Conversations with Ugandans about Criminalization of Gays
Can Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill start a new conversation?
By Melanie Nathan, January 21, 2013.
I have been writing about Uganda since 2009, after the introduction of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. In all these years I have witnessed a conversation that has seemed only capable of extreme divisiveness. Discussions about homosexuality and Africa have taken place in all realms of media and for me the most revealing and informative appear through the posts and comments on non-mainstream BLOGS, and through the articles and comments on Uganda’s media sites. The language, the rhetoric, and tone, a concomitant of ignorance and propaganda, is so profoundly hateful, that is has been difficult to hold reasonable conversations between what has become two sides – the one side suggesting that homosexuality is a choice and ‘un-African’ or ‘un-Christian’ and the other arguing that homosexuality is a natural born orientation and that all have the human right to be who they are.
The Anti-homosexuality Bill, which became known as “The Kill the gays Bill” has been languishing in the Ugandan parliament through a few re-introductions since 2009 and came closest to passage this past December, after speaker of the Ugandan Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga promised its passage as a Christmas gift to Uganda, but failed to deliver; it could now be debated early in February 2013, when Parliament reconvenes. And while the persecution of gays in that country seems to have heated up on some levels, for the first time I sense a slight, ever so slight, shift in the conversation, that if ramped up, may serve to change the tide.
I have continued to engage in my comments on Uganda’s media, hoping that I can provide some balance to what has been so one sided. I have been told I am wasting my time. Indeed I have become the target of many hateful e-mails, yet many Ugandans have also been polite and willing to try and hear another side. It is when I receive e-mails like this one copied below, I realize that we in the west too have a big part to play in our understanding. If we are going to offer our side of the issues that arise, as hard as it is to discuss and debate in a milieu of hate, we must rise above it to also open up to understanding the other side.
I recently received this e-mail from a reader which I found moving and informative:
“Nathan, Thanks for the good work that you are doing to engage Ugandans on the monitor.co.ug online edition, particularly your comments on the Victoria University issue, with the University of Buckingham, regarding the pending Anti-Homosexuality bill.
You have read the comments or contributions of many of the Ugandans who have had an input on that story. Most of it comes from a point of ignorance and hate for the unknown. Ignorance because issue of sexuality are not publicly discussed in Uganda for it is considered a “taboo” by most of the tribes here. Ugandans would rather have sex than talk about it.
Secondly, homosexuality being part of sex is part of the hidden side of Africa. Unfortunately for us in Uganda, most of the knowledge we knew/know about our cultures was passed on through stories by grandparents to their grand children. The parents abandoned the responsibility to our grand parent. Unfortunately for me, neither my parents nor my grandparents talked to me about sex and sexuality. As you can imagine, no grandparent would start telling how there was a gay relative. Nothing was written until the 1930 – 40s when schools were taken seriously in some parts of Uganda. Even then, there is no documented evidence that someone thought it important to write down anything to pass on to the coming generation. However, neighbours and other people in society were aware of the homosexuality in Uganda. For now many would rather bury their heads in the ground and pretend that it does not and has never existed in Uganda prior to colonisation.
The majority of parents particularly the unschooled and those that dropped out of primary school, find it hard to talk about sex to their children. Remember that the majority of Uganda’s current population of 34 million stay in the rural areas or villages. Around 2.3 million stay in and around the “city and towns” or are urbanised. It is the minority of parents who stay in the urban areas that have taken it on to talk to their children about sexuality. This could be close to 2% of the population. The remaining population is leaving it to government to do this in school and health centres. However, sex education is not programmed anywhere on the school curriculum, instead children are taught the reproductive system, a topic in the subject of biology. The Ganda tribe had a practice that the paternal aunt talks to her niece about sexuality (my father’s sister talks to my sister) and the maternal uncle talks to his nephew (my mother’s brother talks to me) about sexuality. However, due to breakdown in the family structure, a very low percentage of the Ganda tribe earnestly practice it.
So, how do Ugandans know about homosexuality and why all the hate? Some of it is from hearsay, falsehoods and a good part of it is from Christianity and Islam. The only information that the two dominant religions passes on is that sexual intercourse is strictly for married adults and that homosexuality is an abomination and a sin using quotations from the Koran and the bible. As you are aware, Ugandans, like their other fellow Africans are notoriously religious. A good percentage of Ugandans are nominal Christians and another percentage Muslims. We tend to think that we have to believe in something, be it our African gods in backyard shrines, on mountains, trees or some imported religion, name it, we “believe” it. In my opinion, this phenomenon of religion is driven by ignorance and poverty.
Having written that, does not mean that Ugandans believe in everything they read from the bible and the Koran, or that they follow to the letter all the teachings from these “holy” books. No, they pick and choose what to believe in and when to do so. There are reason why the homosexuality issue has drawn a lot of attention to cement the already underlying homophobia and hate.
- Government has not demonstrated the political will to fight corruption which has left the people seriously disappointed. The 9th parliament has not delivered on a number of bills to the disappointment of the electorate. The passing of the “Anti-homosexuality bill” is seen as an opportunity for parliament to reclaim the confidence of the majority Christian and Muslim electorate.
