By Bonnie Bates.
Promoted as an early Christmas gift to the nation, on December 20, 2013, the Ugandan Parliament approved the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA). The AHA entrenched the criminalization of homosexuality in Uganda; anyone found guilty of the “offence” of homosexuality would be imprisoned for life. HIV status was also criminalized, with compulsory HIV tests performed on anyone charged under the Act.
The current criminalization of the Ugandan LGBT community strongly parallels that of genocide, in that the Ugandan government has constructed an Other based on their sexuality for state-sponsored oppression and elimination. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as acts committed with intent to destroy a specific group, in whole or in part; acts which include: “killing; causing serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. [United Nations].
Genocide Watch has further elaborated upon this definition, outlining how genocide is a process that develops in ten stages: classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination and denial. These stages are not linear; they can occur simultaneously, but are the result of premeditated planning with the desired result of persecuting a target group [Stanton, 2013]. Genocide can therefore be seen as an extreme exercise in hegemony; the creation of an Other by forces of power for oppression and elimination.
Creating the conditions for genocide has required the Ugandan government to employ multiple manipulations of history, in order to enforce and popularize their constructed narrative of the LGBT as Other. The narratives of colonialism, religion, and homosexuality as un-African have all been manipulated; racializing the discourse on Ugandan homosexuality, creating an Other as something that is not indigenously African, and therefore deserving of persecution.
Racism was a foundation of anti-sodomy laws. Since medieval times, the English have considered sodomy as an offense to god, ritual and social purity, and linked the practice of such crimes with Jews and apostates; the racial and religious Other. The control of behavior, policing of sexuality, and maintenance of social purity functioned as a motivational trifecta for British colonial racism. As Ronald Hyam has observed, “sex is at the very heart of racism.” [Hyam, 203]. The sexual and racial Other had to be contained, isolated and punished. Sex had to be policed, both to oppress African populations and to maintain the power of the white colonial occupation.
Codifying sexual deviance to include homosexuality and prescribing punitive remedies for the sexual Other occurred through the imposition of British mores and colonial law, which permeated the populace through religion and education. The “civilizing mission” of British colonial occupation began with Christian missionaries, intent on erasing African religion and culture through an ideological indoctrination of western religion and education. [Adyanga, 15-18].
This ideological indoctrination served to fashion the myth of homosexuality as ‘un-African’. As Marc Epprecht has noted: “African sexuality, in short, needed to be fixed by propaganda, legislation and perhaps a global rescue mission.” [Epprecht (2010), 768]. Ample anthropological and historical evidence from across the African continent refutes the myth of the un-African homosexual [Epprecht (2013),Tamale (2011)]. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Africans have existed for centuries; African sexuality was diverse, accepted, celebrated and recognized as an innate expression of identity.
Such diversity clashed with the British model of correct behaviour. Consequently, just as they did with African religious and cultural practices, the missionary and colonial discourse recast the diversity of African sexuality to suit their constructed narrative of proper Christian colonial subjects. This constructed narrative white-washed “civilized” Africans in the projected image of colonial power. Africans were encouraged through such discourses to equate homophobic constructions of sexuality with civilization and progress, and view their traditional practices and acceptance of sexual diversity as backwards and heathen. The “civilizing mission” imported homophobia to Africa. [Epprecht (2010), 770-773, Kaoma (2009), 14].
Homophobia serves a new political master. The Ugandan government has actively promoted the narrative of homosexuality as a perceived threat to public safety, morality and the traditional African family [Bruner, Cowell]. The power of the state has worked to fashion and persecute this sexual Other; creating a public discourse that is hate-based, vilifying the LGBT Other as a traitorous, un-African, HIV-infected threat to the stability of the nation. Homosexuality was declared a western import, something brought to Africa by the white man and not indigenously African. The Ugandan government recycled the language of colonial occupation. Previously the white power castigated the black African for their “abnormal” sexuality; now Ugandans use the language of white power to oppress fellow Ugandans. Gay Ugandans were referred to as “cockroaches” that required “people with guns to sniff them out”. [Divani, Kalende].
Yoweri Museveni has determinedly constructed the conditions for Ugandan LGBT genocide. Organized political power, oppressive legislation and control of discourse have been utilized to discriminate against this Other, stigmatizing them even further through their association with HIV/AIDS. Direct persecution of this group has LGBT Ugandans fearing for their lives; those that do not flee the country are victims of violence, imprisonment and death [HRW (14 May, 2014)]. In explaining the punishment for the “sin” of homosexuality, MP David Bahati was explicit: “the wages of sin are death.” [Call Me Kuchu].
Premature death is a real possibility for LGBT Ugandans, whether from mob violence, targeted assassination, or lack of treatment for HIV/AIDS. The parallel between genocide and the criminalization of homosexuality is advanced when considering the combined impacts of the Anti-Homosexuality Act and the HIV Prevention and Control Act. Punitive laws, denial of medical care and state-sponsored discrimination and hate-mongering fuse to create HIV-related genocide. While the threat of HIV impacts all Ugandans, the compounding effects of both pieces of legislation, combined with the government-promoted hate narrative, result in the LGBT community as the primary target of HIV-related genocide.
In supporting violent homophobia, Museveni believes he is standing up to the “social imperialism” of Western pressure to adopt a more lenient position on homosexuality [Gander]. Where once Museveni was compared to Nelson Mandela [McKinely], his actions have pushed Western governments to cut their aid – an act Museveni sees as positive for Uganda [Mwesigye]. Museveni has calculated that the West will protest the AHA but will not intercede further on behalf of the LGBT community. If they were unwilling to stop the Rwandan genocide, why would they stop genocide against homosexuals? For Museveni, promoting hateful homophobia is an expression of African agency against perceived Western imperialism. However, Western complicity behind the conditions for LGBT genocide cannot conclude by allowing Museveni impunity to act on his genocidal plans.
Postscript: the Anti-Homosexality Act was overturned by a panel of judges on August 1, as they found it had been passed without the necessary parliamentary quorum. The Ugandan government has vowed to bring the Act back to parliament. Conservative actors view this set-back as an opportunity to enhance the criminalization of homosexuality, while moderate voices continue to call for the Act to remain null and void. Violence against the LGBT community has continued, with a spike reported when the Act was overturned. The underlying problems of state-sponsored hate, evangelical-promoted homophobia, and the criminalization of HIV status continue unabated. The conditions for LGBT genocide remain.
Bonnie Bates is a Masters student in History and African Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa.
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