Criminalising homosexuality: a threat to human rights
My review of “Urgency Required: Gay and Lesbian Rights are Human Rights” published by HIVOS. Originally posted on Pambazuka News – 4th March 2010
Urgency is required at this very moment as the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009 is pending before the Ugandan parliament. Same-sex relationships are already illegal in the country under sections 140, 141 and 143, with sentences running from five years to life imprisonment. The laws are based on the British colonial penal code and as such do not specifically name relationships between women, but none the less, lesbians are stigmatised and face similar aggression and malice from society and the Ugandan state. However the Anti-Homosexuality Bill increases in scope both the definition of ‘homosexual acts’ and the punishment with the death penalty for repeated offences, those who are HIV-positive and for same-sex acts with anyone under 18 years.
Similar to the now shelved ‘Same-Sex Marriage Bill’ in Nigeria, the bill extends to criminalising anyone who witnesses, supports or associates with people involved in same-sex relationships. Human rights activists and organisations working in the area of sexuality as well as HIV/AIDS organisations are in a perilous position as under the law they will all be criminalised. As the law institutionalises the discrimination of lesbians and gays, they will have no redress either morally or under law if they are physically attacked, raped or discriminated against. They will no longer be human beings but illegal beings. Women will be even more vulnerable to rape as rapists will be able to accuse the woman of being a lesbian and therefore deserving of rape. In a society where to speak out against rape is hard enough, let alone if you are going to be accused of being a lesbian — which is an illegal human being, with a five year prison sentence waiting for you. Even to touch someone in a ‘gay’ way is punishable.
In short the bill is utterly inhumane and violates all African Union and International human rights legislation and treaties to which Uganda is also a signatory. The horrific implications for LGBT people and in fact the rights of everyone across Africa cannot be underestimated. At this very moment, three gay men have been arrested in Malawi and a mob recently attacked a gay ‘wedding party’ in Kenya. In Uganda, meanwhile, the despicable behaviour and language of Pastor S reached new homophobic heights when he led an organised anti-gay demonstration with marchers carrying placards ‘Kill gays’. The situation is such that if this bill were to be passed, with or without the death penalty, the chances are strong that some of 38 African countries criminalising same-sex relationships would attempt to copy the Ugandan Bill.
‘Urgency Required: Gay and Lesbian Rights are Human Rights’ is an admirable and timely project in the form of a book, through which the authors provide a comprehensive exploration of the state of LGBT rights worldwide. The book takes as it’s reference point the 2006 Yogyarkarta Principles , the premise of which is that gay and lesbian rights are human rights. The book is divided roughly into three sections: a historical perspective and exploration of concepts and terminology around same-sex intimacy and transgender; a discussion on the struggle for ‘Gay and Lesbian’ rights (LGBTIQ) in Africa, Asia and Latin America; and a section that explores the range of strategies for furthering gay and lesbian rights and equality.
Beginning with a series of essays tracing the historical roots of homosexuality and homophobia in Europe, we follow the changing attitudes from the pitiful pathologising of gay and lesbians as ‘sick or perverted’ people who had lost all control over their bodies to the point at which decriminalisation is achieved, though not complete acceptance in society.
The discussion raises a number of interesting points which relate to the current homosexuality debate and rampant homophobia being experienced in many African countries. The first relates to language and ‘coming out’. Up until the mid 1990s, the word ‘homosexuality’ hardly existed and homophobia was first used as late as the mid 1960s. It was at the point when homosexual men began to assert themselves and increase their visibility that we find psychology and religious institutions entering the frame.
Secondly, the struggle for homosexual rights, in for example the Netherlands, was a struggle for secularisation against notions of morality by religious institutions on the one hand and criminalisation from state on the other — as late as 1938, castration was legalised for homosexual acts as well as rape. Two of the more engaging chapters in this first section are the ones by Rob Tielman in which he compares homosexuality in Islam, Christianity and Humanism in a Dutch context, and Robert Davidson who uses a Fanonist analysis to examine identity politics.
