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Urgency required!

Urgency is required at this very moment as the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009 is pending before the Ugandan Parliament. Same-sex relationships are already illegal in the country, with sentences running from five years to life imprisonment. The laws, which are based on the British colonial penal code, do not specifically refer to relationships between women, but lesbians are stigmatized and face similar aggression and malice from society and the state as gay men. the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill increases in scope both the definition of ‘homosexual acts’ and the punishment: the death penalty for repeated offences, those who are HIV-positive and for same-sex acts with anyone under 18 years.  

Similar to the now shelved ‘Same Sex Marriage’ Bill in Nigeria, this Bill extends to criminalizing anyone who witnesses, supports or associates with people involved in same-sex relationships.   Human rights activists and organizations working in the area of sexuality and HIV/AIDS are in a perilous position: under the proposed law they will all be criminalized. As the law institutionalizes the discrimination of lesbians and gays, they will have no redress either morally or legally if they are physically attacked, raped or discriminated against. They will no longer be human beings, but illegal beings. Women will be even more vulnerable to rape, as rapists will be able to accuse the woman of being a lesbian and therefore ‘deserving of rape’. In such a society it is hard to speak out against rape at the best of times; how much more so if you are going to be accused of being a lesbian and given a five-year prison sentence. Even to touch someone in a ‘gay’ way is punishable.   

In short, the Bill is utterly inhumane and violates all African Union and international human rights legislation and treaties to which Uganda is also a signatory. The horrific implications for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people – and in fact the rights of everyone across Africa – cannot be underestimated. Three gay men were recently arrested in Malawi; a mob attacked a gay wedding party in Kenya. In Uganda, meanwhile, the despicable behaviour and language of Pastor S reached new homophobic heights when he led an organized anti-gay demonstration with marchers carrying placards which read ‘Kill Gays’. The situation is such that if this Bill is passed, with or without the death penalty, the chances are strong that some of the 38 African countries which criminalize same-sex relationships will attempt to copy the Ugandan Bill. 

Urgency Required is an admirable and timely book which provides a comprehensive exploration of the state of LGBT rights worldwide. It takes as its reference point the 2006 Yogyarkarta Principles [1], the premise of which is that gay and lesbian rights are human rights. The book includes an historical perspective and exploration of concepts and terminology around same-sex intimacy and transgender; a discussion on the struggle for gay and lesbian rights in Africa, Asia and Latin America; and a look at the range of strategies for furthering gay and lesbian rights and equality.
Beginning with a series of essays tracing the historical roots of homosexuality and homophobia in Europe, we follow the changing attitudes, from the pitiful pathologizing of gay and lesbians as ‘sick or  perverted’ to the point at which decriminalization is achieved (though not completely accepted) in society. The discussion raises a number of interesting points which relate to the current homosexuality debate and rampant homophobia being experienced in many African countries. The first relates to language and ‘coming out’. Up until the mid 1990s, the word ‘homosexuality’ hardly existed; ‘homophobia’ was first used as late as the mid 1960s. It was at the point when homosexual men began to assert themselves and increase their visibility that we find psychology and religious institutions entering the frame. Secondly, the struggle for homosexual rights in, for example, the Netherlands, was a struggle for secularization against notions of morality by religious institutions on the one hand and criminalization from the state on the other (as late as 1938 castration was legal for homosexual acts as well as rape). Two of the more engaging chapters in this first section are the ones by Rob Tielman, which compares homosexuality in Islam, Christianity and Humanism in a Dutch context, and Robert Davidson, who uses a Fanonist analysis to examine identity politics.    

Tielman’s essay speaks to the debate around ‘gay imperialism’, which uses queerness as a ‘symbol of freedom’ and a way of rationalizing ‘restrictive and racist immigration policies in “Western” or “liberal” nations.’ (2) He identifies eight paradoxes to examine the contradictions between gay liberation and Islamic liberation.  

Whilst I agree with most of his observations or paradoxes – such as that claims of not knowing any homosexuals simply means one is mixing with a lot of gays and lesbians who are in the closet. Or that the hostility in some countries towards LGBT people can be attributed to language and naming.  For example, the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ do not exist in many cultures or languages. This does not mean same-sex relations do not take place. It just means they are not named in terms that have come to be associated with Western culture and imperialism.  

Tielman just about manages not to fall into the ‘Gay Imperialist’ trap by not conflating Islam with cultural traditions and by pointing out that some of these cultural traditions ‘might’ have Western colonial origins. But he then goes on to imply that young Muslim immigrants act homophobically because they are confronted with open homosexuality rather than the closeted homosexuality found in Muslim countries. This needs further examination on a wider scale: indigenous homophobic youth culture is as much, if not more, widespread than Islamic, and the focus on this group contains an implied racism and rationalizes anti-immigration – read anti-Islamic – immigration. 

The chapter by Davidson, ‘Queering Politics, Desexualizing the Mind’ is by far the most thought-provoking in this first section. Davidson makes a compelling argument for applying Queer theory as an alternative to conventional identity. Using Fanon’s theory of ‘decolonizing the mind’ as a way of deconstructing identity in relation to sexuality (which he calls ‘desexualizing the mind’), he moves away from the binary logic within which most LGBT rights have been fought. In other words, rather than a politics of ‘mimicking’, where the aim is for the ‘Other’ (gays and lesbians) to live up to the values of the ‘One’ (the heterosexual), the goal should be ‘to embrace difference and reject assimilation’. Just as colonialism works by imposing its logic on the colonized, so too do ‘dominant sexual structures’ impose their own sexual rationale on non-hetero-normative ways. This would include for example the rejection of same-sex marriage and categories such as LGBT, which fix and control us by implying that sexuality is not only unchanging but that one needs to be given specific names based on sexual desire. These categories confuse sexual activity and very often have no meaning in the reality of people’s lives. 

The book provides a regional analysis by way of a mixture of detailed documentation of LGBT movements and struggle, personal stories and reviews of texts. Again, the coverage is comprehensive and by addressing LGBT rights in a global context the authors are able to highlight areas of common struggle, such as discrimination and social attitudes, which impact negatively on LGBT people. This is important: often the international media demonizes particular countries and regions as somehow standing alone in ‘homophobia’ whereas, like ‘homosexuality’, it is to be found in all countries, cultures and social classes. The distinction between countries and regions is a question of the degree of ‘homophobia’ and whether or not ‘homosexuality’ is criminalized.  

(1) Yogyakarta Principles: a universal guide to human rights which affirm binding international legal standards with which all States must comply. www.yogyakartaprinciples.org

(2) Racism and the Censorship of Gay Imperialism - Alana.Letin blog - http://ow.ly/19s9r

Urgency Required: Gay and Lesbian Rights Are Human Rights edited by Ireen Dubel and Andre Hielkema is published by HIVOS. The book can be ordered at [email protected] for €15.00 or it can be downloaded: www.hivos.net/urgencyrequired

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