Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill

Uganda's parliament is considering a bill that would make life imprisonment the minimum punishment for gay sex and/or same-sex marriage. Under the proposed bill, the accused would face the death penalty if HIV positive, among other conditions. Penalties would also exist for those who "aid and abet" others to commit the "crime" of homosexuality, who do not disclose an act of homosexuality that has been committed, and who promote homosexuality via writings and other media.

The full text of the bill can be found at the Box Turtle Bulletin, which has been covering this issue extensively.

As the Guardian notes, US Christian evangelicals have been instrumental in demonstrating the "necessity" of this bill to Ugandans:

"Both opponents and supporters agree that the impetus for the bill came in March during a seminar in Kampala to 'expose the truth behind homosexuality and the homosexual agenda'.

The main speakers were three US evangelists: Scott Lively, Don Schmierer and Caleb Lee Brundidge....

The seminar was organised by Stephen Langa, a Ugandan electrician turned pastor who runs the Family Life Network in Kampala and has been spreading the message that gays are targeting schoolchildren for 'conversion'. 'They give money to children to recruit schoolmates – once you have two children, the whole school is gone,' he said in an interview. Asked if there had been any court case to prove this was happening, he replied: 'No, that's why this law is needed.'"

You know, whenever anything needs to proclaim that it's the "truth" about a certain issue, a warning light goes off in my head that tells me that what I'm about to read maybe isn't going to be so truthful. Generally, I find that those who tend to write honestly just let their words and arguments speak for themselves. I think an audience tends to appreciate it when a writer doesn't waste time assuring them that they're really truly not lying to them (see also, protesting too much).

Anyway, for some background on the US Christian evangelicals who have played a role in Uganda, Scott Lively is associated with three Southern Poverty Law Center-identified anti-gay hate groups and has written a historical revision of the Holocaust that links homosexuality to the rise of the Nazi Party. The book has been discredited by historians. So, the idea of Scott Lively and company actually influencing a nation's laws is horrific. Thankfully, he has not had the same success here in the US. Today, I want to explore why that might be and, also, explore some trends in the media coverage of this bill.

First, missing from nearly every article I have read about this bill, within the mainstream media and on LGBT blogs alike, is whether the bill applies to males engaging in gay sex or both males and females. Anti-sodomy and anti-homosexuality laws have been far from universal throughout the world. Even in the US, when they were still on the books, some sodomy laws barred only sexual activities between two men whilst others barred sexual activities between any two people of the same sex. Sometimes, they even barred heterosexuals from engaging in certain sexual activities. Today, the anti-sodomy/homosexuality laws of many nations are relics of British imperialism, including Uganda's and India's.

Thus, when an article says that a particular nation has an anti-homosexuality bill pending, it is far from self-evident who that applies to and what acts it prohibits. Various articles about the Uganda bill include quotations from anti-gay leaders discussing how disgusting and unnatural anal sex is and how gay men are supposedly recruiting schoolchildren into the gay "lifestyle." Initially that prompted me to think that this bill might only prohibit sex between two men. But alas, for the record, the bill defines homosexuality as an act in which:

"(a) he penetrates the anus or mouth of another person of the same sex with his penis or any other sexual contraption;

(b) he or she uses any object or sexual contraption to penetrate or stimulate sexual organ of a person of the same sex;

(e) he or she touches another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality."

Here, homosexuality is framed as a behavior rather than an orientation. This construction of homosexuality is quite common among those who adhere to an anti-gay ideology. It helps them convince themselves that homosexuality is a sinful lifestyle "choice" that can be discarded at will. Nonetheless, I bring up the issue of gender because oftentimes lesbians and transgender people are largely invisible in articles and reports about the status of "LGBT people" in the developing world, where strict gender codes are often still in existence. In countries where women are often economically dependent on men, it follows that that gay men would appear to be more numerous and visible than lesbians.

As in many countries where anti-gay ideologies thrive, such as South Africa and Iraq, I found myself wondering what the status of women, lesbians, and gender-non-conforming people is in Uganda compared to that of gay men and heterosexual men. I know that a rather large difference between male and female literacy rates exists in Uganda (76% male, 57% female), which suggests fewer educational opportunities for girls and women and, subsequently, bleaker job prospects. In understanding the oppression of LGBT people, I think we must also always look at the subordination of women as oftentimes, the second-class status of females goes hand in hand with the glorification of hyper-masculinity and manhood. I don't think it's a coincidence that some of the most virulently anti-gay societies often treat "their" women the worst.

Further, on a related note, societies undergoing financial, politically, or other catastrophic turmoil have historically sought and marked deviant outgroups as scapegoats to blame for a wide array of social problems. Knowing this, I wonder what else is going on in Uganda that is contributing to this moral panic with respect to homosexuality. The hatred of LGBT people will not just disappear in Uganda, even if this bill ultimate fails to pass. Eradicating homophobia also means addressing the status of women and other possible injustices.

Two, I hope it goes without saying that I strongly condemn this bill, both on human rights grounds and from a non-violence perspective. I would like to think that even many of those who oppose LGBT rights here in the US would agree with me in condemning this bill. The US, France, and Great Britain have condemned the bill along with the Anglican Church of Canada's Council of General Synod. (42% of Ugandans are Roman Catholic, 36% are Anglican, and 12% are Muslim).

Symbolic head of the Anglican Communion Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Pope Benedict XVI, and Rick Warren have not. Going back to an earlier theme of this post, here we see that male-centric religions that exclude women from the divine often also go hand-in-hand with anti-homosexuality. It is no surprise that such perpetrators of gender hierarchy would condone laws, such as Uganda's, that reinforce the idea that being a man is something that is very different than being a woman and that the "proper" channeling of sexuality cannot be tampered with.

At worst, I think some US anti-gays actually agree with this bill and would like to see something similar in the US. At best, they, like Rick Warren, take a cowardly stance of neutrality with respect to other nation's affairs. Or, that is, some of the affairs of other nations. And yes, I do take particular issue with American Everypastor Rick Warren's moral cowardice here. Warren is very active in Africa yet, backing away with innocent hands in the air, he has said that it is not his "personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations." He says this despite the fact that he has a five-point global plan to help other nations become "purpose-driven" and, presumably, more Christian.

Given his influence and power, his neutrality is very disappointing. Aren't the darkest corners of Hades reserved for those who maintain positions of neutrality during times of moral crisis?

"I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." -Elie Wiesel

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