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Homosexuality: Should culture be a basis for law?

By Maya Prabhu

On March 1, Speaker of Parliament Edward Ssekandi was presented with a petition bearing the signatures of 450,000 people calling for the rejection of the Anti Homosexuality Bill, 2009. The petition was written, and undersigned, by a group referring to themselves as AIDS service providers, spiritual mentors and counsellors. In the wake of the petition’s presentation, The Independent investigates perspectives on homosexuality and the Bill.

David Bahati, author of the controversial bill, says approaches to it reflect people’s attitudes to homosexuality. But for others, the debate over the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and the criminalisation of homosexuality are not so clear cut.

Bahati argues that ‘you cannot be against homosexuality and at the same time, totally oppose the Bill’. A majority of people, he claims, are in favour of the Bill but harbour concerns about certain clauses, such as the strict punitive measures the proposed act prescribes. This, Bahati argues, is legitimate and part of the democratic process. He says another group are in favour of the Bill in its current form. But straightforward, wholesale opposition to the proposed act, his approach stipulates, must be regarded as tantamount to the support of homosexuality as a lifestyle or an act.

The Rev. Canon Gideon Byamugisha, a spokesperson for the petition and an outspoken member of the opposition to the Bill, represents an approach to this piece of proposed legislation which goes beyond hoping for amendments to individual clauses; he, along with the other petitioners, oppose it in its very essence. Bahati’s interpretation would categorise Byamugisha as pro-gay, but the Canon argues that, rather than defining his stance on the Bill, his personal feelings about homosexuality are irrelevant. ‘The question is not what I think of homosexuality,’ he told The Independent, ‘The question is what I think about humanity.”

The principle upon which Canon Gideon has based his work both in this area and in his campaign against HIV/AIDS is that every human being deserves life, health, peace and well being ‘” regardless of social identifiers like creed, class, age, gender, or sexuality. He quotes the ruling NRM party’s slogan, ‘prosperity for all’ as well as a line from the national anthem – ‘Oh Uganda! The land of freedom’ ‘” as evidence that the government of Uganda should be behind him. ‘People enter into a social contract with their government ‘” they surrender their sovereignty in return for protection.’ The bill, if passed, would violate this contract, endangering a minority among Ugandans rather than finding means to accommodate them.

For Byamugisha, then, the debate on the bill is not about the acceptability of homosexuality on a personal or even communal level, but about humane governance and the role of culture within it. For Bahati too, cultural values of family and religion are the crux and the heart of the Bill. He regards the Bill as a weapon for protecting the traditional family, and protecting children from being ‘lured’ into a way of life that goes against their consciences and the religious values with which they were raised.

But Byamugisha says culture, like government, is meant to uphold the dignity and wellbeing of individuals. Major (Retired) Rubaramira Ruranga, another petitioner, told The Independent that cultures are dynamic, not static. ‘The ‘traditional family’ in this country is polygamous,’ he said, ‘how many wives does Bahati have?’

As a result of the dynamic and variable nature of culture, Byamugisha believes that cultural values are fluid and subjective: a dangerous basis for law. ‘My religious beliefs are not everyone’s belief… if I don’t eat pork, does that mean all those who do should be jailed?’

Indeed, Bahati’s argument is peppered with religious language: ‘love the sinner, hate the sin,’ he says, when challenged with the notion that an opinion cemented by religious belief should surely be based in love for mankind.

But both Can. Gideon and Maj. Rubaramira underscore their conviction that sin is not the same as crime. Government ‘” and certainly the legal system ‘” should position itself as primarily responsible for people’s safety rather than for their different and changing social values. Even majority opinions should be regarded with caution, ‘a majority can be sincere, and sincerely wrong,’ says the Canon, citing as an example the once overwhelming prevalence of the view that the earth was flat.

If children are in danger of being violated, physically or emotionally, then strengthen the laws against defilement, reasons Byamugisha. But the moment a government institutionalises prejudice, it embarks on a dangerous course towards labelling-to-dehumanise; for the Canon, it even represents a first step towards genocide.

When the petition was issued, Speaker Ssekandi made it clear that the Bill’s withdrawal is no longer an option. This leaves the Bill with few possible fates: firstly, if debated, the Bill will be passed and become law or be rejected. Bahati imagines that, after some amendments, the Bill will pass. He says simply, ‘because Ugandans want it to pass.’

Byamugisha fears that if MPs regard their role as that of self-righteous crusader, the Bill may indeed be passed. Another option, however, which gained credibility when President Museveni asked members of his party to ‘go slow’ on the Bill in January, is that the Bill might be ‘shelved’ ‘” left undebated, left to gather dust. From 2006 until the present, the time of the 8th Parliament, a total of 42 Bills remain pending. Indeed, many of the more recent Bills in this number, potentially including the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, will be debated, but there’s a significant chance that a proportion of these Bills will never go through the next stage in the parliamentary process. Bahati is confident that his Bill will not suffer this fate. He says a meeting with Cabinet last month assured him that the process will go ahead.

The final option is that President Museveni will veto the Bill if it passes through parliament. There have been reports in the media that the President indicated as much to members of the donor community. The Independent asked David Bahati whether he considered this likely.

Reluctant to speculate on the President’s actions, Bahati said he did not imagine that the President would veto the Bill, if passed: ‘First of all, the President respects parliament, he respects democracy, he laid down his life for all these years to have a democratic process, and this Bill is going through a democratic process, and I don’t think he would want to interfere with that.’

Given that Museveni’s 24 year-stint in office is more likely to raise eyebrows than spirits among committed democrats, Bahati’s is an interesting comment on the nature of governance in Uganda.

Bahati added, ‘[Museveni] is a president who does not support homosexuality, and who knows that 95% of the population of Uganda doesn’t support homosexuality. It’s important that we concentrate on doing first things first.’

For people like Maj. Rubaramira Ruranga, ‘first things first’ should not mean a hasty approval of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. He and the Canon Gideon Byamugisha both consider that criminalisation should always represent the last resort in dealing with any social challenge, and where homosexuality is concerned, neither consider that it should ever be regarded as a ‘solution’.

For Rubaramira, ‘first things first’ means education. The drive to pass the Bill is fuelled by emotion and creed, he says, and the majority of Ugandans don’t understand sexuality at all, let alone homosexuality. Both he and Byamugisha admit that their own understanding of homosexuality, despite wide reading, is limited due to lack of exposure. Byamugisha sees it as telling that, when the petition to reject the Bill was presented to the Speaker, Ssekandi asked, ‘what do these homosexuals do?’ Understanding should be the starting point. Rubaramira challenges Bahati to convince him that the majority allegedly in favour of the Bill are in any position to make an informed decision.

Neither Rubaramira nor Byamugisha consider themselves pro-gay. ‘If I liked homosexuality, I’d be homosexual!’ says the Canon. Rubaramira admits he would be disappointed if any child of his was gay. But both of these leading petitioners consider that the government should enshrine the protection of this minority, and the right, if not to homosexuality, then to freedom from violence, misrepresentation, blackmail, defamation and other hate – crimes. Byamugisha remembers the venomous beatings he endured as a child for being left-handed, and wonders whether it is not similarly pointless to condemn and vilify someone for being inherently attracted to a sexual partner of the same sex.

‘Uganda has worse problems!’ exclaims Rubaramira. And Byamugisha is concerned that the government could be considering adding to cycle of violence in this country, by sanctioning these laws, rather than working towards resolution, or indeed, towards ‘prosperity for all’.

Perhaps the question Ugandans should be asking themselves is not, ‘is homosexuality acceptable?’’, but rather, ‘what does it mean to embrace democracy and good governance?’

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