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Uganda’s contradictory sex sensibilities

By Linda Besigiroha

Punishing girls for traditions we celebrate one moment and then overlook when we are wearing the judgmental robes

Ugandans like to see things in black and white. That’s not a fair assumption though – so I will correct myself and say many people like to see things in black and white, like Jesus who is famously claimed to have said, “I am the only way, the truth and the light”. Is it ever that simple?

I am reminded of a little boy in a television show I watched recently who was thrown out of his confirmation class by a scandalised Reverend because he asked the question: if Adam and Eve were the only people on earth in the beginning and their children begot more children, does this mean that the Bible was okay with incest back then?

You can laugh at the child’s innocent question and then engage them in a theoretical discussion, or your veins pop out and threaten to burst in hypocritical fury if you are like the intolerant Reverend. Quite literally, I have seen one such “man of God” froth at the mouth on Ugandan television, using shock-scare tactics to preach, not love, but hate in the name of fighting homosexuality. His tactics are bizarre to say the least – the man terrifies me.

It should not be forgotten that when you call for hate attacks on those of a different sexuality from yours in essence, it is your daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, uncles and aunties, nieces and nephews, friends, whom you condemn in the long run. And please do not come at me with the common, immature counter-question, what are you hiding since you seem to be for them? I could ask you in the same vein, what are you hiding, as “methinks (you) doth protest too much”?

Of untreated phobias that fester into prejudices

Fear of the “other” is at the core of many injustices that have occurred the world over; racism, slavery, apartheid, the holocaust, violence against immigrants, you name it. And always, this kind of fear is manipulated for political gains because those in power realise the potential of its divisive nature to gain cheap popularity.

As Prof. Sylvia Tamale, reminds us in “Homosexuality is not un-African”, it was only in March 2012 that the President of Uganda noted, “Homosexuals in small numbers have always existed in our part of black Africa …They were never prosecuted. They were never discriminated.”

Flash forward to 2014 and Museveni has signed the much contested Anti-Homosexuality law because – forgive him Father for he knew what he was doing – he faced internal and external pressure and an election year is coming up.

So, victory parades at Kololo grounds notwithstanding, let us at least acknowledge the turn of events between early 2012 and now, to account for the President’s change of heart instead of claiming to be beacons of morality.

Throw in strategic meddling by yet again hypocritical West (Europe and the US) and the tone is set for Uganda’s latest telenovela. I very much enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek review by former East African Legislative Assembly MP Wandera Ogalo’s, “Homosexuality was first banned in Uganda by British”. Ogalo’s review dwelt on how anti-homosexuality legislation in Britain was first introduced in 1533 and its changes since. Let us not even get started on the role American religious pundits and far-right politicians have played in this saga. Allow me to recommend a film, God Loves Uganda, directed by Roger Ross Williams which is set to come out on DVD later in July. Believe me, churches are not always what they seem.

I would like to return to the notion of fear and phobias. In many establishments with international employees or students today, it is common for management to organise intercultural training sessions. At the one I attended on joining the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS) in Germany, we took a few minutes to discuss stereotypes we held about different groups of people. Did Bavarians really get up to beer in the mornings? Is African time African? Were Italians crazy mafias? And so on and so forth. What these training sessions aim to teach is that beneath such seemingly innocent questions can often lie latent fears of the “other” which if not addressed can hinder interaction and integration into new communities. In the long run, many stereotypes are reproduced/upheld because they remain unchallenged by lived experience.

As crucial as it is to have the right legislations in place for minorities such as homosexuals, I am more concerned with the day-to-day sensibilities of familial and neighbourly interactions as we know them in Uganda.

In 1996, South Africa became the first and only country in the (get this) world to explicitly incorporate the rights of lesbian and gay men into its constitution by prohibiting, among other things, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

What a German scholar, Henriette Gunkel and others remind us, however, is that South Africa has witnessed some of the most brutal acts against gays and lesbians on the African continent to date, including the raping of suspected lesbians—so-called corrective rape. Clearly, legislation is not always a saviour.

In my view, we need to transcend our fears, our phobias, to get to a level of maturity which can handle discussion in the face of difference, or “otherness” as opposed to the kind of knee-jerk and prejudiced reactions we have witnessed such as the reckless publication of a list of suspected gays by a certain newspaper.

Binary untruths

To come back to my opening thoughts on how we always like to see things in black and white, I recall a recent conversation round the dinner table with some friends. We asked that common question, who “plays the man?” who “plays the woman?” in a gay relationship – childish, yes, but also necessary in my opinion.

