Doreen Lwanga describes a debate with Ugandan members of parliament in which many of the myths around homosexuality were evident. 'Gays are humans and as such, deserving of humane recognition and respect,' she writes.
It is the expectation in every culture that a guest shows appreciation for the hospitality given, and when presented with an opportunity returns the favour. Nobody expects a guest to abuse or misuse kindness, expect perhaps when that guest has long ears to the ground.
So, I am about to confront the hospitality extended to me by the Parliament Planning and Development Coordination Office to observe the induction seminar of Uganda's ninth Parliament on 20-24 June 2011 at Imperial Royale Hotel in Kampala. No harm is intended on my part, as I seek to continue the debate on gay rights in Uganda by crusaders out to criminalise homosexuality, including members of parliament.
The case under debate herein is Uganda Parliament versus Sylvia Tamale. On Friday, 24 June, Dr. Sylvia Tamale, re-knowned feminist professor of law at Makerere University, was invited to be a discussant in debate on a paper by Dr. Specioza Wandera Kazibwe (former vice president and member of parliament in Uganda). The paper was on women's participation in politics and was presented at the ninth parliament induction seminar.
Kazibwe's presentation focused solely on the contribution of Ugandan women in public politics, with illustrations from her experience as a senior government official in both the executive and parliament. When Tamale took the stand to discuss Kazibwe's presentation, she focused on the same subject, framed in what she referred to as the 'ten public perceptions of women in parliament'. She explained that these perceptions derived from her keen following of public debates, reading newspaper articles and her groundbreaking book, 'When Hens Begin to Crow'(1999).
Nowhere did Tamale discuss anything related to homosexuality or gay rights, a topic that belongs to her in the Ugandan public psych. Yet, as soon as the Q&A session opened, the subject of gay rights arose in what equated to condemning and mocking questions that were directed at Tamale.
The first question came from Major General Katumba Wamala (representative of the armed forces in parliament), who asked Tamale why 'she encourages women to marry women and men to marry men'. I thought this was something Tamale could easily dismiss as outside the context of her discussion. However, the chair of the session, John Nasasira (the MP for Kazo County and the government chief whip) took the intrusion a little further by deciding that the plenary discussion should take Tamale to task for her advocacy in defence of gay rights. Instead of following the practice of picking MPs who had raised their hands, Nasasira called on David Bahati (head crusader of the anti-homosexuality lobby in parliament) to ask a question to Tamale: 'Honourable Bahati, I will give you a chance to ask a question, and you know why.'
Was it necessary for Nasasira to call such a debate? Was he doing this in good faith or was he making fun of Tamale? That question became more complicated when, after Bahati said he would ask a different question not related to gay rights, Nasasira made a remark that during a women's conference in Nairobi, a female speaker took to the floor and lashed out at men. One of the ministers he attended with commented, 'I did not know women hated men like this!' Apparently, another colleague responded, 'Those are lesbians.' This was meant to be a joke that turned out to be a tasteless remark.
Tamale finally took the floor to respond to all questions, including the one on gay rights. She reminded members of parliament that not long ago colonialists, slave traders, missionaries and others used their power, the bible and science to justify that we [Africans] were less human, less intelligent or less deserving. She implored MPs to reconsider their actions before seeking to criminalise the lives of fellow humans. However, once we were outside the conference room, it became clear that the battle raging inside the minds and 'selective moral consciousness' of MPs had not waned.
At lunch hour, an MP asked me, 'Why would they invite such people, like Tamale?' His colleague (another MP) responded, 'People should know where human rights stop and on what continent!' I asked her if in fact similar charges have not been levied at African women about where they belong and when they should talk in their struggle for recognition as humans. She did not respond to that.
Most arguments I have heard by the anti-homosexuality lobby are framed in the language of upholding societal values based on religion, African culture, western infiltration and being against sinful and abnormal behavior. However, the same people laying the charge that homosexuality has its roots in western culture are comfortable in their Swiss Rolex watches, German Mercedes cars, Finish Nokia phones and Gucci suits.
The tense and seemingly unwelcoming environment did not sway me from the opportunity to debate gay rights with MPs. I reminded those who erroneously accuse the United States of pushing its homosexual behavior onto Ugandans that, until 2003, when the Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas struck down the remaining sodomy laws in 15 US states, same sex couples in the US were prosecutable for the crime of sodomy.
Secondly, what is African culture and what is African about homophobia? Cecilia Ogwal (MP for Dokolo) asked why those people (in the west) are against our African culture of marrying ten wives yet they want to force [our] men to marry fellow men? Then again, in the US state of Utah, and in Canada and Mexico a section of The Church of the Latter Day Saints (commonly referred to as Mormons) practice polygamy, which is conveniently referred to as 'plural marriage'. Ironically, the same bible-wielding people in Uganda casting stones at homosexuals seem to have no problem engaging in other social ills including adultery, pedophilia, prostitution, pornography, economic exploitation and political exclusion.
I asked several MPs I spoke to: 'What would you do if you found out that among the people you have legally criminalised and sentenced to death, as proposed by the Anti-Homosexual Bill, are your children, family or dear friends?' Bahati told me that as someone committed to eradicating such evil behaviour from our society, he would hand over his child to the police for punishment.
Yet, how many of us think of our children as capable of committing 'those vices' we disavow? We tend to think that criminals are 'those people, far away from our good-natured children and families'. We do not want to believe that our children might grow up to realise that their identities are not heterosexual.
A lawyer working with the Ugandan parliament told me she is going to teach her children the 'right morals'. She, like several others I spoke to, does not believe that homosexuals are born and not made. From her experience in attending a single-sex boarding school in Uganda, 'girls recruit others into homosexuality'.
On the percentage of MPs who would vote in favour of 'The Bahati Bill', my lawyer friend told me that it would pass with about 95 per cent support. I wondered who the other five per cent were. Could they be, as I have since learned from a gay rights scholar, those male MPs having sex with fellow men but not pronouncing themselves as gay?
Perhaps this speaks to the real problem afflicting the gay rights movement in Uganda; men who are having sex with men not because they are homosexuals but because, according to the gay rights scholar, they cannot get anal sex from their wives. Some are in fact buying this sex from men. I see them differently from men forced by societal and family expectations to marry women to cover up their gay identity; such are the men for whom I rally. Not the male prostitutes selling sex to men or men having the luxury of enjoying anal sex, while painting gay identity as a 'choice of convenience', and possibly condemning gays to extinction.
The problem with the anti-homosexuality crusade in Uganda is that it is too sexualized. Both the proposed Anti-Homosexual Bill and public perception tend to equate gays with the act of sexual intercourse. Yet, straight couples practice and enjoy anal sex. It would not be far-fetched that such people are against gay rights, when they too engage in what is arguably 'abnormal sex' relegated to gay behaviour.
We cannot blame gays for threatening 'normal marriage' when the heterosexual marriage is a daily threat to itself with cases of divorce, sex outside marriage, sex with prostitutes and with all sorts of objects. Thus, we cannot universalise what is culture in a society where many people are suppressed, and continue to fight for space because of their gender, sexual orientation, economic status, physical appearance, race, religion, nation group or age. I believe each one of us can find ourselves somewhere in any one of these categories. None of us has a monopoly on African culture nor are we bestowed with the authority to safeguard what is African culture.
As a black person, traditionalist, pro-polygamist and libertarian, I have always refused to be defined within the confines of 'society' and thus cannot afford the same luxury against any other person because of my misguided notions of 'what is acceptable behavior' or normal identity. Gays are humans and as such, deserving of humane recognition and respect.
Doreen Lwanga is a human rights activist.