Tielman’s essay struck me as it speaks to the debate around ‘gay imperialism’ which uses queerness as a ‘symbol of freedom’ and a way of rationalising ‘restrictive and racist immigration policies in “Western” or “liberal” nations.' He identifies eight paradoxes to examine the contradictions between gay liberation and islamic liberation.
Whilst I agree with most of his observations or paradoxes, such as claims of not knowing any homosexuals simply means one is mixing with a lot of gays and lesbians who are in the closet. Or that the hostility in some countries towards LGBT people can be attributed to language and naming. For example the word gay or lesbian do not exist in many cultures or languages. This does not mean same-sex relations did not take place. It just means they were not named in terms that have come to be associated with Western culture and imperialism.
Tielman just about manages not to fall into the ‘gay imperialist’ trap by not conflating Islam with cultural traditions and more so by pointing out that some of these cultural traditions ‘might’ have western colonial origins. But he then goes on to imply that, young Muslim immigrants act out homophobia because they are confronted with open homosexuality as opposed to closeted homosexuality in Muslim countries. This needs further examination on a wider scale as indigenous homophobic youth culture is as much if not more widespread than Islamic and the focus on this group has implied racism and rationalises anti-immigration — read anti-islamic immigration.
The chapter by Davidson, ‘Queering Politics, Desexualising the Mind’, is by far the most thought provoking in this first section. Davidson makes a compelling argument for applying Queer theory as an alternative to conventional identity. Using Fanon’s theory of ‘decolonising the mind’ as a way of deconstructing identity in relation to sexuality — which he calls ‘desexualising the mind’ — he moves away from the binary logic within which most LGBT rights have been fought. In other words, rather than a politics of ‘mimicking’ where the aim is for the ‘Other’ — gays and lesbians — to live up to the values of the ‘One’ — the heterosexual, the goal should be ‘to embrace difference and reject assimilation’. Just as colonialism works by imposing its logic on the colonised, so too do ‘dominant sexual structures’ impose their own sexual rationale on non-hetero-normative ways. This would include for example the rejection of same-sex marriage and categories such as LGBT which fix and control us, by implying that sexuality is not only unchanging but also that one needs to be given specific names based on sexual desire. These categories confuse sexual activity and very often have no meaning in the reality of people’s lives.
In the second section of ‘Urgency Required’, the authors provide a regional analysis, using a mixture of detailed documentary of LGBT movements and struggle, personal stories and reviews of texts. Again the coverage is comprehensive. Importantly, by addressing LGBT rights in a global context including Europe and North America, they are able to highlight areas of common struggle, such as discrimination and social attitudes which impact negatively on LGBT people, as well as those specific to regions. This is important because it avoids the tendency of the international media to demonise particular countries and regions as somehow standing alone in ‘homophobia’, which — like ‘homosexuality’ — is a known fact in all countries, cultures and social classes. The distinction between countries and regions is a question of the degree of ‘homophobia’ and whether or not ‘homosexuality’ is criminalised.
The final section of ‘Urgency Required’ focuses on strategies for ‘gay liberation’ and the work of Hivos in facilitating and supporting the struggles. Although the chapters are written by non-Hivos staff, the essays are uncritical and focus on education through the Gay Games and Outgames. From an African perspective, it would have been useful to have an exploration of Hivos’ policy of supporting LGBT activists on the continent and some of the outcomes of the increased visibility provided by the Gay and Out games. It also needed a more detailed examination of local strategies being employed by activists across the continent, as well as the inclusion of more local voices rather than those of Europe. On major criticism is that though the introduction has a section on terminology — ‘LGBT’ and ‘LGBTIQ’ ‘Queer’, the default acronym is ‘LGBT’, thereby excluding Intersex people in a general sense. By not addressing issues of specific concern to intersex people, they are made doubly invisible. Again this is made more confusing by the title which refers only to ‘Gay and Lesbian’ rights. It highlights the need to for us to think more critically about language, and how particular words and terminology are exclusive.