Just as the dust settles on the recently passed Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda, I feel I have had enough time to pass on my reflections on the issue. Incidentally, I meant to address this issue months ago when the talk got hot around it but I had deferred it then. I thought that this was an issue that would soon be off our shelves. However, my prediction was wrong because as it has come to prove, we have on our hands a very big issue.
To begin with, before I probably get lost in the entire issue, my view is that homosexuality is a cultural, behavioural or social practice that has been in existence for a long time, but has been treated differently in different corners of the world. It has mostly be scorned all over the world and seen as ‘unnatural’, ‘evil’ and such other words that have shown it as a sexual perversion. Gays or homosexuals therefore have lived closeted for most of the time and had to go through reformation programs set by people who attempted to change their sexual orientation to heterosexuality.
Drawing down to Africa and to Uganda in particular, homosexuality has always been viewed as a despicable behaviour, and our people shunned gay people as if they were lepers. The cultural norm of our people is that if something is ‘shameful’ then you do not talk about it publically (hang your dirty linen for all to see). This is one reason why homosexuals found it difficult to come out openly about their sexual identity. Actually, gay people often lived bi-lives where they engaged in heterosexual relationships to attain public acceptance. Homosexuality in my culture was just like many socially absurd trends such as rape, defilement or even mental instability and that is how our people treated it.
If you take time to study the ways of African people, you will find out that sex is a topic that has been handled conservatively. Sex has some sanctity to it among our people, and it is not something that was openly talked about. For example traditionally, girls would get their sex education from sengas (aunts) who taught them and prepared them for marriage while the kojjas (uncles) often taught the boys. This special knowledge was always reserved for late adolescents. In our languages, we had code names for many of the elements related to sex. The vagina and penis were never openly called that but rather given allusions which the adults often understood. In Luganda, my native language, we called it akasolo literally meaning an animal, and for one to mention the real name of the say, vagina,Â emana, that would literally be taken as an insult! In fact, it took me great courage to write that!
How does our African treatment of sex have an effect on the African view to homosexuality? Well, if conventional sex was treated with such conservativeness, imagine the degree that would be applied to the “unnatural sex”. It was unheard of! One cannot openly come out and say they have erotic feelings for, or have sex with another man or woman. One would literally be declared insane!! So if you had such a taste that differs from the conventional type, you had to keep it to yourself to avoid public damnation.
It is at this point that I will first take on our President who signed the famous Bill into Law. Early in 1986 when he had just taken over the office, we had a new epidemic to deal with. Our people called HIV/AIDS, ‘slim’ because of the way it would slim those suffering from it. The biggest reason we were dying from AIDS/HIV was because of the above conservative African view of sex. This was a disease spread mainly through sexual behaviour that included multiple sex relations with infected and non-infected people. It was not discussed openly, and it was difficult for us to tell our children about it because of that very reason. But when President Museveni brought a fundamental change to us, it involved addressing this scourge which was killing us silently. He beckoned the nation to openly talk about sex and AIDS as a disease that was being propagated through unsafe sexual behaviour. It was not easy getting people to open up and overcome the stigma towards those who suffered from HIV/AIDS — they were treated as outcasts and as a shame to our society. This is because they told us that each of us could be a victim or even our loved ones. We also learnt that there were various ways in which the virus could be spread other than through engaging in unprotected sex. The nation opened up and talked about the issue and hence the reasons why today, we rank high among countries that have gone a long way in preventing and fighting the spread of the virus. Now my question is could homosexuality be another issue similar to what we had with the onset of AIDS? That if we opened up our mind as a nation, we could address more justifiably and rationally?
That brings me to my own stand on the topic. The biggest challenge we have in dealing with this issue are two groups of extremes that are misleading many in understanding or even misunderstanding homosexuality and how to deal with it. They are- the group radically for gay rights at whatever cost, and the group radically against gay rights at whatever cost. I agree that we must pursue our rights and freedoms at whatever cost but in this particular case, I feel we have people who want to ‘fly a car.’