- It is further pursued as a way of getting back to government which had not “clearly shown its position” on the bill.
- There is a thinking that passing the anti-homosexuality bill will be punishing the western world for its failure to press the Uganda government on issue of corruption and bad governance. “Why have they not put sanctions when government lets corrupt official free, or when law enforcement is brutalising peaceful demonstration”? “Instead they give government more money”. “Why would passing the Anti-homosexuality bill come with sanctions while all the above has happened under the watch of western diplomats with not a word or sanction”?
- “Western imperialism” out of ignorance, is cited as the reason to hate gay people. The propaganda is that homosexuality is a “white man’s disease” being exported to Africa from the western world. Ugandans should therefore condemn and refuse it at all cost.
On the whole, Ugandans choose to hate homosexuality, for there is a lot unknown about it, no serious informed debate on this taboo subject and no literature about it in libraries. However, the timing has a lot to do with the intensity of the homophobia. You can be surprised when you go to some of the 21st century Ugandan universities and find next to nothing on the subject of sex orientation.
In that vacuum, the Pentecostal churches have taken it on themselves to preach against homosexuality for not only is it a sin and an abomination but “a white man’s trick to depopulate beautiful Africa” so that they can come and take it over after every black male is turned homosexual. Homosexuality in this line of thinking means no procreation as such the whole black race is wiped out. They have gone further than that by using homosexuality to slander each other to win followers. If a pastor is labelled a “homosexual”, his church is abandoned by the followers.
As an educated, informed and traveled gay person, I find it difficult to help my fellow Ugandan concerning this issue. What do I do and where do I start informing people who do not want to listen in the first place and secondly, people who are not willing to reason with a level head?
I am grateful that you are engaging and contributing to the debate even when abusive language and derogatory remarks is all that you are getting. As you have already noted, Ugandans love to make a contribution on anything and everything even when we are not informed at all. It is a pity but with free expression and time, what can I say?
Mweezi M” (Note: I invited this reader to write a post for my blog to be published soon.)
It is very difficult to have the discussion when the order of the day has been to throw hurls and insults and to use derogatory language in the discussion such as Ssempa and Muhame “homos” and “bum driller” reference. This perverse language found its way into Ugandan news media, Ugandan Churches and its has offended the world.
It is also difficult to have the discussion when Uganda’s media dominates with one sided assumptions that accept the rhetoric as fact. The West has jumped to the defense of the Ugandan community because we see the lies and we have taken responsibility for the involvement of our own Evangelicals in inciting anti-gay sentiment through conspiracies in Uganda to rid it of gays, as if a launching pad for a final solution around the world.
However there is hope that the discussion could turn the corner. It seems that finally Ugandans are starting to speak in more inviting tones, such as Patience Akumu in an article in the Observer where she does not use the usual derogatory language we hae only ever seen in Ugandan media , offering an opportunity for real discussion.
Then there is Andrew Mwena, another journalist who has written, debated and tweeted from a position of trying to promote understanding of homosexuality, one of the first Ugandans (other than Bishop Christopher Senyonjo) who is not gay, to come out and speak in an educated and hence positive fashion. http://actup.org/news/uganda-anti-homosexuality-bill-where-is-our-honesty-andrew-mwenda/ and (http://andrewmwendasblog.blogspot.com/2013/01/chris-mubirus-inadvertent-gay-allies.html)
It is my hope that more Ugandans will pick up on this and start to express themselves in a way that invites understanding from us here in the West. Indeed we ought to respect your sovereignty, however for as long as Hilton Hotels, Google, Facebook, and Universities connect us as a global people, we must have this conversation and we must influence each others understanding. It hurts as much when I see comments from the West that are hateful toward Ugandans for the views on homosexuality. Those comments equally show lack of understanding. There is never a defense to hate no matter which side it comes from, even from those who are the oppressed. I hope that more Ugandans will continue to open the door to this topic in an informed and positive way and I hope that Westerners will continue to fight for oppressed people with less vitriol and a better sense of the differences that dominate our respective societies.
By Melanie Nathan
Homosexuality: Is it a normal or sick lifestyle?: via Uganda Press: By Timothy Kalyegira
Posted Sunday, January 20 2013 at 02:00
“Anti-gay activists like Mr Bahati and Pastor Martin Ssempa (especially Ssempa) have sometimes been a little too abrasive and insensitive in their campaign against homosexual activity in Uganda.
However, their controversial statements aside, the accumulated scientific research and psychiatric studies over the last 100 years (including those carried out in the more promiscuous 1960s decade) have consistently pointed to the fact that the phenomenon of homosexuality from a scientific and not even religious point of view is at best a result of severe developmental problems.
Even homosexuals themselves recognise this, their current defiance and “gay pride”, notwithstanding. See – http://www.monitor.co.ug/Magazines/ThoughtIdeas/Homosexuality–Is-it-a-normal-or-sick-lifestyle-/-/689844/1669834/-/fb7v3u/-/index.html
NO WAY TO HAVE A DISCUSSION FROM EITHER SIDE