Monday, March 3, 2014

Anti-gay law: Lots of smoke and no light

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 02 March 2014

The Ugandan parliament recently passed legislation outlawing “homosexuality” in the country. The law provides for life imprisonment for anyone committing or promoting the “offence of homosexuality”, among many other penalties and prohibitions.

It has been argued that the fact that the Ugandan parliament passed this law and the president assented to it is sad, but does not merit more than just passing comment from anyone who is not Ugandan or directly affected by it. (READ: Kerry calls Museveni over anti-gay law) This is fair enough on the face of it although, in such a digitally connected world, it is difficult to isolate a country and argue for internal self-determination on laws such as this that criminalise behaviour that responsible scientists in the field do not consider abnormal or even harmful.

More pertinent, though, is the fact that the Ugandan action is part of a wave of intolerance being propagated across the continent by forces intent on forcing their own particular brand of morality on African countries. Nigeria recently passed similar legislation, and efforts are gathering pace in Kenya to introduce similar legislation in our parliament. This is the reason I think it is important to make the following points so that when the legislative debate gets here, nobody will argue that we did not raise any opposition to it.

I have encountered, on social media and elsewhere, arguments that opponents of homosexuality are disgusted by the behaviour, or that it is somehow un-African and un-Christian. Many of those supporting such legislation use these arguments to back their viewpoints. We have, before this legislation was even contemplated, discussed all these points with vigour and often agreed to disagree.

However, in order to fully appreciate this matter, it is useful to understand what “homosexual” means. First, it is a form of sexual orientation referring to someone who is sexually attracted to persons of the same sex. Second, it is a form of social identity, whereby an individual identifies with people of homosexual orientation, and perhaps also refers to themselves as being homosexual. Third, it is a form of sexual behaviour involving intercourse or other sexual activity between individuals of the same sex. (READ: Uganda newspaper names 200 'homos' after anti-gay law signed) 


It is important to appreciate that a person may meet one, two or all three definitions of homosexual. For instance, one may have homosexual orientation but never identify themselves as homosexual or engage in homosexual behaviour. Similarly, one may engage in homosexual behaviour without identifying themselves as being homosexual or even while having primary sexual interest in members of the opposite sex.

It is instructive that these “anti-gay” laws are often informed by the third definition only, and criminalise the behaviour on the assumption that this will end the orientation and social identities. Unfortunately mountains of research on this topic suggest that such moves are futile, and homosexuality cannot be “cured” by such moves.

It is also true that the arguments about homosexuality being “disgusting, un-African or un-Christian” are also informed by visualisations of homosexual behaviour, often between males. While I can understand some people’s disgust with this kind of behaviour, it is difficult for me to link this disgust with the law-making process.

We simply do not go out and legislate against behaviours solely because they disgust us. How then is homosexuality different? Surely even the “crime” of homosexuality needs a victim? 

Dr Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine.

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