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Science alone can’t shift anti-gay prejudice in Africa

Uganda has come under pressure over its anti-homosexual laws. Reuters/Edward Echwalu

Science alone can’t shift anti-gay prejudice in Africa

This article is part of a series The Conversation Africa is running on issues related to LGBTI in Africa. You can read the rest of the series here.

South Africa was the first country in the world to include protection on the grounds of sexuality in its constitution. It remains a marked contrast to many of its African neighbours, which have either retained colonial laws against homosexual behaviour or, in some cases, introduced or strengthened such laws.

Thus it is not surprising that a report such as the Diversity of Human Sexuality, Implications for Policy in Africa should come from the Academy of Science South Africa.

The report provides a clear and rigorous summary of the current state of the science on diverse sexuality. But given the strength of anti-gay sentiment in Africa, whether it will be able to influence politicians is far from certain.

The science of sexuality

The idea that homosexuality may be biologically determined is hardly new. For more than a century there has been tension between the ideas that our sexuality is essential, and the idea that, in Freudian terms, we have the potential to act out a far greater range of sexual desires and identities than we do in practice.

In the end, how much does it matter? If people are convinced that homosexuality is bad, the claim for genetic cause is rather like finding the genetic basis for, say, haemophilia. There will be pressure to discover the causal gene and modify or eliminate.

Sexuality is a complex mix of desire, behaviour and identity. Many people may have strong desires without behaviour, like celibate clergy, while others have considerable homosexual behaviour without much desire and no identity (as is true for many who sell sex).

Sexuality and identity

In most societies, across most of history, the contemporary notions of “master identities” based on sexuality have not existed.

There are considerable examples throughout Africa of both homosexual acts and non-conformist gender identities. There are fewer examples of people adopting particular identities because of this.

The current rhetoric of “LGBTI” people is both liberatory and exclusive. The term lumps together different categories, and assumes a “community” whereas the majority of people who experience conflicted gender identity or same-sex desire almost certainly have no sense of a collective identity.

Nor is gender non-conformity always treated in the same way as homosexuality. In a world that is increasingly connected through travel and social media, it is not surprising that terms imported from the west are applied across the world. As Mark Gevisser wrote more than a decade ago:

The internet, satellite TV and video rental stores are all key elements in the development of gay consciousness in Africa. As this happens nerves become raw, as is clearly evidenced from the anger unleashed in African political and clerical leaders.

For the first time, severely repressed societies are forced to talk about sex, a conversation which ends, logically, at a new analysis of gender, and the roles that men and women play in both the bedroom and in society.

Homosexuality and the law

Meanwhile, Western countries have experienced rapid change in attitudes towards homosexuality, symbolised by the legal recognition of same sex marriage across Western Europe and most of the US.

Both the European Union and the Obama administration increasingly speak of sexuality in terms of human rights. This allows many leaders in the rest of the world to depict “gay rights” as neocolonial attacks on traditional culture and religion.

The past decade has seen both increasing visibility of both homosexual and trans people, and a growing gulf between societies which are moving towards greater acceptance and those in which there is increasing hostility, often fuelled by political and religious leaders.

Against the images of Catholic Ireland voting for same-sex marriage, we need set those of men being thrown from rooftops by Islamic State forces, of brutal bashings in Putin’s Russia, of considerable numbers of “corrective rapes” of women perceived to be lesbian in parts of Africa.

Human rights and homosexuality

Homosexuality has become a marker of Western modernity, scorned by leaders who are increasingly using it to denounce the broader human rights rhetoric of western governments.

Just why homosexuality has become so central in this dispute is uncertain. Although it is worth remembering that Lee Kuan Yew and Mohammed Mahathir deployed similar language in their framing of “Asian values” in the 1990s.

Anti-colonial resentments and religious fundamentalism, both Christian and Islamic, come together in Africa to bolster the image of homosexuality as imported and alien to existing norms and cultures.

Sometimes these abuses receive international attention, as in the case of the Ugandan gay activist, David Kato, who was murdered in 2011 shortly after winning a lawsuit against a local magazine which had outed him and called for his execution.

Since then there have been various attempts to strengthen anti-homosexual legislation. This has led to considerable US and European pressure on the Ugandan authorities.

When US President Barack Obama visited Senegal in 2012 he called for greater tolerance. But Senegalese President Macky Sall responded that Senegal was “not yet ready” to decriminalise homosexuality. Nigeria outlawed same-sex marriage in the absence of any local movement calling for its introduction.

The role of activism

At the same time, small groups of activists are working to create communities and defend rights, even in the most hostile of environments. Some of them have been forced into exile; others face daily threats to their lives, as the film Born This Way from Cameroon graphically depicts.

Opinion poll data suggests a vast gap between countries, predominately in the Atlantic world and Latin America, where homosexuality is accepted, and those, above all in Africa and the Middle East, where the spectre of Western style homosexuality – and same-sex marriage – is being used to bolster political and religious authority.

As the US and the EU are becoming more aggressive in demanding recognition of “LGBTI rights”, there is an equal mobilisation of opposition which has been played out in bitter battles within international fora.

More than 70 countries retain criminal sanctions against homosexual behaviour. In most countries, sexual or gender non-conformity means the risk of discrimination, violence, even death.

Legal change is essential, but legal change by itself is not sufficient. Nor does hectoring from Western countries, or appeals to human rights, have much chance of changing either government policies or local attitudes.

Only organising at a local level, and using language appropriate to African conditions, rather than the international rhetoric of human rights, is likely to succeed.

I applaud this report, but unfortunately deeply held prejudices are not easily changed by appeals to science and reason.

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