The increasingly popular “Lusaka July” event — Zambia’s equivalent of the Kentucky Derby or the Royal Ascot — is known as much for its pomp, splendor and extravagance as it is for polo. This year’s event, held on Sept. 3, sparked controversy in the predominantly conservative country when photographs appeared online of men dressed in drag and openly showing affection toward one another.
The event prompted immediate outrage from religious groups, politicians and the public at large, who deemed it “un-African” and a sign of Western culture permeating the continent due to internet exposure and pressure from Western governments.
On Twitter and Facebook, users called for the arrest of the event’s organizers, amid mounting threats of violence.
“We will start beating them when we find them. Zambia, the most dangerous country to be gay in.”
“If they are sodomizing men then let’s cut off every gay d*** in Zambia. Vaupuba! [Stupidity].”
Like many African countries, Zambia outlaws same-sex relationships under colonial-era statutes. A fiercely religious country and former British colony, its laws prohibit people from having “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature.” The backlash from the event forced thousands of LGBTQI+ Zambians to go underground and close their social media accounts — even those who had nothing to do with the event.
Amid the uproar, the United States has remained quiet on the issue. This is surprising, not because the U.S. needs to intervene in every dispute among its allies but because previous presidents have been extremely vocal about LGBTQI+ rights in Zambia, to the point of sparking a diplomatic incident.
In 2019, then-President Edgar Lungu requested that U.S. Ambassador Daniel Foote be recalled after he publicly condemned the sentencing of two men to 15 years in prison after they were caught in a sexual act.
“I was personally horrified to read yesterday about the sentencing of two men, who had a consensual relationship, which hurt absolutely no one,” Foote wrote at the time.
Foote then bemoaned the fact that poachers get a lighter sentence than individuals accused of same-sex relations and lambasted the government for putting more energy into policing the LGBTQI+ community than fighting corruption.
With the U.S. threatening to withdraw aid, Lungu doubled down on the government’s stance, vowing not to be intimidated.
“Animals don’t do it, so why should we be forced to do it? It is unbiblical and un-Christian. We frown on it and we don’t want it,” Lungu said.
Since Zambia gained independence in 1964, successive governments have been outwardly hostile to homosexuality.
After President Hakainde Hichilema won a landslide victory in the August 2021 elections, Zambian progressives and human rights advocates pinned their hopes on the liberal politician to repeal the law that criminalizes homosexuality.
Hichilema had been evasive about his government’s stance on the issue until May, when he accused the opposition of peddling lies that insinuated he was pro-LGBTQI+ rights.
“It is not right to say that the New Dawn government is promoting gay and lesbian rights,” Hichilema said. “We said in opposition and now in government that we do not support gay and lesbian rights as a country.”
Hichilema maintained that the constitution was clear on the issue and that Zambia was a Christian nation that would not go against Christianity.
Zambia and Ethiopia are the only two African countries that are officially Christian under their constitutions.
Following Lungu’s ouster, the U.S. normalized its relationship with the Hichilema administration. During President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, he issued a “historic” memorandum committing the U.S. to promoting LGBTQI+ rights on the international stage and threatening sanctions on countries that persecuted the community.
The memorandum on advancing the human rights of LGBTQI+ communities around the world reads: “When foreign governments move to restrict the rights of LGBTQI+ persons or fail to enforce legal protections in place thereby contributing to a climate of intolerance, agencies engaged abroad shall consider appropriate responses, including using the full range of diplomatic and assistance tools and, as appropriate, financial sanctions, visa restrictions and other actions.”
Nor is Biden the first president to issue a presidential memorandum to protect the rights of LGBTQI+ communities abroad. Barack Obama did so in 2011 and followed through when he criticized Nigeria for enacting an anti-homosexuality law. Obama also openly questioned Kenya’s anti-gay stance when he visited the country in 2015.
Before Foote’s recall to Washington, then-President Donald Trump announced that his administration would push to end laws criminalizing homosexuality around the world.
Most recently, Biden called on nations to defend LGBTQI+ rights at the 77th session of the U.N. General Assembly, which took place in September.
Barely a day later, Hichilema told New Lines on the sidelines of the U.N. meeting that homosexuality was a personal choice.
“That is their choice and we cannot kill them for their choice. The issue is that in our country that is illegal. It is a decision that they made for themselves but remember we must uphold the law. We are a government that is committed to the rule of law.”
Sishuwa Sishuwa, a historian and academic at the University of Zambia, offered a sharp rebuttal of the president’s remarks: “Why would anyone ‘choose’ to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in a society where they will likely be subject to state persecution and severe social stigma?”
New Lines made several attempts to get a comment from the U.S. Embassy in Lusaka on both Biden’s memorandum and Hichilema’s comments, but they declined.
To date, Biden has not reprimanded any African country that persecutes members of the LGBTQI+ community and appears especially reluctant to use U.S. clout to protect these communities in countries that are strategically important to the U.S.
In April, the U.S. announced that the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) had opened an office for security cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Lusaka. This sparked criticism from opposition leaders who feared the office would serve as a U.S. military base, which four previous Zambian presidents as well as the African Union, a pan-African body that seeks to harmonize the policies of its 55 member states, had refused to endorse.
The same month that the office opened, Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the commander of AFRICOM, told Capitol Hill lawmakers about China’s dominance in Africa and warned that the U.S. ignores Africa at “its own peril.”
“China’s heavy investment in Africa as its second continent and heavy-handed pursuit of its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, is fueling Chinese economic growth, outpacing the U.S., and allowing it to exploit opportunities to their benefit,” said Townsend.
For opposition and civic leaders, Townsend’s comments underscore that having multiple military bases on the continent is important for serving U.S. interests.
Under the Lungu administration, Zambia was seen to be a Chinese enclave. China became Zambia’s biggest bilateral lender and the African nation benefited from the China Belt and Road Initiative with the construction of two airports, roads and a major dam.
But now Zambia appears to be gravitating toward U.S. influence. In March, Zambia backed the U.S.-sponsored resolution submitted to the U.N. demanding Russia withdraw from Ukraine, while neighbors South Africa and Zimbabwe abstained.
Indeed, Hichilema favors free-market policies and the U.S. appeared to favor him in the last election.
“Yes, they like him. So, I think they are picking their battles. There is so much to do in this country that they don’t want him distracted by fighting for gay rights. I think that’s why he made that statement just to put an end to it,” said outspoken civil society activist Laura Miti, a member of the Zambia Human Rights Commission.
“Biden’s administration knows that Hichilema as an individual is sympathetic towards gay rights. They are giving him time to gather stamina to recognize LGBTQI+ rights. Now he doesn’t have the courage to do that because he has too many problems on his hands,” said opposition leader Wynter Kabimba, who is openly homophobic, in an attempt to discredit his opponent.
For the thousands of Zambians who identify as LGBTQI+ and hoped to see the anti-homosexuality law repealed under the Hichilema presidency, they may have to wait, as Minister of Justice Mulambo Haimbe thinks the matter is not a priority.
“Any law reform is driven by the dictates of the larger community and we have not received any such submission. Clearly, this is not on the top of our priorities list,” said Haimbe.
It may not be on the government’s checklist, but rights advocates continue to press the issue.
“We completely support the calls for the law to be repealed,” said Muleya Mwanayanda, Southern Africa director at Amnesty International, who has been advocating that consensual same-sex relations be decriminalized.
“There’s absolutely no space for laws like that. The only thing that the law interpreters think about gay people, is two men having anal sex but heterosexuals do that too. Are they being criminalized too?”
Amid the backlash following the Lusaka July event, the LGBTQI+ community says it still plans to organize an underground gay pride march in November. But for others, the ongoing harassment and homophobic rhetoric have been too much: some LGBTQI+ Zambians feel their only option is to flee the country and seek asylum in the U.S. or other friendly Western countries.
The Lusaka July event undoubtedly triggered a conversation among Zambians about homosexuality. But it remains to be seen whether that moves the debate beyond a discussion of homosexuality as a choice to consider LGBTQI+ rights within the framework of human rights.