Last Thursday, Uganda announced plans to resurrect the infamous “Kill the Gays” bill, possibly within weeks. A version of the bill was first signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni, and then ruled invalid on a technicality by the courts, in 2014. If passed by the parliament, the new bill would impose the death penalty not only for gay sex, but also for “promotion and recruitment,” effectively criminalizing vital rights and health advocacy work. This will only serve to increase anti-gay hate and violence in a country where acceptance of homosexuality is already much lower than in most parts of the world, and cause suffering for thousands of innocent Ugandans.
Justifying the bill, Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo told Reuters that “homosexuality is not natural to Ugandans, but there has been a massive recruitment by gay people in schools.” That is demonstrably and patently false, for at least two reasons, which begs the question of whether Lokodo is ignorant, or lying to score cheap political points ahead of Uganda’s next general election, scheduled for 2021.
First, there is no such thing as “homosexual recruitment.” While there is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a particular sexual orientation, and many think that nature and nurture likely both play a role, there is agreement that people choose their sexual orientation no more than they choose their sex or skin color. Common sense tells us as much as well. Lokodo and others entertaining the mistaken belief that homosexuality is a choice should simply ask themselves this: “Could I be ‘convinced’ to be attracted to members of the same sex?”
Second, the claim that homosexuality is “not natural to Ugandans” is no more than a variation of the tired and widely discredited myth, propagated by a number of African leaders, that homosexuality is somehow “un-African,” or a Western import. It is a historical fact that homosexuality has been part of every society and every culture. Some of the world’s earliest depictions of homosexuality were in fact found in Africa.
Rock paintings by the San people of Zimbabwe show same-sex sexual relations that date back thousands of years, and are part of a wealth of evidence that shows that homosexuality has always been present on the African continent. It is not homosexuality that is un-African, or un-Ugandan, but the laws that criminalize gay sex, which were exported to Africa by Western colonial powers. In Uganda, it was the British who introduced such laws.
But, even assuming that homosexuality is a new phenomenon in Uganda, which – again – it is not, that would not justify banning it. Just because something has always been a certain way does not mean that it is desirable for it to continue to be that way. Willingness to preserve harmful traditions solely for tradition’s sake is a mark of small minds and impedes progress. No custom, belief, or tradition should be considered immune from critical evaluation and revision in light of moral argument.
A 2007 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that only 3% of Ugandans believe that homosexuality should be accepted. Such overwhelming social rejection has serious negative effects on the well-being of lesbian women and gay men, putting them at a significantly higher risk of suicide than their heterosexual peers. Furthermore, lesbian women and gay men in Uganda are frequent victims of violent hate crimes, face discrimination at school, university, and work, are denied access to health care and justice, and receive little support from family and friends. Under current Ugandan law, gay sex is already punishable with up to life imprisonment, forcing them to live a life of secrecy and lies.
The new bill would make things even worse. It is hard to imagine anything more offensive to life than killing people because they love. Love is what makes life worth living, and laws criminalizing same-sex relationships, forms of human bonding as natural and healthy as heterosexual relationships, consequently are a denial of life. Such laws are inhuman, contradict the fundamental principles of dignity and equality, violate international human rights law, reinforce social stigma, encourage discrimination, and undermine important public health efforts.
While other parts of the world are moving towards greater equality for sexual minorities, passing the “Kill the Gays” bill would be a significant step back for Uganda, which history would judge harshly. The bill is an embarrassment to civilization and based on nothing more than prejudice, and as such deserves international condemnation and must be killed. Lawmakers in Uganda and other countries that have laws criminalizing homosexuality should rather work to repeal such laws, and help place homophobia where it belongs – into the dustbin of history.
Dr. Rainer Ebert is a Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. He can be reached at www.rainerebert.com.