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Criminalising Homosexuals in Uganda?

Although not unique among African countries, the recent Ugandan attempt to revive the Parlimaentary Anti-Homosexuality Bill is deeply disturbing. [See: ‘Uganda anti-gay bill resurrected in parliament’, The Guardian 8 February 2012]. That it has apparently dropped the death penalty for homosexual acts in favour of life imprisonment should hardly be seen as a ‘step forward’.  In this short piece I would like to challenge a few of the Bill’s presuppositions, and its conclusions.

THE DANGEROUS PRESUPPOSITIONS, THAT HOMOSEXUALITY IS UNSCRIPTURAL, UNNATURAL AND UN-AFRICAN, deserve our attention. With support for it coming as it does from influential evangelical Christian lobbies, with rather half-hearted dissent on details of the law coming from mainstream churches, it is worth examining the theological presuppositions behind the Bill.

First, and most important, it assumes a biblical condemnation and prohibition of homosexuality. Apart from the fact that homosexual acts are referred to at most seven times in the whole Bible, careful scientific analysis (as opposed to a crude fundamentalist reading) of the texts reveal ambiguities that invite caution. Sometimes ambiguity is created by translation from Hebrew and Greek sources – where multiple interpretations of phrases are possible, e.g. reference to a word like porneia. In other cases homosexuality is used as a rhetorical tool to establish the moral supremacy of Judeo-Christianity over against pagan religion and culture, or to ritual purity and dietary custom that no longer applies to contemporary Christianity. The result: the Bible as a moral source/warrant for anti-homosexuality is sorely lacking. [For detailed examination see: L. William Countryman, Dirt, Greed and Sex (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1988); Daniel A Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality (San Francisco: Alamo Square Press 1994); Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1983); Walter Wink (ed.), Homosexuality and Christian Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1999).]

At one point in his letters (Romans 1.26-27) Paul talks of homosexual acts as unnatural, probably referring to normally heterosexual people engaging in an orgy. This leads us to the claim, made by the Catholic Church among others, that same-sex activity goes against natural law understood in a physicalist sense – that we should conform to what God has written into nature itself. However natural law opponents of same-sex activity fall into a trap of their own making – for homosexual activity is in fact part of nature. Zoological studies, including higher primates closest in evolution to homo sapiens, show that in hundreds of species a minority of each species are same-oriented in their choice of sexual partners. We may thus infer: homosexual orientation and activity is part of the natural world.  [See: Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (New York: St Martin’s Press 1999); Joan Roughgarden, Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People (Berkley: University of California Press 2004).]

Third, let us look at the claim that it is un-African. While there is certainly prejudice in Africa against homosexuals and homosexual acts, more so perhaps than in any other continent, it is rhetorically excessive to say that it is un-African. Empirical evidence of homosexuals and same-sex partnerships before, during and after colonialism refutes the claim that this was a Western ‘perversion’ imported by the European oppressor.  [See Marc Epprecht, Hungochani: A History of Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa (New York: St Martin’s Press 2004); E.E. Evans-Pritchard, “Sexual inversion [sic] among the Azande”, American Anthropologist 72 (6), 1970, 1428-1434; Stephen Miles & Will Roscoe (eds.), Boy Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities (New York: St Martin’s Press 1998).]  Moreover there may even be evidence of greater toleration of non-mainstream  sexualities before colonialism; whatever the case, it is perhaps ironic that many existing anti-homosexual laws in Africa are themselves colonial laws reflecting fears and prejudices of British, French and other European powers.

THE POLITICAL CONCLUSION, THAT HOMOSEXUAL ACTIVITY IS CRIMINAL AND SHOULD BE PUNISHED BY LAW, also does not stand up to sound moral reasoning.  Sexuality reflects aspects of the deepest parts of a person’s self – and to criminalise any sexual orientation is to criminalise a person. This moves way beyond the (scientifically hard to justify) claim that homosexuality is inherently disordered or indeed that same-sex activity is morally wrong. Many people hold that some forms and contexts of heterosexual sex are also wrong – but none would advocate life imprisonment for using a condom or death for premarital sex.  Given that the claims that homosexuality is unnatural is at best tenuous, why should a special case be made?  Quite evidently, it can’t.

Why then the big fuss? Moral panics often driven by the interests of politicians and power-mongers have been a common means of African social control: look only to the ‘Black Peril’ rhetoric of white colonial Africa in the early 20th century. Such myths were used to draft repressive laws, ideological fantasies to separate black people and their God-given human rights.

In a democratic society, prohibitive laws, particularly those carrying harsh prison sentences, must exist to protect citizens from great evils that can do great harm. They must rightly address sexual crimes like harassment, child abuse, assault and rape – no matter the sexual orientation of the perpetrators or victims. But note: it is particularly actions, intentions and consequences with specific contexts that make such activity criminal. To criminalise a class of people and a way of life invokes practices – xenophobia, apartheid, genocide – that Africa should best forget!