Seeking Solutions to LGBT Discrimination in Uganda

David Cameron

Just over a month ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron turned a few heads by threatening to withdraw foreign aid to Uganda unless is adheres to “proper human rights” and ends bans on homosexuality. Similarly, last week the United States publicly stated its intention to use foreign aid to promote gay rights abroad with Hillary Clinton saying that “a country’s cultural or religious traditions are no excuse for discrimination.” While their intentions are laudable, the threat to withdraw aid to promote rights happily ignores continued discrimination at home, a nuanced understanding of the history of African colonization, and how to use foreign aid effectively. Time and time again we have seen that sanctions do little to influence regime change and this issue is no different.

Homosexuality and other expressions of gender and sexual orientation remains one of the most divisive issues in international human rights. There has been progress toward achieving equality before the law in some countries, but even that progress is often marked by bitter social division and continued de facto inequality. As in many other areas of rights and equality, Canada has been mythologized as a champion, but reality somewhat belies the myth. Politicians continue to avoid discussing LGBT rights – the most glaring example being Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s thinly disguised rebuke of the yearly Pride Parade – and despite rhetoric of understanding and awareness raising, homophobia remains. Recent reports have shown that rates of attempted suicide among Canadians teens who self-identify as homosexual are up to four times higher than among their heterosexual counterparts due to harassment, bullying, and continued stigmatization.

For our neighbours south of the border, the issue of sexual orientation remains a potentially powerful tool of divisive politics. A recent campaign ad by Republican leadership candidate Rick Perry draws a brilliantly ignorant and illogical link between President Obama’s repeal of the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy and secularism in public schools. While the video has done little but provide more carrion for the vultures who are already feasting on Perry’s long-dead campaign, the very fact that it was even created shows an appetite for homophobia among at least some proportion of the American public. Even Clinton acknowledged that it was only in 2003 that the last remaining state law criminalizing homosexual activity was abolished.

All this is to say that LGBT rights in the west are relatively new, and it is something that both the law and society at large continue to struggle with. It is all the more shameful then that our leaders stand on soap boxes and threaten to cut aid to countries such as Uganda. Support for Cameron and Clinton’s remarks is coming from both sides: those who champion LGBT rights and wish to see greater awareness; and those who see foreign aid as a tool for influencing foreign governments to confirm to international norms. Neither of these camps is fundamentally wrong, but both assume that the issue can be only solved from the top down through political pressure. However that’s the kind of thinking that got us into this situation in the first place.

When African heads of state argue that homosexuality is something imported from the west, they are not entirely wrong – but it is a matter of how we define homosexuality. There is evidence that same sex relationships were tolerated prior to colonization, from the boy-wives of the Kingdom of Sudan, to the “mine marriages” conducted by men working in the mines of what is now Zambia. There is even evidence of homosexual partnerships in an ancient Bushman painting from Zimbabwe. A great deal more anthropological support for same sex partnerships may have been unearthed if it weren’t for suppression of academic inquiry into the subject. Some scholars argue that while homosexuality in the west is tied to both sexual orientation and lifestyle, in traditional societies it was simply the case of having same sex intercourse, and did not necessarily involve self-identifying as something different. That is, homosexual as a label likely did not exist, and was imported by colonial powers who had codes based on archaic and outdated Abrahamic values.

It is telling that the most widely cited piece of anti-homosexual legislation in Uganda is from the 1950 penal code that states “Any person who has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature; has carnal knowledge of an animal; or permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature, commits an offence and is liable to imprisonment for life.” This law is a remnant of a British legal system imposed during colonization to prevent what the British saw as deviant sexual behaviour. How ironic then that some 150 years later we are condemning Uganda for its outdated beliefs. These are beliefs that we, as western society, had a hand in creating. To collectively punish the people of Uganda for a system that was imposed by force from the outside, indeed a system that wiped out millennia of rich cultural development, is hypocrisy and paternalism to the extreme.

This is not all to say that something must not be done. Of course those laws that are on the books must be repealed, and continued attempts to pass even harsher legislation that increases punishment for the LGBT community must be blocked. However cutting off foreign aid is not the answer. In his best-selling book “The White Man’s Burden”, William Easterly argues that foreign aid is delivered by two types of organizations, Planners and Seekers. The traditional top-down aid to government Planner approach is often subject to increased bureaucracy, corruption, and lack of focus. The Seekers, however, tackle a problem from the grassroots level, looking to see what works efficiently, effectively, and reaches those who actually need it. When Cameron and Clinton talk about cutting foreign aid to Uganda, they are doing so because they want to punish the state; they are doing so based on the Planner assumption that the state receives the aid and distributes it as it sees fit. We have seen for decades how this doesn’t work.

So if the west wants to champion LGBT rights in Uganda and other African states, it would do well to work with Seekers. Give money to those non-governmental organizations who already exist on the ground, those who can affect change from the inside, from the bottom up. Give aid to the activists who risk their lives daily to protect their communities, like Freedom and Roam Uganda or Icebreakers. Such aid is difficult politically, as it does not involve large sums that sound nice at international development summits, and it can raise the ire of governments who feel they are being undermined. But if the intent is to punish, then punish by giving weapons to those who are fighting for their freedom.

If we can subversively arm rebels in Libya, then we can do the same with money and resources in Uganda. It was our culture that created this system of discrimination, and so it is our responsibility to help dismantle it. But that cannot be done through threats and sanctions; it must be done through compassion, generosity, and strategic thinking.

(Feature photo courtesy of conservativeparty/Flickr, Cameron photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)