Ugandan academy endorses pro-gay report

The Ugandan National Academy of Sciences' endorsement contradicts President Yoweri Museveni's stance that homosexuality is abnormal and should be outlawed. (Edward Echwalu, Reuters)

The Ugandan National Academy of Sciences' endorsement contradicts President Yoweri Museveni's stance that homosexuality is abnormal and should be outlawed. (Edward Echwalu, Reuters)

The Ugandan National Academy of Sciences (Unas) has endorsed a report that says homosexuality and gender and sexual diversity are natural phenomena, which contradicts Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s stance that homosexuality is abnormal and should be outlawed. Unas and the Academy of Sciences of South Africa (Assaf) are the only academies of science in Africa to endorse the report.

Uganda is one of a number of countries in Africa where homosexuality is a crime. At the moment, consensual adult sexual conduct with someone of the same sex is illegal in 76 countries, with a death sentence in seven countries: Iran, Mauritania, parts of Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. Although the World Health Organisation declassified homosexuality as an illness or disorder in 1990, there is still a widespread perception that there is something unnatural about being gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex, and that this is “unAfrican”.

The report, entitled Diversity in Human Sexuality: Implications for Policy in Africa and published by Assaf, was formulated by 13 experts to answer whether sexual diversity is unnatural and “unAfrican”, if it can be “corrected”, whether children are at risk from association with homosexuals and if there are benefits to outlawing same-sex sexual acts, among a number of other questions.

The report, based on the latest scientific evidence, found that:

  • Gender identity (what gender a person identifies as), gender expression (how they demonstrate their gender), biological sex (which ranges from female sexual organs through intersex to male sexual organs) and sexual orientation (who a person is physically, spiritually and emotionally attracted to) is part of a continuum and that no positions on this spectrum are “unnatural”.
  • There can be no justifications to “eliminate” lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons from society.
  • Sociobehavioural research shows that people do not feel that they have a choice in their sexuality.
  • Conservative estimates put global prevalence of people who identify as homosexual at 5%, with no evidence that this percentage is any lower in African countries. About 50-million people in Africa – just less than the population of South Africa – are estimated to be homosexual.
  • Sexuality is not linked to the way parents bring up their children and sexual orientation cannot be “acquired” through the people with whom you associate.
  • Tolerance of sexual orientation was found to positively impact societies’ public health, civil society and long-term economic growth, and repression was found to negatively affect the general population’s health.
  • Repressive laws pertaining to sexual orientation cause major harm to public health systems and the population’s health through lack of access to healthcare for homosexuals, lack of information, particularly in the areas of HIV, TB and STI, and result in mental health problems for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals because of the stigma and repression that they experience.
  • People are not homosexual because of childhood sexual abuse.
  • Same-sex orientation cannot be changed through “reparative” or “conversion” therapy.

“We wanted a rational approach to this very irrational response [by African governments] to gender and sexual diversity,” Dr Glenda Gray told the Mail & Guardian ahead of the report’s release at the 7th South Africa Aids Conference in Durban on Wednesday night.

“[The aim] was to unequivocally make the statement that gender and sexual diversity [are] a normal variant of life,” said Gray, who is the head of the Medical Research Council and on the consensus panel. “We realised that it has to come from Africa and African scientists have to be involved in it, otherwise it will be rejected as something from the ‘West’.”

But the fact that this report originates in South Africa – despite the endorsement by Unas – means that it is likely to be ignored by politicians in Uganda, and possibly other policymakers on the continent. Dr Sylvia Tamale, a prominent academic and founder of the Law, Gender and Sexuality Research Project in Uganda, says: “I highly doubt that it will influence policymakers. The fact that it was developed by Assaf is also significant as it’ll give policymakers the usual excuse to dismiss it as a report influenced by whites,” Tamale says.

Museveni, in a letter to his Parliament last year, allegedly wrote: “You cannot call an abnormality an alternative orientation. It could be that the Western societies, on account of random breeding, have generated many abnormal people … The question at the core of the debate on homosexuality is what do we do with an abnormal person? Do we kill him/her? Do we imprison him/her? Or we do contain him/her?”

But the report “finds no reason to believe that prevalence of sexualities outside of the heterosexual is any different in Africa to anywhere else”, says Dr Jason van Niekerk, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of jurisprudence at the University of Pretoria and a member of the panel.

“There’s harm done by the idea that Africa is exempt from [this] prevalence. It allows law makers to treat the problems of people [who are not heterosexual] who are in fact their citizens, constituents and members of their communities as though they are an external threat.”

‘No evidence’
In the report, the authors liken the problematic reasoning behind the prohibition of same-sex orientations and same-sex sexual behaviour to laws against miscegenation (sexual relations between races). “They justified those laws with arguments such that ‘cross-colour’ sex was ‘unnatural’ and a hazard to public health,” the authors write. “Yet there is no evidence that couples of different races produce family outcomes any different to those outcomes where both parents are from the same ethnic or racial group ... science has long shown that there is no reliable evidence that homosexuality causes harm, either to the participating individuals or to society.”

In fact, the report finds that recent science, including a number of large-scale studies, finds that “all harms associated with same-sex orientation derive from hostile social climates that discriminate and persecute any sexuality that does not adhere to the heteronormative standards of a particular society”.

Asked what could be done to improve the lives of LGBTI people in African countries – where stigma and violence against them is widespread – Tamale says there needs to be more evidence-based research and dissemination “that homosexuality is not unAfrican, the actual effects of discriminating against LGBTI persons, [and] what the different permutations of sexual orientation and gender identity are, and not to confuse the two, and especially more data about transgenderism and intersexuality”.

Despite the likelihood that this report will be rejected by Ugandan policymakers, Tamale says that although government media houses have a “standing blackout policy of not covering news on homosexuality”, she expects other media houses in the country will pick up on the report.

Also, she believes that an important way to improve these marginalised people’s livelihoods is “using judicial means through the filing of public interest litigation cases addressing discrimination, inequality and criminalisation.”

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild


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