Sunday, 6 April 2014

Gay rights, Christianity and Africa

Yes, it's a sweeping title, Gay rights, Christianity and Africa. It's almost as if  I consider that I have somehow earned the right to pronounce on one of today's thorniest issues by virtue of a couple of years in one corner of a huge continent; a mere 60 years or so of intermittent church attendance; and a sometimes wavering allegiance to Guardian-reading liberalism.

What has sparked off this post is a short article which appeared in the Guardian a couple of days ago, entitled African Christians will be killed if C of E accepts gay marriage, says Justin Welby. On an LBC phone-in, the Archbishop of Canterbury had recounted the story of a massacre of 330 Christians in Nigeria. The neighbours who had perpetrated this ghastly act had apparently justified their actions by saying,

'If we leave a Christian community here we will all be made to become homosexual and so we will kill all the Christians.'

The Archbishop had agonised - and I believe this of him - that if the Church of England accepted gay marriage, which he doesn't believe in anyway, it would be endangering the lives of Christians across a wide swathe of the world: not just in Nigeria and Uganda but in South Sudan and Pakistan and probably many many other countries as well.

It is so obvious to those of us outside the situation that the threat of violence and the murders actually committed by mobs in countries such as Nigeria are a form of indirect, and sometimes direct, blackmail. And we all know that nobody should give in to blackmail, don't we? Still, 330 dead ...it makes you wonder, doesn't it? Not our own families, of course.

However, there is another striking feature of this Guardian account, the phrase, 'we will all be made to become homosexual.' This idea that somehow one person, or a group of people, can force other people to adopt a sexual orientation which is not part of their 'natural' make up has become widespread in many parts of Africa.

When we were in Uganda, there was a lot of talk in newspapers, in general chat and within professional seminars even, of the issue of 'recruiting' people (usually young men) into homosexual activity. Homosexuality was said to be 'un-African', and some people were going further and insisted that it has been introduced by westerners, although no one explained why they would bother.  We were stunned to discover that this myth was not just bandied about by the red-tops but was one which many educated Ugandans, including people with whom we worked and whom we respected, actually believed. A proselytising American, Scott Lively, has been accused by Rev Dr Kapya Kaoma, a Zambian Anglican priest, of being behind the recruitment myth, and, in particular, is seen as responsible for influencing the Ugandan parliament, to which he has had - and continues to have - significant access.

The fear of homosexual recruitment, particularly in schools, was behind the recent legislation reluctantly and tardily signed by the Ugandan President. The origin of the fear, of course, partly lies in poor schooling: inadequate education about science in general and about genetics in particular, among the general population and even among graduates. People do not understand that homosexuality is not something one chooses, but a preference or attraction of which people gradually become aware. Indeed, the proportion of people with homosexual tendencies remains roughly the same in all cultures.

The President, unfortunately, had recourse to the opinions of local 'scientists', none of whom seemed to have any international standing or involvement in research into sexuality. Their view was that there is no genetic basis to homosexual tendencies. Behind it all was fear, the scientists' fear of giving unpopular pronouncements and even, quite possibly, the fear of a President fast losing popularity and with the prospect of an election in the not-too-distant future.

The myth in Africa of homosexual recruitment is the equivalent of the European smear about Jews which appeared in the Middle Ages and persisted right through the nineteenth century and until our own era: the myth that Jews murdered children and ground up their blood and bones to use in black masses. We saw the outworking of such tales in the horrors of the Holocaust and in the attitudes of Poles, Hungarians and Russians before and even after the war, when Jewish survivors of concentration camps still lived in fear of their lives and many were murdered by their one-time neighbours. The prejudice is still there, though without the religious rationale. And as in eastern European shtetls and ghettos, so in African communities, those who are identified as 'other' are at real risk of becoming victims of pogroms, murderous mob behaviour which can be whipped up almost without warning.

Mixed up in the general ignorance about sexuality which is behind the 'recruitment' myth, is a confusion about the existence and nature of paedophilia. In Africa, this concept and term are almost always applied only in the context of male adults grooming male children. Widespread sexual abuse and rape of underage girls, however, is often not seen as paedophilia but as the natural expression of male sexuality, as Stephen Fry's interview with Uganda's Minister of Ethics last year demonstrated. Put simplistically: rape of girls is acceptable, rape of boys is not. Some of the countries with the most draconian laws against homosexuals, like Egypt, are also those which have some of the highest rates of violence against women. Attacks on women seem to be increasing in Uganda also, following the new legislation about homosexuality and pornography. (http://onziema.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/divide-and-rule-a-resounding-success/)

I do not wish to imply, of course, that mob action against minorities is a purely African phenomenon. The whipping up of violent feelings against immigrants in Greece and Roma in Italy has been widely reported. Homosexual hate crimes still take place in Britain, which repealed its anti-homosexual legislation some time ago. In fact, the original legislation against same-sex relations in Uganda dates back to 1894, during the British Protectorate: the most recent law is simply an enhancement.  Northern Ireland saw years of riots between different political and religious groupings. In Rwanda, the mutual suspicion between Tutsis and Hutus was deliberately nurtured by the Belgian colonialists, dividing to rule. Yet,still, human nature seems to present fertile territory for the seeds of hatred to grow. What is it about human beings that makes them so hate and fear the 'other'? In what way does a loving relationship between two consenting homosexual adults threaten the security of those who disapprove of it? And what makes this fear so widespread?

