08/17/2012 08:11 EDT | Updated 10/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Africa May Celebrate Pride -- But Will it Ever Stop Persecuting Gays?

Getty File

It was a remarkable scene. Uganda, the African country that has become the flashpoint for gay rights on the continent, held its very first gay-pride earlier this month. Made up of film-screenings, a drag fashion show, parties, and of course, a parade, Uganda's gay pride is a testament to the courage of the 250 participants. It was only a few years ago in that country when a newspaper headline read "Hang Them" above the pictures of gay activists, one of whom -- David Kato, was brutally murdered.

Uganda's gay pride came on the heels of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton awarding the 2011 US State Department Human Rigths Defender Award to a coalition of groups fighting for LGBT rights in that country.

Despite these positive developments, it would be wrong to assume that Uganda has turned a new page. Far from it. Many participants were reluctant to attend the parade and when it was finished, on the pretext of a rumoured gay wedding, the police raided, arresting three. Uganda's LGBT activists are also fighting a government decision to ban all LGBT advocacy groups in the country.

Crossing the continent, gays are not faring much better. In the West African nation of Cameroon two women went on trial this past spring charged with homosexuality, allegedly denounced by villagers as "witches [who] deserve death." This summer the appeal of a man sentenced to five years imprisonment for homosexuality began. Another Cameroonian man was sentenced to three years for sending "gay text messages."

Moving slightly north, in The Gambia, in May of this year President Jammeh announced "Operation Bulldozer" to "wipe out criminal elements in the country." Operation Bulldozer targets "drug dealing, pedophiles, homosexuals, murderers, drug traffickers, [and] human traffickers."

This is a critical moment for LGBT rights in Africa. The see-saw is teetering and it can go down on either side. Brave and courageous Africans, gay and straight, are working tirelessly to ensure it does not come down on the side of bigotry and hate.

LGBT equality does not happen overnight. Societies evolve gradually. Prejudices fade away over time, often with generations. The same will be true in Africa. Activists and supportive governments must accept this reality and structure their approach and expectations accordingly.

There is a stark difference, however, between tolerating gradual cultural evolution that affords the best prospects of success, and permitting active persecution of LGBT individuals.

We do not have to ask Cameroonians to love and embrace and LGBT community, but the arrests and persecution of the LGBT community must come to an end. Demanding an end to the criminalization of homosexuality does not push foreign culture on a society; it upholds the constitutions and international human rights instruments that those countries are bound by.

In The Gambia it would not be an assault on that nation's culture to hold President Jammeh accountable for his abhorrent leadership on this issue, filled with such vile and hateful vitriol. Instead, it would be a defence of basic, universal human dignity, a value he so willingly denies to his people through campaigns like Operation Bulldozer.

And returning to Uganda, the epicentre. A nation that seeks to embrace democracy, and the freedom of expression that comes with it, cannot feel at liberty to ban NGOs because they advocate uncomfortable truths.

LGBT advocacy in Africa is a steep, uphill battle. No one is disputing that it will take a great deal of time and effort to win over hearts and minds. However, before that battle can be fought - and it must be fought mostly by members of those societies, they need space to live, and that is where we come in.

The courage it took for those Ugandans to march, to brave their neighbours and their government, cannot be overstated. Across the continent of Africa there are more and more communities struggling to live their lives and have their voices heard as they brave arrest and vilification and we owe it to them to help.

There is nothing culturally insensitive, Western-centric, or neo-colonial if we, as societies and states, stand with them in solidarity and demand that the persecution comes to an end.