Remember; to transcend your phobias, you must first acknowledge them and then discuss them. Phobias are also located in a lack of sufficient knowledge. I can only imagine how exasperating all these inquisitive “who sticks what where” questions must be to members of the gay community because all too often, we reduce homosexuality to the sex act. As if heterosexuality is all about sex. But phobias are also about recycled stereotypes as we have seen and one of the biggest of these is the heteronormative gender myth made up of rigid binaries such as man/woman, girl/boy, masculine/feminine, etc. We pose the question, ` who plays the man/woman?’ because of the rigidities the heteronormative myth has passed down to us over the years.

Hence, man is to woman as boy is to girl. We cannot imagine anything else even when it is staring us in the face in the form of historical evidence that “other” ways of being have always existed in our societies.

I refer here to Prof. Tamale’s text once again. In between man/woman lie, not grey zones but multiplicities of being: lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, intersexed, transgendered. Here I would briefly like to laud the courage of people like Julius Kaggwa, the director of Support initiative for People with Atypical Sex development, and one of the first Ugandans to raise the concerns of the intersexed in Uganda.

Is `pulling’ lesbianism?

Discussions of non-normative sexualities once again attack essentialist binaries which seek to gloss over the complexities of day-to-day lived experience. I would like to expound on this argument by sharing my thoughts on a cultural practice in Uganda called “pulling”.

I first learnt of it in high school in Kampala when in hushed tones, my friends and I giggled about what it involved. I did not think about it again until I stumbled across a short film entitled The Sunny Side of Sex in Uganda on YouTube in the course of some gender research I was doing. The film’s director, Sunny Bergman, meets a group of Ugandan women in her home town of Amsterdam. The women are not ashamed to talk about sex. Intrigued, Sunny Bergman travels to Uganda to better understand these women who are proud of their sexuality and of the knowledge they can share with other women. While in Uganda, Sunny is introduced to the ‘Ssenga’ tradition and the practice of lengthening the labia majora, “pulling” as my friends and I had called it back in school. Moreover, the women did it because they believed that it enhanced their own sexual pleasure, not necessarily that of their men (African “womanhoods” have often been wrongly reduced to negativities which interpret them as always being victim to patriarchy, especially in Western studies).

Suffice it to say that my jaw dropped at the level of intimacy involved when two young girls or women assist each other with labia pulling. On mentioning it to a friend, she informed me that in some schools, it was actually the matrons who assisted young girls with it. Another friend checked my insufficient knowledge when I claimed that this tradition was purely a Kiganda one and let me know that it was not alien to the Banyankore either. Clearly, my largely pseudo-European upbringing had kept certain cultural titbits from me. I was as intrigued as Sunny Bergman had been and I pricked up my ears when she posed one interviewee the question, “don’t you get aroused in the process?” No, she was informed, you have to think of it as a service you do for a friend, there is nothing sexual about it. Really, is it that simple?

“I didn’t think of it as lesbian”

I have borrowed the above section title from a chapter title in the book by Henriette Gunkel on The Cultural Politics of Female Sexuality in South Africa. In her book, Henriette Gunkel makes an important distinction between the concept of “(same-sex) intimacy” and “lesbianism”. She reminds us, the term “lesbian” originated in the West in the 19th century as a policing tool for heteronormativity.

I find her discussion of female same-sex practices in South Africa in their different historical cultural contexts pertinent to what I am trying to say about phobias and the blurred lines of gendered and sexual normative myths in Uganda. Some of these practices are not necessarily labelled or contextualised as ‘homosexual’ she found out. Some, like the practice of pulling, are clearly not lesbian in its Western sense, and yet a level of intimacy is attained during the practice that forces one to rethink the concept of (hetero) sexuality – where does one draw the line? Does one have to draw the line?

And then I had to think of the number of girls who have been expelled from schools around the country for “lesbianism”. Who has looked into what this lesbianism entailed in each of these cases? Are we unwittingly punishing girls for traditions we proudly celebrate one moment and then conveniently overlook when we are wearing the judgmental robes of religion? Because often, these girls are expelled from “good, traditional, Christian” schools. And even if these girls are engaging in “lesbianism”, is expelling and demonizing them doing any good?

Last question; are we not doing ourselves a disfavour by making us hypersensitive to “otherness”? Aren’t we, in the long run, going to ruin intimacies which we have always taken for granted? What happens to the men walking along Uganda’s streets holding hands for example? Western visitors to Uganda are often a little bit confused by that. You know, from where they are standing, it’s “kind of gay”. At the same dinner discussion where we bantered about who played what part among gays, I learned that some people are afraid of the lengths that homophobic witch-hunting may go to in Uganda. More and more single people in Uganda are sharing houses to save on rent. It would take one malicious tongue-wag to get one such household in trouble with an insensitive mob.

Ultimately, it takes courage to face one’s own phobias and transcend them. I would like to think Ugandans are not a faint-hearted lot.

Linda Besigiroha is a PhD Candidate at Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies in Bayreuth, Germany.

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