Starting with the group that is radically against gay rights at whatever cost, I must say that its overall characteristic is that they will not take in any debate, logic or argument that supports homosexuality. For them, it is an evil, an unnatural and a dirty practice that does not even deserve any audience. They will hang anyone who comes out to defend gay rights and will go ahead to label all those who defend the practice to be gay themselves! This obsession with hatred for gays and homosexuality has denied us a great debate, and has deprived us of studying a practice that has been with humanity for a period of time. Actually, I am saddened by the overlying generalizations that are propagated on homosexuality. For instance, it has been said that the gay people enjoy sex through penetration of the anus and many of my friends that I know have not done an extensive research but gone ahead to believe what they hear and read. This view has been propagated as true. They therefore view gays as dirty people who live at health risk because their anuses continuously get infringed on. I doubt if they know that anal sex is also prevalent in heterosexual relationships. The other overall generalization about homosexuality, especially in my own society, is that it is a habit that is learned and therefore mostly done by individuals for “mercenary” reasons, as President Museveni put it. They believe that there are groups primarily funding the spread of the practice (some of them do exist) and therefore look at it as a cultural imperialism from the West. In Uganda, we have very many of us belonging to this particular school of thought.
The second group is the one that is extremely radical for gay rights. Just like the prior group, these people are angered and infuriated that people just can’t tolerate others. They are so infuriated with the intolerance that unfortunately it has bred fanaticism on their part. They in turn go ahead and threaten, slap sanctions, and hurl insults at the other group. I am afraid this is the path that Sweden, Netherlands, Canada and other governments that have slapped sanctions on Uganda for its legislation are taking. This has already supported the view endorsed by the former group, that the West is deliberately encouraging homosexuality. Now as Africans, we have been victims of imperialism for many years and any chance to show indignation to the West will be welcomed by many of our people, however senseless it is. This group has also shown and opened up a debate on what rights are. To some people, it is a human right to accommodate people regardless of their sexual orientation, but the other group also argues that it is their right to refuse practices they feel they do not want, and to slap sanctions on them is to deny them their rights and freedoms. In the end, we have a stalemate on our hands.
What is the way forward now? In Uganda, we have the Anti-Homosexuality Act enacted and it has been said it will give a sentence of life imprisonment to anyone found engaging in homosexuality or anyone who knows one engaging in the act but omits to report them to the law makers. Has there been no legislation against homosexuality in Uganda? Of course not- the Penal Code Act cap.120 of Uganda outlaws homosexuality and formerly imposes 14 years of prison sentence to a person guilty of homosexuality. This Law was enacted during the colonial days by our British colonial masters. I would factually be right if I said that they introduced the issue of Legislation against homosexuality in our society, as you know, laws were not written in Uganda prior to the coming of the colonialist in Uganda and in Africa. Where have these ardent gay rights activists been all this while? Why did Sweden, Netherlands, Canada continue giving aid to Uganda all these years when we had the law in place? The other issue that many are using as an excuse to suppress rights of gay people is that after all, the same nations compelling us not suppress these rights also have legislations in their lands treating gay people in the same way hence they have no moral authority to speak on the issue.
As a Ugandan, I am particularly sure that the new law just as the old cannot eliminate gay people in our society for they have been here and will continue being here. The law cannot change the attitudes that are deep rooted in our cultures. In fact even in countries where homosexuality has been legalized, societies still look down on those who are gay.
Legislation therefore is not the way to go if we need to address the issue of suppressed homosexuality. We need to have bon fide discussions and debates free of prejudices of any kind. We need to understand before we condemn, and that should apply to both sides of the debate. Like it was in the early 90s, when President Museveni opened up the discussion on HIV/AIDS, we need an honest discussion on this issue in Uganda; people need to know that any of us could be on either side of the debate if say our child or loved one were the gay one for whatever reason- “mercenary” or natural. Our brothers and sisters in the West especially should be patient with us as we try to understand and seek to deal with this issue. Slapping economic sanction or any other form of restriction affects even those of us who stand at cross roads, unsure of which school of thought to follow. Radicalism for or against homosexuality is not helping us because it has bred negative energy which has made it hard for us to establish common ground. So yes, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill could be a bad start to the journey in Uganda to understand and deal with homosexuality, but it is a start anyway from which we can develop a solution that preserves life other than one that seeks to destroy it; sanctity of life is universal after all.
As I pen off, I would love to tell those who are not aware that our Ugandan Legislators are on a spree of drafting and enacting new laws. Recently the Anti-Pornography Bill was passed and many people down here labelled it as the “Mini skirt” Bill because it was seen as one that was meant to stop our beautiful women from showcasing what was naturally bestowed unto them. As it turned out, that was not the case. We also have a Patriotism Bill in the offing which a particular Member of Parliament feels should be put in place to make us Ugandans more patriotic. This is the course that our Legislations are taking. Does the solution lie there? You be the judge!