Thursday, November 20, 2014

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Debating Gay Rights in Africa

Homosexuality is a private choice, not a cultural, political or legal issue, argues Atabong Tamo.
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A praise group in Uganda: those from the Christian church, a foreign import, have been amongst the most vocal in denouncing homosexuality as un-African.

On the December 10, 2011, the world marked the 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On that winter’s day in 1948, the world’s elite agreed on the principle that all human rights should be universal. This has triggered much debate over the past 63 years. Of late, one of the most heated discussions over human rights has centred on the widespread discrimination and criminalisation of homosexuality in most of Africa.

Relativism and universal rights

Since independence, the question of universal human rights in Africa has been highly contested over questions of homosexuality. Today, such contestations seem to be taking a more political tone, especially in countries like Uganda where being gay is considered almost like cultism or a state of permanent psychosis. Last week, US president Barack Obama together with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, certified this political battle by announcing that the US was to use foreign aid as a tool to further gay rights all over the world. The effectiveness of such a tool and how it will be welcome in Africa, is still to be seen.

The central point will be how much African society is ready to reconcile proclaimed cultural values with the putatively Western notion of ‘universal gay rights’ or human rights in general.

Shashi Tharoor poses the following questions:

“Isn't talking about universal rights rather like saying that the rich and the poor both have the same right to fly first class and to sleep under bridges? Don't human rights as laid out in the international covenants ignore the traditions, the religions, and the socio-cultural patterns of what used to be called the Third World?”

To answer some of these questions, it is important to distinguish the category of rights we are talking about. Some enjoy virtually universal consensus; no religion or culture would publicly endorse killing, torture or even theft as a moral right. Indeed, these acts threaten the very foundations of our public sphere. The question then is, why are certain private and consensual acts or relationships, which pose no immediate risks in the public domain, criminalised?

Cultural Conservatism

The answer lies in notions of culture. Over the years there has been increased talk of gays being discriminated against in most of Africa. Many consider the notion of being homosexual not only immoral but one that deserves heavy criminal sanctions. To better understand why such an aggressive stand has been taken, we must situate the notion of homosexuality within the broader cultural formation of many African societies.

Many have objected to absorbing homosexuality into mainstream society because they believe that alternative sexualities tarnish society and will in the long run infiltrate the "pure" African society they envisage. But taking this notion of supposed African-ness – and putting aside the factual veracity of the ideas that inform it – we must ask what forms of ‘African culture’ ought to be protected and which can be allowed to adapt?

Most African leaders today prefer Western high street designer suits with tie and shirt as opposed to the traditional dress worn by their ancestors. Are traditional patterns of dressing not worth protecting? Or is it acceptable to mix Western and traditional ways of dressing in ways popular in much of Africa today? Surely any person has the right of choice as to what to wear. Indeed, this example can refer to any number of private choices individuals make in ways that have absolutely no roots in traditional culture.

African culture and society evolves and is capable of embracing once alien practices not because culture is infinitely adaptable, but because decisions are considered to fall within the private sphere and do not cause any harm to third parties.

Religious right

Further contradictions in culturalist arguments emerge when we look to the African church, whose leaders are amongst those most adamantly against gay rights in many African countries. These preachers can hardly place their faith and religion within the context of African culture. Christianity itself is alien to traditional African culture and only infiltrated the continent through colonisation. Christianity was initially resisted but today it is not only tolerated, but hundreds of millions subscribe to the religion and many African leaders are sworn into office with one hand on the bible.

Nevertheless, it must be remembered as religious arguments abound and religious leaders lobby politicians over the immorality of homosexuality that most African states are not theocratic.

Politics, law and culture

Ultimately, we live in a multicultural world in which people with vastly complex and often contending beliefs must live side-by-side. In many cases this coexistence occurs completely peacefully. Regarding homosexuality in Africa and the world, it seems that the main stumbling blocks to rights and freedom are not cultural or religious barriers but the politicisation of these issues. In the same way that Republican politicians in the US feel politically compelled to criticise gay marriage, many African leaders are required for political reasons to denounce homosexuality as un-African.

But being gay is not a crime. It is a private act and causes no harm to third parties. Nor is it a legal issue and  legal rules in of themselves have never and will never lead to the adoption of new moral norms. Homosexuality is a private choice and has nothing to do with criminal law as long as it poses no threat to third parties and wider society. The right to decide who and when to love ought to be one that is enjoyed by homosexuals as well as heterosexuals.

It is culture that distinguishes humans from animals, but when cultural claims are used to criminalise private choices and legitimise the beating, abuse and discrimination of a persecuted minority, those cultural claims must be very thoroughly questioned.

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