to re-colonize them with Western social ideals. African leaders sponsoring anti-gay legislation say homosexuality is not part of African culture – others say that Africa has always had gay people. Perhaps neither of these constructs is appropriate for describing what it means to be gay and African.
“Your sexuality is determined by your sexual acts, and if you do anything that is outside of that, then you’re gay, or you’re bisexual, or you’re confused, but you’re in trouble. That idea is a very western construct that doesn’t necessarily fit when you look at other cultures that exist in the world,” explains Dr. Horner.
Concrete labels of homo- or hetero sexuality actually emerge from the Victorian era, whereas African culture has historically had a more fluid notion of sexuality. Dr. Horner related this to his own experience, reminding students that perceptions of sexuality are a point of contention across many cultures.
He recalls, “As a white male, the fear you grew up with about any sort of male-male touching, or if you do one thing that may not be totally heterosexual – boom, you’re a ‘fag’. I remember that as being very dangerous ground indeed”.
The “religious right” is also part of this conversation. For many Evangelical Christian groups, Africa has become the new ground for their missionary efforts in recent history. More extreme right wing groups have taken advantage of the fact that countries like Uganda lack access to information about sexual identities. Individuals like Pastor Scott Lively preach, along with an endless list of allegations, that homosexuals are sociopaths that target and convert children to their way of life. While Pastor Scott Lively has a marginal presence in the United States, in Uganda, he has the audience of the Ugandan Parliament to this testimony.
Dr. Horner ends his presentation with the idea that the United States is caught in a Catch-22 in terms of what course of action to take.
“How much do we let Africa be Africa? Let them work out this problem on their own? But meanwhile the other side of this is how many gay and lesbian people are [we] going to [allow to] be killed… Where’s the line for us in the West?” asks Dr. Horner.
Several students in the question and answer period ruminated on this paradox. Dr. Horner opened up to the students on his honest personal position on this matter.
“It’s a tough position for me to be in as someone who wants to honor African autonomy but still has very Western [influences] about what’s basic human rights. I’m not settled on this issue by any means. I don’t actually know what the right thing to do is.”
These statements resonated with Freshman Akash Dagur, saying it enriched his lecture experience: “Dr. Horner’s lecture left me feeling conflicted – something I can’t say about the vast majority of lectures I’ve gone to. He took the blatantly obvious perspective of “help Africa” and pitted it against giving Africa autonomy. He even admits he doesn’t know what the right course of action is, and that’s what makes a damn good lecture.”
Senior Ashish Kalani related this presentation to his own Indian, post-colonial heritage, “As a person from Indian culture, I do agree that for there to be a strong equality movement in Uganda, natives who understand their cultures and region should be the leaders, otherwise it may seem [like] a Western invasion, which [is] the case in India. Being gay is [perceived as] a ‘Western thing’ and Indians aren’t gay”.
The Out in Africa presentation turned out to be more of a catalyst for dialogue, allowing the professor to seek solutions alongside the students, all the while relating to the issue on a personal level.
By Kinjal Dave, ’17