'Un-African' sex myths exploded

Selective: Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has ignored the fact that homosexuality predates colonialism. (Reuters)

Selective: Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has ignored the fact that homosexuality predates colonialism. (Reuters)

Phumla and two friends were driving home from soccer practice with two men from their township. “Instead of taking us home, they took us to a place out of town … [One of the men] grabbed me and dragged me into a house where there was another man waiting.

“All the time they were telling me that I needed to be taught a lesson, that I wasn’t a man. I was a girl and I needed to start acting like one,” said Phumla, who identifies as lesbian. “I blamed myself for the rape. I did not tell anyone.”

Phumla’s story forms part of ActionAid’s report titled Hate Crimes: The Rise of “Corrective” Rape in South Africa, and is one of the many stories from South Africa, and Africa as a whole, about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) people being subjected to violence and abuse.

The justifications for this are usually that homosexuality is unnatural, that women should behave like women (and men like men), that they choose to be deviant and can be taught to behave differently, and that homosexuality is contagious. These are also the reasons given for why countries such as Uganda and Russia promulgate anti-gay laws: to protect children and the citizenry from what is seen as an unnatural blight.

But these prejudices have no basis in science, according to a 13-author, multidisciplinary report by the Academy of Sciences of South Africa titled Diversity in Human Sexuality: Implications for Policy in Africa.

“We wanted a rational approach to this very irrational response to gender and sexual diversity,” Dr Glenda Gray said before the report’s release at the South African Aids Conference in Durban on Wednesday night.

“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 … [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.

The experts included anthropologists, ethicists, geneticists, medical doctors, public health and mental health specialists, she said. “Science raises the voice of reason, and scientists are important in bringing reason to this dialogue.”

Consensual adult sexual conduct with someone of the same sex is illegal in 76 countries, with a death sentence in seven, namely 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.

Scientific consensus
But the scientific consensus, which the new report raises, is that gender identity (what gender a person identifies as), gender expression (how they demonstrate their gender), biological sex (which includes female sexual organs, intersex and male sexual organs) and sexual orientation (who a person is physically, spiritually and emotionally attracted to) are part of a continuum, none of which is unnatural.

None of these elements is a binary: that a person can only physically be a man or a woman, identify as masculine or feminine and express themselves as one or the other, and be attracted to only one sex. And there is no scientific evidence that this is a choice.

“There is more and more evidence for the fact that all of this is determined in the prenatal period,” said Professor Michael Pepper, a medical doctor and the director of the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of Pretoria, who was on the panel that compiled the report.

Many studies have found that most children know their sexual orientation before puberty, and shaming, outlawing and “corrective” measures will not change what a person feels is their gender and who they are attracted to.

“We believe that all of this [happens] before birth, and this is very important, because whatever your sexual orientation is, it is not something over which you have a choice,” Pepper said. “It is unlikely to be corrected into what society would consider normal.”

What is “normal” is problematic. Several anti-gay arguments contend that homosexuality goes against natural selection because of the fundamental need for reproduction.

But, in a seminal study in 2004, researchers found that the female relatives of homosexual men were more fertile and had more children than those of heterosexual men, meaning that the biological mechanisms that give rise to homosexuality in men make their female relatives more fecund.

The study included a sample of 100 homosexual men and 100 heterosexual men, and analysed the birth rates of more than 4?500 relatives.

Homosexuality still considered abnormal
But despite the prevalence of homosexuality and the scientific evidence that it is a natural phenomenon, it is still considered by many to be abnormal.

Ugandan President Yoweri 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.”

He said this despite a report from his own presidential committee that found that homosexuality had existed in Africa before the arrival of colonialists.

But the belief that homosexuality is abnormal is at the crux of the case made against “deviant” sexual orientation in Africa – that it is un-African and a Western import.

The evidence, however, does not support this or Museveni’s view.

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

He said the conservative estimate is that 5% of the world’s population is not heterosexual in orientation and the percentage is likely to be higher, particularly if bisexuality is included.

“That is more than the population of the United States. In Africa, that is about 50-million people, just under the population of South Africa.

“There’s harm done by the idea that Africa is exempt from [this] prevalence. It allows lawmakers 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.”

This is perhaps best illustrated by the questions in Museveni’s letter to the Ugandan Parliament: “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?”

Some of the reasons countries cite for the outlawing of homosexuality is that it is contagious and that by letting people openly show their gender and sexual preferences, children and other people will “catch” gayness, and that it is a public health concern.

There is no scientific evidence that homosexuality can be contracted through association, or even that gay parents who adopt a child will bring that child up to be homosexual (although the report did find that the child is more likely to be tolerant of sexual and gender diversity).

No evidence that homosexuals are abusers
A widely held view is that homosexuals are predators, who abuse and recruit young people into abnormal sexual and gender conduct. But there is no evidence for that. A 2013 review, which examined studies from 22 countries, found that one in five children will be sexually abused. The rate for African countries is higher at about 30%, although this percentage is skewed by South Africa, which has one of the highest rates of sexual abuse of children. These figures do not correlate with the percentages of homosexuals.

Besides, almost all abusers are heterosexual men. There are no credible studies to show that people with a same-sex orientation are more likely to abuse children.

Moreover, there have been no recorded health benefits in outlawing homosexuality – in fact, the evidence shows that criminalising it actually undoes a number of the gains in the treatment of HIV, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases in African countries.

This is because sexual health information in countries that outlaw homosexuality is not tailored for men who have sex with men, or women who have sex with women, and people cannot approach healthcare professionals for fear of being stigmatised or reported.

The South African report also found that men who have sex with men often also have wives and girlfriends – and often do not identify themselves as homosexuals – thus increasing the risk of passing diseases on to the general population.

But the evidence shows that outlawing homosexuality or instituting “corrective” measures to change people’s sexual orientation does not work – the main effect is to push sexual conduct and behaviour into the closet, and to enable the stigmatisation of people and justify violent attacks on them.

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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