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The strange geometry of an anti-gay rumpus

December 17, 2009 - 9:00am -- Nick Young

Uganda is making global headlines again, this time with a proposed law to execute citizens found guilty of ‘aggravated homosexuality.’ Appended below is an op-ed that I contributed to a local newspaper, The Monitor, on the broader gender implications. (This seemed the most useful issue to raise with a Ugandan readership, and the editor I spoke to felt that the ‘cultural’ and ‘religious’ aspects of the subject had already received enough attention.) Before getting to that, though, it is worth reflecting on the comedy of errors that led up to this and which now, tragically, leaves Uganda internationally branded once again as a place of crackpot dictators and murderous Christian loonies.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill was tabled by David Bahati, a member of the ruling party. At first it looked like a populist manoeuvre to divert attention from the clash between central government and the kingdom of Buganda.

The Bill is ‘populist’ in that Uganda is quite uniformly homophobic: far more so, certainly, than the 1960s Britain that I grew up in, which was by no means gaily liberated, but in which it was a nod-and-wink open secret that some literary and theatrical celebrities were, ‘you know . . .’ Yet gay men were still liable to imprisonment in the UK until 1967, without anyone complaining that this was contrary to the UN Declaration on Human Rights. Patrick Devlin, a High Court judge, famously asserted the principles that sexual morality should be determined by what offended ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’ and that man-on-the-bus attitudes should be legally enforced lest the seamless moral fabric of society be torn asunder. (The Enforcement of Morals, OUP, 1965)

Uganda, meanwhile, upon independence in 1962 inherited not only double-decker London omnibuses—now, alas, gone—but also colonial-era anti-gay laws, alas still in force, that made same-sex liaisons punishable by up to life imprisonment.

Bahati, a Devlin reincarnate, can point out that Kampalans crammed into today’s minibus ‘taxis’ are overwhelmingly offended by gay and lesbian relationships and would likely agree that these are ‘unAfrican,’ a manifestation of purely ‘Western’ decadence. (Which is not to say that they would necessarily agree with such violent ‘remedies.’)

The cultural claim is of course muddle-headed. Even if one resists growing scientific evidence of sexual preference as being at least in part biologically determined, there is ample historical evidence of same-sex practices enduring across the millennia in most parts of the world, including Asia, which is hardly Western. Colonisation erased much of Africa’s history but colonial-era ethnographies (which do need to be treated with caution) offer fragmentary evidence of same-sex relationships in many pre-colonial African societies too.

Yet there are good reasons why this should have been strictly closeted. Here, for example, is a London School of Oriental and African Studies historian, Richard Reid, laying out what he regards as preliminaries to understanding African history:

“. . . the continent remained underpopulated until the second half of the twentieth century, and thus a host of states and societies were concerned first and foremost with the maximisation of numbers. As a result, African ideologies were frequently centred around the celebration of fertility . . . Fertility and reproductive capacity were sought through polygamy; control of people—frequently through the practice of slavery, for example—was more significant as a feature of social organization than control of land, which was plentiful . . . Thus, for example, West African history is characterized by frequently violent competition for women, because women underpinned male status, worked land, and produced children who would do likewise. Across the continent more generally, intergenerational conflict among men over women was common.” (A History of Modern Africa: 1800 to the Present, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009 p. 1)

Although no living culture is permanently fixed—especially when fractured by overwhelming external force—there is some clue here as to why Africa should retain such strong taboos against homosexuality, alongside de facto residual habits of polygamy; and why, too, one of the most frequent objections to same-sex love is its supposed threat to family and childbearing.

It is also the case that, especially in times of rapid social change, people are inclined to blame outside influence for what they see as social ills. A man who was telling me the other day about his own problems in finding a marriage partner complained that “Ugandans are so influenced nowadays by other cultures. Girls only want to marry for money, not for love.” (I wasn’t rude enough to ask exactly when Ugandan girls had been free to marry only “for love.”) Western Europeans, likewise, quite routinely blame things they don’t like in their own societies upon creeping ‘Americanisation.’ In the same vein, it is noteworthy that Samuel Kasule (who I guess to be Ugandan), contributing to a 1995 web forum of academic historians, acknowledges pre-colonial gay sex in the kingdom of Buganda but attributes it to the influence of ‘Arab’ traders from the coast.

