Suntosh Pillay
Suntosh Pillay

Uganda and the science on homosexuality

The Speaker of Uganda’s parliament insists the Anti-Homosexuality Bill from 2009 be passed before 2013 arrives. With the apparent goal of protecting society from sexual deviance, the ill-informed targeting of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) people illustrates the old saying that politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing the cause and using the incorrect remedy.

Fifty one Ugandan civil-society organisations joined the Ugandan Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, since October 2009, to advocate a positive sexual-rights agenda. Coordinator Jeff Ogwaro last week noted “with profound sadness” that an international outcry must continue.

This article provides a cursory overview of some reactions to the Bill by the scientific community, to increase public understanding that discrimination based on sexual orientation is unethical, unjust, inhumane and categorically opposed by leading scientific organisations.

South African psychologists took a lead in an open letter to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. In a statement by The Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA), Professor Juan Nel, a coordinator of gender and sexuality issues, noted that “research and clinical experience have found no relationship between sexual orientation and someone’s ability to contribute to the community and to influence children to become responsible members of society” and that sexual orientations “are naturally occurring minority variations of normal human sexuality … documented widely throughout nature”.

PsySSA affirms that “South African-based [and] international research has found … no difference between children who are raised by homosexual versus heterosexual parents regarding matters such as sexual orientation, gender identity, sex-role behaviour, likelihood of being sexually abused, self-concept, intelligence, personality characteristics, behaviour problems, peer relations, parental separation and divorce, general adjustment and accomplishment of developmental tasks”.

Like persecution based on race, religion, or gender, the stigma of LGBTI-identified youth often leads to socially-induced psychopathologies that arise from a misguided, unfair social system, much like the continuous trauma and anxiety that became endemic among black people during apartheid.

Furthermore, the human-rights agenda is complicated in areas where homosexuality is interpreted as “un-African”, and theories of bewitchment try to explain away sexual diversity. Historical records, however, show the presence of fluid sexual practices even in African and Arab contexts. Yet, in religiously fundamentalist countries, condemnation and execution is the norm. Refreshingly, in February 2010 the bishops of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa reported being “deeply concerned about the violent language used against the gay community across sub-Saharan Africa” appealing “to law-makers to defend the rights of these minorities”.

Even back in 2006, at a session on homosexuality at the second Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights, hosted in Kenya, it was noted that fear, hatred and abuse at the hands of intolerant and unsympathetic peers and elders hampers the personal growth and well-being of African homosexuals.

The lack of credible and reliable evidence that the measures contained in the Bill will achieve its outcome of protecting families requires an intelligent pause and methodical reflection. Instead, it is being bulldozed ahead, blind to the massive global resistance.

Ronald Schlittler, a coordinator of LGBT concerns at the American Psychological Association, recently reviewed the range of responses to the Bill. For example, The International Union of Psychological Science added sexual orientation to its non-discrimination categories in its Policy on Free Circulation of Scientists (of which the Uganda National Psychology Association is a member) and encouraged its member organisations from 82 different countries to do the same. In September 2011 the International Council for Science (ICSU) included sexual orientation and gender identity in its Universality of Science statement. This was a major step, as ICSU is a non-governmental organisation with a global membership of 120 national scientific bodies representing 140 countries and 31 International Scientific Unions.

Schlittler notes that within the last year, numerous bodies have followed suit, ensuring rationality dictates policies. These include the Psychological Association of the Philippines in October 2011; the Hong Kong College of Psychiatrists in November 2011 and The Indian Journal of Psychiatry printed an affirmative editorial on homosexuality in January 2012. Practice guidelines for psychotherapy with LGBTI clients have also been published by numerous countries, including the US, Britain, Australia and Brazil.

The momentum of scientifically-based activism has been phenomenal since the removal of homosexuality from psychiatric diagnostic manuals in the 1970s and rise in public understanding and acceptance of sexual diversity. With the exception of the National Association of Social Workers in Uganda, who strangely supported the Bill in March 2010, which was condemned by the International Federation of Social Workers, professional bodies worldwide have expressed outrage at the Bill’s genocidal implications. US President Obama described it as “odious” and as early as April 2010, 118 British MPs added their weight, signing a motion of condemnation.

A signatory to an online petition wrote that “I’m a gay Christian with a wonderful man I will marry soon. We plan to have kids as well. I was bullied all my life for being gay, I believe I was born this way and science confirms this. God created the world we live in and he created me just the way I am. And I will not let others destroy what God has created”. Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, says he “will not be allowed to be treated as a second-class citizen because of my sexual orientation”.

The human rights of homosexual men and women are virtually non-existent throughout Africa. Globally, 78 countries have criminalised homosexuality. A report presented earlier this year by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, says merely being gay could result in execution in at least five of these countries.

Why are politicians blatantly ignoring compelling and unanimous scientific evidence that their policies are flawed?

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    • Dave Harris

      Suntosh, blaming Africans for homophobia while the conservative Christian megachurchs use Africa as a battleground to wage their religious proxy wars, is equally disingenuous. Read Mark Gevisser’s excellent article and educate yourself first about this phenomenon before jumping to conclusions about Africans “unanimous scientific evidence”!

