Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
In his series of "Seeing a Way Forward" videos, Rev. Forbes Matonga makes the claim that the Traditionalist Plan is the only "legal" plan for Africans, since gay marriage is illegal almost everywhere in Africa. On one level, Rev. Matonga is incorrect in that it would be possible for the One Church Plan or Connectional Conferences Plan to pass and Africans to maintain prohibitions against gay marriage and gay ordination, nor much church policy and state policy always coincide. Yet it is worth exploring the range of laws about and views regarding homosexuality in Africa.
On one hand, Rev. Matonga is right about the legality of gay marriage in Africa. South Africa is the only country in Africa where gay marriage is legal. It was legalized by an 80% pro vote of parliament in 2006 after previous marriage laws were struck down as unconstitutional.
On the other hand, there's much wider variation on the legality of homosexual practices in Africa. It's true that some African countries, including some where the UMC is located, have criminalized gay sex, making LGBTQ+ people who are out vulnerable to arrest, detention, and other legalized harm. But there are also African countries, including those where the majority of African United Methodists live, where there are no laws prohibiting homosexuality, even though gay marriage is not legal.
The following lists come from a 2018 Amnesty International infographic:
Those countries with United Methodists in Africa where homosexuality is legal include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, and Central African Republic. Collectively, these countries make up about 69% of UMC membership in Africa.
Those countries with United Methodists in Africa where homosexuality is illegal include Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gambia, Liberia, Nigeria, Malawi, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. These countries make up the other 31% of UMC membership in Africa. The severity and enforcement of these laws vary. In Kenya, the Supreme Court is in the process of deciding a court case that could legalize homosexuality there.
Beyond the issue of legality is the issue of public opinion. The most commonly cited source for African views on homosexuality is a 2013 Pew Forum study which covers several but far from all African countries. It does not include the DRC or Cote d'Ivoire, but does include South Africa. African countries, Muslim countries, and Russia stand out as the places least accepting of homosexuality. Even in South Africa, where gay marriage is legal, public opinion runs against homosexuality, and LGBTQ+ persons still routinely face discrimination and even violence.
One caveat to these results that I have heard from Africans themselves is that Africans do not talk about sex, even straight sex, publicly. It is treated as a taboo subject. This makes it difficult to have conversations about homosexuality. When those conversations do happen, views are perhaps less cut and dried than a yes/no question on a Pew Forum survey would suggest.