For Christ’s sake

Very many Ugandans now justify homophobia on the grounds that gay and lesbian relationships are ‘unChristian.’ It is barely necessary to point out that this is the legacy of British and French missionaries. Whilst many (but by no means all) Western Christians have since come to interpret their religion in a new way, African churches, on the whole, stick more closely to colonial-era readings of scripture.

This is complicated by a Western backlash against human rights secularism and liberal Christianity. Conservative Christian communities in the West, especially in America, are keen to roll back a sexual revolution they regard with extreme distaste. (Nowhere is this better ‘interrogated’ than in Sacha Baron Cohen’s gruellingly tasteless film, ‘Bruno,’ which includes duplicitously ‘real’ footage of an incensed American mob raising their right arms in salute and chanting ‘Straight Pride!’ in a ‘Sieg Heil!’ sound-alike.)

Conservative Western Christians see Africans as potential allies in their crusade, and barely a plane lands at Entebbe without bringing in a few evangelical missionaries from the likes of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. (As I have noted before, no less a person than Uganda’s ‘first lady,’ Janet Museveni, has shared platforms with Warren.) Western missionaries are still so thick on the ground in Uganda that I am often mistaken for one, and they are welcomed with characteristic warmth. Some hotels offer them discounts. If this seems unfortunate, it is worth recalling that droves of more liberal and, in most cases, more secular Westerners have also criss-crossed the continent under the banners of various international NGOs.

So, in short, far from asserting Uganda’s cultural uniqueness and independence, the Bahati Bill is irretrievably embroiled in the West’s ideological and religious conflicts. Thus it was when missionaries first came to enlist Uganda in the religious and imperial struggles that divided Europe; thus it was in the Cold War. Plus ça change, plus ça reste même. And no wonder that this should stimulate countervailing, if frequently inchoate, objections to ‘neocolonial’ interference.

Democracy, Swedes, Swiss and Chinese

The ruling party seems seriously to have underestimated the international furore the Bill would provoke, with everyone from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Hillary Clinton and Rick Warren lining up to condemn it. What, to repeat, at first looked like a diversionary tactic has turned into a global PR disaster that reflects badly on the government of Uganda’s political judgment.

The rumpus has, however, put international aid donors, who supply more than a third of Ugandan government revenues, in a delicate position. Supporting ‘good governance’ has been a major thrust of donor aid to Africa in recent years. Donors don’t want to be seen as interfering in democratic processes they have been at pains to encourage—and, however much they may dislike the Bill, it has emerged from a democratic process.

So too did Switzerland’s recent plebiscite on minarets, which resulted in an overwhelming vote to discriminate against its Muslim minority. Even though the Swiss don’t propose to execute their Muslims, theirs is a lurch towards intolerance that is of much greater global import than the Bahati Bill. It also reminds us of the awkward fact that democracy does not necessarily deliver tolerance and liberality. This did not trouble Devlin (and for that reason some still hail him as model democrat) but it does now trouble Western liberals.

Whatever its procedural credentials the anti-gay Bill was bound to generate international outcry and donor governments were bound to object. This initially drew a nationalist response in Uganda, with ministers vowing that they would not give way to foreign pressure. Sweden, in particular, has been vilified in the local press for a reported pledge to suspend aid if the proposed measures are enacted.

If the government were serious about sticking to its guns it could, just about, tell Western donors to piss off and borrow more money in private capital markets—which it is now better placed to do as the country’s credit rating has improved on the expectation of future oil revenues—at the same time as embracing the Chinese more warmly.

China recently pledged to build and operate an Entebbe-Kampala highway and is interested in Uganda’s (modest) oil reserves. President Yoweri Museveni has, according to a Bloomberg report, also asked for Chinese help in damming the Nile. And the Chinese are unlikely to preach about gay rights, notwithstanding the sexual liberalisation going on back home in their own country. (A liberalisation, it is worth noting, that has not been complicated by theology.)

But facing down Western donors would require real determination and seems highly unlikely, especially in a pre-election period. Rather, with no sign of the overseas chorus of disapproval abating, the government seems to be looking for damage limitation measures. The pro-government New Vision newspaper, for example, has now resorted to a news ‘grey out,’ hoping to damp down the story by restricting its own reporting to parliamentary debate on the Bill.

