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Uganda is sanctioning gay genocide

Sexual violence is everywhere in Uganda. A new bill punishing homosexuals is part of that culture

I recently reorganised the books in my study, and collected my remnants of feminist theory on a separate shelf; a fragment of another world. There were copies of Feminist Review, work by Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly. There was also Adrienne Rich's pamphlet, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence", a dense and learned tract about the repression of lesbians.

Consciousness-raising made little distinction between street and boardroom thuggery and the effects of laws in repressive states. We didn't doubt Adrienne Rich when she said that lesbianism had been "crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding and disguise". We forgot the lesson of the Holocaust, which is that if the law and the power of the state supports discrimination and violence, you end up with genocide. Many minorities around the world still face discrimination, but only lesbians and gay men still face significant international legal discrimination.

Consensual homosexual acts between adults are still illegal in as many as 70 countries. Most countries have moved to a liberalisation of those unjust and repressive laws. In Uganda, however, the Hon David Bahati has sponsored an anti-homosexuality bill far more draconian than the already existing code. It begins with principles and threats: the value of traditional family values, the threat of homosexual infection. The logic of the bill is this: "This legislation further recognizes the fact that same sex attraction is not an innate and immutable characteristic." But only if sexual orientation is voluntary can a person be held accountable for his or her choice. Science has concluded that sexual orientation is a core personality trait, not a choice. You no more choose to be gay or bisexual than you choose to be left-handed or ambidextrous; it's a morally neutral position.

Category mistake

Sexual expression and behaviour, however, is cultural and psychological, just like the expression of many other core personality traits. Innate traits express themselves in a multitude of ways, depending on the psychological, cultural and political environment. Cultures, like people, can be alcoholic (Soviet Russia), homosexual (ancient Greece), conformist or liberal, creative or stifling. Knowingly or unknowingly, homophobic governments make the category mistake of confusing core personality with cultural expression, criminalising, in the process, a fairly stable and substantial minority of any given population.

In this case, Bahati wants to get rid of those pesky "sexual rights activists seeking to impose their values of sexual promiscuity", as well as gay pornographers and paedophiles. There is no distinction in his mind between people who fall in love with people of their own gender, and sexual sleaze and crime: it's all a filthy mess of HIV, pornography, western values, decadence, feminism and predation. The draft bill separates "the offence of homosexuality" from "aggravated homosexuality". The former is consensual but the bill addresses only the "offender", as though in gay relationships there is only ever a perpetrator and a victim:

(1) a person commits the offence of homosexuality if
(a) he penetrates the anus or mouth of another person of the same sex with his penis or any other sexual contraption;
(b) he or she uses any object of sexual contraption to penetrate or stimulate sexual organ of a person of the same sex;
(c) he or she touches another person with the intention of committing . . . homosexuality.
(2) a person who commits an offence under this section shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for life.

The second, more serious offence of "aggravated homosexuality" turns on the notion of the "serial offender", defined in the introduction to the law as "a person who has previous convictions of the offence of homosexuality or related offences." Anyone who is a confirmed gay man or lesbian and already has a sexual history faces the death penalty, alongside homosexual rapists and child abusers.

This is how the law will work: victims are not to be penalised; they are to be assisted, and their identities protected. Judges may order that the offender has to pay them compensation. In addition, "aiding", "abetting" or "promoting" homosexuality becomes illegal. Perhaps, most importantly, failure to inform the authorities, within 24 hours, of suspected homosexuals is criminalised. The Ugandan people must turn informants - or risk jail. Lovers must choose between "victim" or "offender"; the former protected and paid, the latter imprisoned or killed.

A culture of violence

Criminalisation of homosexuals in Britain led to blackmail, prison sentences, hormonal "treatments", suicides, sexual repression and ruined lives. The Ugandan bill, however, like the Nazi laws before it, makes homosexuality punishable, ultimately, by death.

A decade ago, I visited the vast refugee camps in the north of Uganda. The Lord's Resistance Army had been conducting murderous raids from their camps in Southern Sudan, abducting children. The abducted boys, brutalised and drugged, became soldiers; the girls were kept as slaves. I remember the fixed smiles of the girls who had managed to escape from captivity. I remember their drawings of killings and death. Sexual violence is everywhere in Uganda. This bill, too, is part of that culture. And what is the death penalty for homosexuality if not sexual murder? The state that sets out to purge the nation of homosexuality becomes, in the end, itself a sexual predator.

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission is supporting an African-led civil society coalition against the bill.
Sigrid Rausing is the publisher of Granta


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This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains