Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Uganda: LGBTI Rights are Human Rights

Sylvia Tamale
Dr. Sylvia Tamale, a feminist professor of law at Makerere University, was confronted by Ugandan MPs at a seminar on 24 June 2011 for her stance on LGBTI rights in Uganda. The seminar focused on the role of women in politics and veered off course when Major General Katumba Wamala (representative of the armed forces in parliament) 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.

Human rights activist Doreen Lwanga was confronted by MPs during the lunch break for inviting Dr. Sylvia Tamale. She tried to reason with MPs including asking the question, "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?" MP David Bahati, the author of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, responded that he would hand over his child to the police for punishment.

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?

Dr. Sylvia Tamale recently published African Sexualities: A Reader at Pambazuka Press. It looks at African sexualities through the lens of history, feminism, law, sociology, anthropology, spirituality, poetry, fiction, life stories, rhetoric, song, art, and public health. The volume is written by a large group of authors who live their own sexualities across the diverse possibilities of desire, attraction, family creation, political activism and identity in 16 of Africa's 54 countries. African Sexualities adopts a feminist approach that analyses sexuality within patriarchal structures of oppression while also highlighting its emancipatory potential.

The Law, Gender & Sexuality Research Project at the Makerere University School of Law founded by Dr. Sylvia R. Tamale is putting together a book on the life, work and legacy of David Kisule Kato. David was murdered in his home in January and is considered a founder of Uganda's LGBTI human rights movement.

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