By Andrew M. Mwenda
Member of Parliament for Ndorwa East David Bahati wants homosexuals imprisoned for life or hanged. I am deeply conscious of the fact that the vast majority of Ugandans support him. But debate on homosexuality is being conducted largely out of ignorance and prejudice. For example, a friend told me recently: ‘I think all homos must be killed. My strong Christian values prohibit me from tolerating this evil.’
But was his anger generated by his Christian beliefs? Or was he using religion to service his prejudice? All sins ‘ murder, theft, envy etc are equal before God. If sins were rated, homosexuality should even be a lesser evil since God did not take it seriously enough to include it among the Ten Commandments. My friend takes pride in ‘laying’ girls. When I asked him why his Christian faith does not stop him from fornication, he went silent.
Although it’s using religion to justify its campaign, the anti-homosexual coalition in Uganda is not using God but the state to promulgate draconian laws. God did not bestow judgment of sin on humankind. He kept it as his preserve, possibly knowing that humans would abuse it. The state should not be used to enforce God’s will. Nor should Martin Sempa and Nsaba Buturo constitute themselves into a religious police to enforce it.
Besides, there are many Christians who do not believe that the Bible prohibits homosexuality. This is because Christianity, like all other religions and cultures, is subject to different interpretations. These differences cannot be settled by human beings. The Supreme Court of religion is God. It is therefore wrong to pass legislation based on one interpretation of one religion’s values and impose them on others. This takes away the rights of non-believers or people of different religious interpretation.
Many oppose homosexuality because it undermines procreation, a legitimate point. But there are many heterosexual couples who choose not to have children. The Pope and the entire hierarchy of the Catholic Church is celibate. There are many women who are sterile and men who are impotent. There are millions of birth control programmes in the world. All this has not caused the extinction of humanity.
Currently, the law in Uganda makes it a crime to have ‘carnal knowledge of someone against the order of nature.’ Although it was meant to prohibit homosexuality, it inadvertently prohibits oral sex. Of course this is because those who made the law relied on a very conservative understanding of how sex is enjoyed.
Enjoying sex is a very complex subject that cannot be reduced to simplistic and traditional moralising. It would therefore be dangerous for the state to visit people’s bedrooms every night to ensure that sex is enjoyed only through the legislated style. For example, should the government investigate whether Bahati performs oral sex or whether Buturo masturbates? To do this would put us on a slippery slope.
In both biblical teachings and in evolutionary science, procreation is the driver of life. Therefore, I appreciate why many societies have traditionally been hostile to homosexuality. The existence of species depends on reproduction. Every evolutionary biologist will tell you that species that had high survival abilities but poor reproductive capacity became extinct. So it is reproduction that keeps us replenished.
But this also poses a vital evolutionary puzzle. If homosexuality threatens life, evolution would have biologically, socially and psychologically eliminated it. Homosexuals would cause their own extinction since they would be unable to pass on their gene. Research shows that every human society has homosexuals to the tune of 5% to 10% of the population. Homosexuality is also found in 537 species of vertebrate mammals.
So homosexuality is as old as life. From ancient Greece to the Roman Empire, homosexuality has been recurrent. How can something that threatens life survive for this long? Aristotle thought it evolved to check over- population. Modern evolutionary psychologists and biologists have developed several theories to explain it. But the debate and research continues. The good news is that there are enough heterosexuals who want to have children to sustain life.
While human rights organisations have been fixated on the state, the biggest threat to homosexuals is actually society since over 90% of our population is hostile to them. It is therefore in challenging deeply held cultural beliefs that homosexuals can find liberation. Liberal philosophy evolved to reject two evils ‘ the despotism of the state and the tyranny of custom. The worst injustices are sustained through culture, not law.
Black people in America were kept as slaves for 200 years and as second class citizens for another 100 years. They won the right to vote as recently as 1965, five years after most of Africa was free. This injustice was sustained through Christian teachings, culture and science that projected black people as sub-human.
Thus, it was criminal for a white person (a human being) to have sex with a black person (an animal). By 1961 when Barack Obama was born, 32 out of the 50 states in America still criminalised inter-racial sex. Many whites supported this injustice, not because they were bad people, but because culture and religion had taught them do so.
Although many whites opposed this injustice, they did not constitute a politically weighted majority to effect change. Those who could make a difference like John Kennedy were afraid to openly challenge the status quo. Uganda needs courageous people to challenge injustices against homosexuals perpetuated through culture and religion.
In writing this article, I am aware that I am swimming against the tide. But I feel strongly that keeping silent in the face of injustice, especially one promoted through culture, is a worse option. I understand that well intentioned people like Bahati can promote extreme injustices because of the influence of culture and tradition.
I write this article in honour of those white people ‘ the abolitionists ‘ who, against the ridicule and harassment of their peers and at great personal risk opposed slavery and discrimination against black people. It pains me that black people who have been victims of discrimination due to cultural stereotyping are the ones most virulently hostile to homosexuals. The chains of culture can be tough.