29 December 2009

Rwanda: Gay Rights - When Perversion Turned to Orientation


Kigali — The New Times reported on Wednesday December 23 that the parliamentary committe on poitical affairs had recommeneded the removal of homosexuality from the penal code.

One would have expected an avalanche of protests from anti-gay groups. None has come. The proposal will probably go without much public notice and debate. The penal code will be amended and homosexuality will be decriminalised.

It is a courageous step seeing that homosexuality is an emotive issue that generates some of the most heated, divisive and extreme positions.

One needs to look across the border to Uganda to see how divisive the issue can be, or at what is happening in the Anglican church.

In Uganda, parliament is debating a bill that would, in certain respects, turn homosexuality into a capital offence. As expected, this has raised a lot of noise. It has been headline news on BBC and CNN and other major western media. Politicians and other western leaders have been quick to denounce the bill as a violation of human rights.

On the opposite side, the evangelical churches have been the most enthusiastic supporters of the bill. They have shouted themselves hoarse against western support for gays.

The irony, though, is that some of the pastors of these churches have been accused of sexual abuse of their young charges.

Ordinary people seem not to be terribly concerned.

The Anglican church has been facing a major split over the decision by some dioceses in the United States of America to ordain openly gay bishops. Our own Anglican bishops have taken a tough position on the question of gay clergy.

Some of them have even been got dioceses in the United States, where anti-gay sentiments are still strong , to administer.

Will they, and others like them, be vocal opponents of the penal code amendment in Rwanda? It is unlikely. There are several reasons for this.

The debate about gays and their rights is not high on the agenda of topics of public concern and is not, in any case, likely to excite much public discussion.

There are, of course, some groups which have an ideological or doctrinal position on homosexuality. These are expeceted to take a stance, but probably will not.

The first of these is the Catholic church. It would be expected to protest the proposed amendment to the penal code.

I think they will still protest, but their protests will be muted, seeing that the church has been rocked by revelations of sexual abuse of children by the clergy in such countries like the United States and the staunchly catholic Ireland.

They are likely to take to heart the biblical injunction of not throwing the first stone.

The evangelicals and pentecostals will shout as they are wont to even without a controversial subject. It will be no more than that. Religious zealots of every persuasion will howl about perverting God's plan.

They will go on with a great deal of self-righteous indignation about subversion of the natural order by a few individuals.

Other groups might mouth their opposition, but in private. Cultural purists, for instance, still denounce homosexuality as an undesirable alien influence from decadent societies, places where people have lost their moral moorings.

They will go no further than private denunciation.

Human rights groups and liberals will cheer and demand more, arguing that the law does not go far enough.

The rest will look on bemused at so much ado about nothing.

And Rwandan society being what it is, nothing will change. Homosexuals will remain in the closet where they have always been whether the law is amended or not and life will go on.

However, the strongest reason for lack of opposition to the recommenadtion to amend the penal code lies in the manner in which the committee has handled the matter.

The members of parliament are treating it as purely a legal issue. They have carefully avoided handling it from a moral perspective. They have thus denied cultural, religious and assorted groups the moral ammunition with which to shoot down the amendment.

The committee has also been careful in the way they have explained the reason for the amendment. They have couched the reason for their recommendation in the language of United Nations resolutions.

The reasons they gave for proposing that the law be amended was that we had to conform to UN conventions on people's and civil rights.

They are aware of the divisive nature of the subject and therefore sought to shift responsibility to the UN.

The shift in attitudes to homosexuality, which the UN conventions convey, is reflected in the change of language regarding the subject.

When the moralists still ruled, homosexuality was called sexual perversion. Now that the rights groups have a big say, it is called sexual orientation. But the name change and associated attitude shift will not be decisive here.

The amendment will pass without much opposition.

It will make our penal code one of the most enlightened in the region. It will not be for the first time either. Rwanda has gone against the regional current before.

A few years ago, you remember, we removed the death penalty from the statute books. What were then regarded as capital offences have not increased because of that.

The same will probably hold for the proposal to remove homosexuality from the penal code.

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