    • Steven Hussey

      Thanks for a very interesting and informative article, Suntosh. I think it is quite clear that the main culprit for the rejection of reason here is religion, for no matter what science uncovers about the nature of homosexuality, in the minds of an overwhelmingly Christian Ugandan society that is irrelevant. There has always been a disjunction between science, which explains how things happen, and religion, which (by its own assertion) claims to be the only source of morality in the world. And in the Ugandan context it is particularly bizarre, because Christianity is about as un-African as things can be, yet they uphold the most fundamentalist form of this religion because as it has been ingrained in their culture through colonial inculcation and intimidation. One cannot easily change this mindset, and the homophobic in Ugandan society can be seen as victims rather than perpetrators. Yet discrimination of homosexuals due to unctuous religious conviction is itself rank with hypocrisy, as I argued in a previous article. So the anti-homosexuality bill not only contravenes what we know about science, but also many aspects of Christianity, for it is bigoted in the choice of “sin” it wishes to punish by law, and it establishes an un-Christian practice of hatred and violence. This is what needs to be conveyed to Uganda’s politicians.

    • The Creator

      This has nothing to do with science and nobody should pretend that it does. (Homosexuality was not defined as a disease because of any scientific research; it was defined as a disease because of right-wing social pressure on the psychologists. Which essentially means that psychology is not a science.)

      This has to do with the politics of common decency and universal human rights.

    • suntosh

      Calm down Dave, nobody is jumping to any rash conclusions other than yourself.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The simplest way to sort this out in Africa is to educate both Priests and Imans to understand why there is no religious or scientific basis for this ideology – which there isn’t.

    • move along

      A thoughful article. Truth is, ALL religions, societies and cultures are (or were at some stage) anti gay to some extent. I would agree that religion (and not just so-called western christianity) is used by some to justify or fuel anti gay sentiment, but to my knowledge no modern christian church would sanction the persecution/murder/execution of gay men or women – some of them are already admitting gays as ministers. In Christianity the practice is condemned but the people are not – as is the case with every perceived “sin.” (I am an atheist BTW). Using religion (or culture for that matter) to shore up prejudice is the resort of fools trying to defend the indefensible. Think about apartheid. Black people’s claim that being gay is not balck culture and/or an influence of white colonial culture and religion is just plain rubbish. There are gay people in every single culture in the world (even animals BTW) – perhaps other cultures are just more honest in acknowledging it or sweeping it under the carpet. The problem arises when insecure people feel threatened by something that is different to their lived experience (as we see with AIDS as well) and deem it their personal duty and responsibility to stamp out that threat. It is uninformed, unsophisticated and backwards. My sentiments will not change that, but let us not perpetuate myths that are causing so much misery. Live and let live.

    • Emru Kunanti

      Here in Zimbabwe the situation is the same as in Uganda, christianity being confounded for African culture. Leaders claiming that they are upholding African values yet all they are doing is promoting the puritanism of the Queen Victoria era.

    • Belle

      Considering myself as a religious person, I think there comes a time where you have to decide what you want to believe in and what makes sense to you, because religion is not as clear cut today as it was a thousand years ago. To me it doesn’t make sense that we should be lawfully killing people for choosing to have different sexual preferences. It doesn’t make sense to condemn people for their sexuality, which is something private and intimate, when there other more pressing issues that need our attention, both religious and political.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      There is NO RELIGIOUS TEXT in the Christian Bible where Jesus Christ says that Homosexuality is wrong.

      In fact the opposite- there was a ceremony in the early Christian Church for a union of a same sex couple which is still in the oldest prayerbooks – but only the Vatican has copies,and they are hidden away.

      I challenge anyone to quote me a Christian religious text which says homosexuality is wrong.

      I think it also unlikely the Koran has such a text, simply because God does not send 2 different messages.

    • suntosh

      @steve: Thanks for the comments. The paradox, as you clearly point out, is so clear, yet the “Un-Christian” practice of hatred and bigotry endures. Selective attention to preferred aspects of The Bible and its preferred interpretations, appear to be the norm.

      @the creator: I partly agree, and psychiatry and psychology’s dark history is undisputed, but the scientific status of both disciplines requires further thought.

      @Lyndall: I fully agree. The challenge, thereafter, is this: If scientific reason shows an aspect of a religious text to be untrue or factually incorrect, what does the priest do? Abandon his/her religion; adopt a critical faith; create a ‘scientific religion’ (an oxymoron in itself?) ? I would be extrememly interested in trying this out.

      @move along: “The problem arises when insecure people feel threatened by something that is different to their lived experience” : absolutely. The fear of the unknown, whether evolutionary or not, kicks in a flight or fright response, and in the case of homosexuality, it appears that dim-witted politicians want to fight to the death.

