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Uganda’s homosexuality debate

By Jude Kagoro

Why homosexuality and alternative sexuality will be tolerated in Uganda in the near future

In the course of my recent working visit to Uganda I, on countless occasions, found myself holding discussions on the Anti-homosexuality Bill (now law). This was not surprising because the discourse surrounding the subject has taken center stage in the country.

My discussion partners ranged from academics, journalists, police officers, politicians, religious fanatics, to individuals working with NGOs that promote a myriad of rights.

I was shocked, to say the least, at the venomous anti-homosexuality sentiments across the board. A young brilliant banker, Mary M, for instance, whatsApped me saying “homosexuals should get out of their obsessions and back to their normal senses… you can’t say that they have rights; that is unacceptable…let them go to hell to exercise their rights. Homosexuality is against God see Genesis 2:18-24 and also against our African values.”


Like Mary, all the anti-homosexuality sentiments were mostly premised on two contradictory frames of reference. First, many turned to theocratic explanations to justify their bias against homosexuals. To that end, the national prayers held at Kololo Ceremonial Grounds to celebrate President Museveni’s assent to the Anti-homosexuality law was a concretisation of these religious nuances. To me this presents two problems: On one hand, the application of abstract or mythological justifications to support a particular public legislation, and on the other, the intolerance towards those with a different perspective.

One thing must be borne in mind, I am not against religious beliefs or prayers for that matter, but absolutely opposed to the instrumentalisation of religious scripts to make a case in a secular setting. Second, my discussion partners also claimed that homosexuality was “un-African.”

On probing what un-African meant; I only got ambiguous attempts at clarification. For instance, are biblical scripts African or un-African? Is the legislative framework that was used to pass the bill African or un-African? What about the English language that is being used to express the sentiments, is it African or un-African? To date, am yet to understand how a neat dichotomy can be drawn between African and Un-African. Is it not true that even the concept Africa is not African after all? The disturbing sentiments expressed on the subject, both in my discussions and in the public arena in general, forced me into deep introspection. To find answers, I turned to sociological conceptualisations.

What we know about sexuality and what we take-for-granted as reality of the same is largely a social construction.  Essentially, different facets of sexuality only make meaning when placed in a social context. Take the idea of romantic love and marriage for example. Today the connection seems obvious, but in the middle ages in Europe people married mainly as a strategy to keep property in the hands of families or to raise children to work on the family farms.

Though people had affairs outside marriage or even before marriage, Antony Giddens et al argue, there was no direct connection between being in love and getting married. Romantic love was regarded as a weakness at best and a sickness at worst. Romantic love was first conceived as a characteristic of extramarital sexual adventures in aristocratic families. In aristocratic marriages, relations between husband and wife were often cold and distant.

It was not unusual for spouses to have separate bedrooms and they rarely saw each other in private. With the advance of modernisation and urbanisation romantic love and marriage become intimately connected. Most likely, the romance-marriage nexus as we have come to know it in Africa, goes back to colonial and western religious-cultural influences. Today, we take it for granted that romantic love and marriage have always been connected.

Sexuality; taken to mean the aptitude to have erotic experiences and responses, has across geographical space and historical time been drawn in controversy. Many civilisations, including Western Europe, have at one time, or in the Ugandan case on-going, taken it for granted or tried to reduce sexuality to strictly the sexual practices between male and female. Needless to elaborate, homosexuals faced some of the most suppressive and cruel consequences, including death by hanging, in Western Europe. There were rigid forms of socialisation to legitimate the male-female “reality” of sexuality.

But, as any sociologist would argue, socialization is never completely successful. There are always idiosyncratic variations in the way some people conceive reality. In that sense, the persistence of the idiosyncratic variations on sexuality coupled with the massive shift from dogmatic to scientific-human interpretation of everyday life has led to acceptance of homosexuality and alternative definitions of sexuality realities that had previously been taken for granted in the western world.

There are chief executives of powerful countries, mayors of influential cities and Hollywood celebrities who are openly gay in today’s world. These are countries that some Ugandans may be seeking visas to live in, cities they fantasise about, and celebrities they religiously follow on TV and social media.