Which brings me, by a circuitous route, to Malawi - for it was when I was in Malawi that I was reading all the comment on events surrounding the new legislation in Uganda. I was interested to see what line would be taken by the Malawian press.

Firstly, I was agreeably surprised by how low key and unhysterical the reporting of gay issues was. Secondly, I was astonished to see that every Saturday, in the Weekend Nation, there was half a page entitled Sexual Minority Forum with Timothy and Trepence. Now, I am aware that this section was located on the Advertorial page, so, was perhaps, paid for by the writers. Nevertheless, I couldn't imagine such a column in a Ugandan newspaper, not even The Monitor, even though the latter has taken a liberal approach to gay rights and has challenged much of what has been going on politically over the last few years. The Forum section is well written and, on 8th March, the authors analysed what had been going on in Nigeria and Uganda in relation to gay rights. It made a link between the criminalising of same-sex relations with the prevalence of HIV. It pointed out that now that Ugandan doctors are  required to report homosexuals, it will be very difficult for them to contain the spread of the virus within the homosexual community.

The following weekend, the Weekend Nation carried a notice for a Debate/panel discussion that evening on the issue of 'minority rights', code for gay rights. There has been a lot of support for a rather strange suggestion that Malawi should hold a referendum on the issue of homosexuality and the debate was to be a contribution to discussion. The debate's sponsors were two organisations, The Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation and The Centre for the Development of People, supported by the United States Embassy.  The topics for discussion included: whether homosexuality was 'un-African', whether people choose their sexual orientation, defining society's culture and values, sexual minorities and HIV programming and tolerance and acceptance.

Meanwhile, in the Malawi News, Pastor Nick Chakwera also considered the issue of a referendum in his weekly column, Faith and Reason. In a bizarre sequence of reasoning, he first stated that there was no need for a referendum as a majority voting for a particular issue is no guarantee that that vote is right. He rightly makes a distinction between democracy, or 'mobocracy' as he calls it, and legality. However, he then goes on to say that he does not believe a referendum is appropriate because the issue is a religious one to which there is only one correct answer.

'I hope time will not come when we have to fight because the majority of the world has come to believe against nature and its Creator'. Chillingly, by the word 'fight', Chakwera does actually mean 'take up arms'.

From my perspective, what is odd about this talk of a referendum is whether an individual country can organise a nationwide vote about whether or not to grant a section of its own population what are, after all, internationally accepted Human Rights, according to the UN Declaration.

This is the same point which was made in another article by the Minority Rights Forum, also on 15th March. It dealt with a recent completely different debate among the various running mates in May's presidential election. The writers point out that none of the running mates offered a clear position on homosexuality, one of the key issues on which they were questioned.  Their article concludes:

'The issue of extending the same rights to sexual minorities as those enjoyed by everyone else in Malawi is neither radical nor complicated. It rests on two fundamental principles that underpin international rights law: equality and non-discrimination.'

The very fact that gay rights has become a campaigning issue in the Presidential election does not, however, bode well. Let us hope that Malawi does not go the way of Nigeria and Uganda.





You may also be interested in the following articles:

The President walks a tightrope over gay rights (The Ritchies in Uganda blog)

Public relations Ugandan-style (The Ritchies in Uganda blog)

From the media:

Ugandan Rev faces prison for refusing to hate (Watchdog.net)

Scott Lively, 'protecting civilisation' from homosexuals (channel4.com)

Sandi Toskvig: 'Now we can celebrate whom we wish to love'. (The Guardian)

From equal rights to state-sponsored homophobia (Channel 4 chart indicating the range of attitudes to homosexuality in countries across the world)

I am a gay Ugandan about to go home: this law will tyrannise my life: Frank Mugisha (The Guardian)

British High Commissioner signs public statement against Anti-Homosexuality Act (www.gov.uk)

Ugandan protest anti-indecent dress and anti-gay laws (Inquirer.net)

While you were busy frothing at the mouth over the anti-gay laws (Sunday Monitor)

Ugandan Minister for Ethics and Integrity says men raping girls is natural (Patheos.com)





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