Why isn’t Africa an LGBT priority?

David Benkof Contributor
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The general public is becoming increasingly aware of the terrible situation faced by LGBT people who live in Africa. On February 8, the New York Times ran a front-page article about how Nigeria libels, arrests, and whips people even perceived to be gay. President Obama has said Uganda’s new anti-gay bill will “complicate” America’s relationship with that nation. Both the Times and the Washington Post have written forceful editorials decrying repressive policies in African countries. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and Secretary of State John Kerry have each protested the plight of LGBT Nigerians.

However, the LGBT community itself doesn’t seem so scandalized. Right now, gays and lesbians are far more focused on the lack of marriage equality in the United States and Russia’s denial of civil liberties to gays and lesbians. Of course, I understand that the traditional definition of marriage makes gays feel like second-class citizens, and LGBT Russians certainly suffer under that country’s law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors.” But in neither country have gays been threatened with life in prison (see Uganda), undergo execution for expressing their love (see Somalia), or face a reasonable possibility of genocide (see Nigeria).

A recent search of the Web site of America’s largest gay-rights organization, the Human Rights Campaign, turned up 15,600 mentions of marriage, 6,800 mentions of Russia, but only 159 mentions of Nigeria. The gay community’s publication of record, the Advocate, has written about marriage 11,137 times, about Russia 579 times, and about Nigeria only 167 times.

The LGBT agenda is admittedly long, as gays and lesbians face many challenges just being themselves. Besides marriage and international issues, there’s non-discrimination laws, hate crimes, immigration, adoption, HIV, bullying, drug abuse, gay history in public school textbooks, and guaranteed transgender access to the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice. I completely respect that all gay people and organizations get to choose their own priorities. But when far less than one percent of the LGBT community’s efforts address the horrible situation in Africa, it’s fair to ask what’s going on.

For example, why are gays and lesbians currently paying so much less attention to African issues than the plight of gays in Russia? One obvious possibility is that American gays have piggybacked on the Sochi Olympics to call attention to their own struggles with unfair treatment.

But another, more alarming explanation is that Russian gays and lesbians are, well, white. Racism has a long history in the gay and lesbian community, including the overwhelmingly white historical leadership of gay organizations; pre-1960s lesbian bar culture, highly segregated by race and class; and the second, assimilationist incarnation of the 1950s gay Mattachine Society which shunted aside people of color.

Prominent LGBT people of African descent – such as journalist Robin Roberts, singer RuPaul, director Lee Daniels, and New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray – could make a big difference by emphasizing the suffering of gays and lesbians in the continent of their ancestors. Of course, they’re not responsible for the apparent moral confusion of the wider community. All gays and lesbians should be concerned with, and take action regarding, the horrific attacks on gays in Africa.

Even when LGBT Americans do express concern, their motives sometimes seem less than pure. For example, LGBT publications covering the legal situation of Ugandan gays have historically focused narrowly on the shameful promotion by certain American evangelical Christians of repressive policies in that country, up to and including the death penalty. But that coverage suggests an American LGBT priority of demonizing their own “enemies” more than addressing the needs of foreign gays.

Organizations such as the American Jewish World Service and the American Jewish Committee have been among the most vocal opponents of anti-gay measures in Africa, and with good reason. In the 1930s, the American Jewish community paid too much attention to domestic issues – like quotas at elite universities, restrictive covenants in exclusive neighborhoods, and the hateful rhetoric of figures like Father Charles Coughlin and industrialist Henry Ford – compared with the escalating oppression of German Jews.

American Jews have regretted those choices ever since. It is my hope that gays and lesbians re-evaluate their relative attitudes toward issues like marriage vs. the persecution of gays abroad, so they never have to look back with guilty consciences.

David Benkof is a Stanford-trained historian whose research and teaching have focused on both modern Jewish history and the gay and lesbian past. He can be reached atDavidBenkof@gmail.com.