Ugandan opposition politicians, who normally seize all opportunities to attack their government, have also been interestingly silent. A coalition of human-rights oriented NGOs did, however, publish a statement condemning the Bill in local newspapers. As the international damage has become more evident, opposition papers have given space to critiques of the Bill and one, The Independent, has editorialised against it. It would be nice to read this as evidence of growing pro-gay sentiment in Uganda, but it may be more prudent to read it as, at least in part, a judicious display of political correctness.

The likeliest outcome, at this writing, is that the ruling party will now distance itself from Bahati (as his Christian associates in the United States have already done.) Bahati’s political career is probably over, poor chap. The Bill will probably get lost in parliamentary procedures, without the government losing face (at home, anyway) by bowing too openly to ‘neo-colonial’ pressure. But homophobic Ugandans will still feel pushed around again by supercilious bazungu.

Ah well. Below, for what it’s worth, is my Monitor piece, published on December 14.

Nick Young
Kampala, December 17 2009

How the Bahati Bill hurts Ugandan women

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that gay sex is completely alien both to Ugandan culture and to the versions of Christianity that Ugandans espouse. Why bother, then, to legislate against it? Is it necessary to ban people, on pain of death, from doing what is culturally and religiously alien to them?

One good reason why parliament should not spend time and public funds on this is that the brouhaha surrounding the Bahati Bill diverts attention from a real social malaise: the high prevalence of heterosexual violence against women and children.

Ugandan media often cite studies showing that 40 per cent of Ugandan women have experienced sexual violence and one in four report rape as their first sexual encounter. Last year, according to the African Network for Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect, 4,124 cases of ‘defilement’ (rape of children) were taken to court in Uganda. It is likely that many more occurred but were not reported.

ANPPCAN does not disaggregate their data by gender. (They should.) It is a safe bet, though, that child rape is overwhelmingly perpetrated by heterosexual men against girl children.

Few Ugandans would defend this catalogue of violence on the grounds that it is culturally indigenous or religiously ordained. Indeed, Uganda’s Constitution provides for gender equality and the NRM government has been pro-active in measures to promote it. Laws banning domestic violence and female genital mutilation have just been passed.

But putting laws in place is one thing, enforcing them another. ANPPCAN reports that the courts managed last year to convict a mere 3.8% of child rape cases. Existing systems seem inadequate even to prevent that other scourge—ritual child sacrifice—on which Ugandan media frequently report. Does it make sense in this context to divert limited police and judicial resources to a witch hunt against gays despite all the evidence that it is not them, but hetero men, who bring so much suffering to Ugandan women and families?

It is worth noting that rapists do not generally wear condoms. Given Uganda’s high incidence of rape and strong taboos on homosexuality it can be inferred that heterosexual rapists have been much more important HIV vectors than gay men.

Anathematising homosexuality in fact tends to legitimate male heterosexual aggression. How so? Simply, because it creates strong narratives of heterosexual entitlement and virility: all those guys determined to show that they are ‘real’ men—and egged on by the likes of Red Pepper’s noxious ‘Hyena’ column which so freely celebrates predatory male heterosexuality.

Sexual violence apart, Ugandan women, especially in rural areas, suffer deplorable health services. The country’s maternal mortality rate, at 435 deaths per 100,000 births, is one of the highest in the world. This is an aggregate figure: it is even higher in the poorest rural areas, where most women give birth at home without qualified help.

According to aid agencies, 62 per cent of Uganda’s clinics lack basic medicines and 65 percent of health worker posts remain unfilled. Women suffer most from these gross service gaps because it is they who assume the main responsibility for family care and they who are generally last in the queue for medical attention when they need it for themselves.

And what if international donors, who supply more than one third of Ugandan government revenues, cut aid in response to the outcry over the Bahati Bill from their own citizens?

It is understandable that Ugandans should see this as bullying, a new form of cultural imperialism; and it is fair to point out that the West’s human rights halo is not looking so shiny after Switzerland’s overwhelming vote to restrict the religious freedoms of their minority Islamic population.

But donor governments are under real pressure from their own electorates and may be forced to trim aid that, in many cases, is tied precisely to targets such as improving health services.

Who would be the losers here? Overwhelmingly, Ugandan women.