      @emru: This is pan-African problem, where Christianity and African cosmology are confounded in complicated and contradictory ways. But, many people live with one foot in both belief systems, attending Church but praying to ancestors etc. when need be. So the value systems are not clear-cut.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Animals are NOT all male or female!

      I keep hearing this myth on the radio. I suggest some biologists and animals scientists get interviewed by journalists and radio presenters.

      There are animals where the males bring up the children, there are animals which are hermaphrodites, there are animals where the males are polygamous, there are animals which are monogamous, there are animals that go homosexual if populations are overcrowded (like birds including penguins), there are animals which change sex if the water is polluted (certain fish)

      There are also theories that the human population increases in homosexuality if overpopulated (like birds) and women give birth to homosexuals if they have cancer when pregnant (like fish in polluted water change sex)

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Female Genital Mutilation is NOT in the Koran – yet from Egypt to Somalia the Imans tell people that it is! In fact I am told that Islam bans mutilation of the body.

      Which is why I say GO BACK TO THE RELIGIOUS TEXTS – and make certain they have been correctly translated.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      I don’t know the Koran like I know the Christian Bible, but I do know that they are instructions from the Same God, and that there is ONLY ONE GOD!

      So discrepancies have to be the result of human error.

    • Vijay

      Interesting article.. and no matter how much the issue is debated, peoples attitudes will always be influenced by an ulterior motive (religious, political or otherwise)..

    • MrK

      The problem is the use of issues like homosexuality for political or religious gain. Does anyone really think that David Cameron spends any time thinking of the plight of homosexuals in Uganda? Or is he thinking about his backers interest in the giant gas reserves below Lake Albert? Access to South Sudan, which has 75% of Sudan’s oil, 49% of which is now officially owned by Glencore International Plc, through a joint ventire with the official state oil company NILEPET?

      Here is the legal context.

      1) Legal context

      Homosexuality or sodomy are banned under the criminal laws of Uganda. However, discrimination is banned by the Ugandan constitution, rendering the same criminal laws potentially or actually unconstitutional. Singling out homosexuals as the ‘kill the gays bill’ does, is most definitely unconstitutional. This is the relevant article of Uganda’s constitution, which includes language taken right out of the UN Charter of Human Rights – the Ugandan Constitution (1995):

      21. Equality and freedom from discrimination.

      (1) All persons are equal before and under the law in all spheres of political, economic, social and cultural life *and in every other respect* and shall enjoy equal protection of the law.

    • MrK

      (2) Without prejudice to clause (1) of this article, a person shall not be discriminated against on the ground of sex, race, colour, ethnic origin, tribe, birth, creed or religion, social or economic standing, political opinion or disability.

      2) Why are these laws on the books – historical context

      The criminal laws were put on the books during colonialism, in all (former) British colonies in East/Southern Africa. Homosexuality remained illegal in Britain itself for years after independence, and was only decriminalised in Northern Ireland in 1981.

      In the 1990s, with the wave of liberalisation and neoliberalism, many of these countries received very liberal constitution, complete with anti-discrimination clauses, in this case Article 21 of the Ugandan Constitution.

      3) Why is Zimbabwe different?

      Until 1999, Zimbabwe had the same above anti-discrimination clause, in Article 25. However, in 1999, the boyfriend of Tony Blair cabinet member Peter Hain, Peter Tatchell, took it upon himself to enact a ‘citizen’s arrest’ on President Mugabe and put his hands all over the old man.

      Notice that in the Zimbabwean Constitution, sex and gender are mentioned individually, and in themselves could cover homosexuality. In other words, a framework is in place.

      Zimbabwean Constitution (1979 Lancaster House, amended in 2007):

    • MrK


      23 Protection from discrimination on the grounds of race, etc.

      (1) Subject to the provisions of this section—

      (a) no law shall make any provision that is discriminatory either of itself or in its effect; and

      (b) no person shall be treated in a discriminatory manner by any person acting by virtue of any written law or in the performance of the functions of any public office or any public authority.

      (2) For the purposes of subsection (1), a law shall be regarded as making a provision that is discriminatory and a person shall be regarded as having been treated in a discriminatory manner if, as a result of that law or treatment, persons of a particular description by race, tribe, place of origin, political opinions, colour, creed, sex, gender, marital status or physical disability are prejudiced—

      (a) by being subjected to a condition, restriction or disability to which other persons of another such description are not made subject; or

      (b) by the according to persons of another such description of a privilege or advantage which is not accorded to persons of the first-mentioned description; and the imposition of that condition, restriction or disability or the according of that privilege or advantage is wholly or mainly attributable to the description by race, tribe, place of origin, political opinions, colour, creed, sex, gender, marital status or physical disability of the persons concerned. […].

    • suntosh

      Thanks for that MRK. Useful info.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      I would like to know what the Koran says about homosexuality. And I mean the Koran, not the Haddiths, not the Suna, not any version of Sharia Law as constructed by priests.

      AND a properly translated, non Saudi subsidised one. I can find no such Koran in any bookshop in SA – all English translations are Saudi subsidised.

    • suntosh

      Lyndall, what do the current versions that you have access to say?

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