To maintain the male-female taken-for-granted sexuality model in Uganda, “custodians” of morality have gone into overdrive. A rigid stance packaged with both cognitive and normative perspectives to argue against deviation from the “normal” has been constructed. At cognitive level, it has been put that sexuality is by nature a characteristic of people of different sexes while at normative level claiming that its people of different sexes who should share sexual affection.

To legitimate the anti-homosexuality sentiments some religious preachers have constructed theories labeling deviants as pathologically sick or possessed by demons. This as Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann may have argued is, of course, intended to arouse guilt among the gay community and to coercively re-socialise them to return to “normalcy.

” In most religious circles, gayism has been given a negative ontological status and suggestions made that gays should be physically liquidated. For extra-coherence in the negative presentation of gayism, it have been suggested that Western groups have poured massive financial resources to be used in the recruitment of young children into homosexuality. Of course, when children are mentioned in this manner, homophobic sentiments are consequently heightened.

The homosexuality debate has in essence put Uganda at crossroads. I argue that this debate has presented a firm foundation for the general acceptance of alternative definitions of sexuality in the near future. As Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann put it, major challenges arise when societies holding different interpretations of what is taken as reality confront each other. The challenges posed by such a confrontation are typically sharper than those posed by intra-societal deviances. It is much less shocking to the reality status when a few in the society deviate because they can quickly be labeled wicked, than to confront another society that views your society’s reality as ignorant and naïve.

We all have knowledge of what happened to our traditional-religious interpretations of reality when they were confronted with those of the European civilization in the late 19th century. Our ancestors must have been confused and traumatised when the Europeans demonstrated that most of their age-old held beliefs, practices, and taboos could not hold anymore.

Based on the anti-homosexuality law, the Western world is already perceiving Uganda as archaic, naïve and uncivilized. Recently, as I was trying argue that Uganda’s democratisation process was on course, a European scholar threw me off balance; pointing out that the Anti-homosexuality Act suggests otherwise.

Questioning what’s taken for granted

Obviously, by virtue of engaging in the homosexuality debate, Ugandans are consistently consuming alternative definitions of sexuality. Take, for example, the development aid cuts and the condemnation of Uganda’s interpretation of reality on sexuality by leading democracies in the world, or the screaming newspaper headline indicating that the president of the United States, the most powerful country, had called President Museveni expressing concerns over the law. These cannot pass as events. Some Ugandans may get angry at the perceived “interference”, but at the same time will gradually begin to question what they take-for-granted as to what sexuality entails.

Needless to add, the Ugandan youth are not only socialised by what is happening in Uganda, but also, perhaps in a more intensive pattern, by global discourses. TVs, radios, movies, academic texts, and the social media continuously shape the world view of the youth. Moreover, on a regular basis youth hear their senior politicians and other powerful opinion molders making references to the wonderful socio-political orders of the western world.

Power in any society comprises the power to shape decisive socialisation processes, and therefore, as Berger and Luckmann claim, the power to produce reality; he who has the bigger stick has a better chance of shaping the definition of reality.

Look at the act of giving flowers as a symbol of love for instance. Once a typically Western romantic display, it now holds a similar meaning in Uganda, especially among the elites. Flower giving as a representation of love is a social construction, which has become a reality and this reality may equally shape our ways of perceiving love. Truth be told in today’s highly interconnected and digital era, Uganda and the third world in general, cannot escape powerful Western discourses and the influence of other, global interpretations of reality.

Important to note is that though homosexuality is now largely viewed as normal in the western world, heterosexuality is still predominant. Therefore, my sociological conclusion and prediction is that homosexuality will be tolerated in Uganda in the near future and society will smoothly continue to multiply itself through heterosexual relations and with the help of science, maybe even new family patterns.

Dr Jude Kagoro is a Postdoc Fellow at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) University of Bremen, Germany.

judekagoro@yahoo.com or jude.kagoro@iniis.uni-bremen.de

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