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How the West Was Wrong: Misunderstanding Uganda’s Gay Rights Crisis Makes It Worse

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Posted on Mar 13, 2014

By Sara Weschler

(Page 2)

“Maybe,” I opened cautiously, “we should be a bit careful about what we put on this list. I’m hearing some pretty hateful language right now, and I think that regardless of how we might individually feel about homosexuality, we can all agree that hatred isn’t good for any community and that teaching our youth to hate others is never in anyone’s interest.” I hoped the statement was mild and conciliatory enough to close the subject, but several people in the room appeared to take it as bait: All of a sudden I found myself the target of four emphatic lectures at once. Already regretting my decision to step in, I tried again to move the conversation along to the next topic. “Look,” I said, “even if you honestly believe that homosexuality is a threat to youth, don’t you think it’s a bit of a distraction in this discussion? Don’t you think that in Gulu or Nwoya, of all places, there are more pressing threats that require our attention?”

A man in a crisp pink shirt and gray slacks fixed me with a pitying look. “For you, you cannot understand because in your country the gay propaganda has already triumphed,” he said. “But here in Uganda we have our true African culture that needs to be protected. You know, trying to destroy a culture is a kind of what? It is a kind of genocide. It is true! So we need to protect our society from the genocide of those outside groups that want to what? That want to turn our children gay.”

In response I countered, “But you can’t turn somebody gay. It’s not something you can become. It’s not something people decide on. It’s just something they are.” Patronizing head shakes rippled through the room. “You can’t control who you love,” I pressed, “and people who try to, live agonizing tortured lives. No one should have to live like that.” Silence. Then from one corner of the room, a loud contemptuous tsk followed by a series of snickers.

I’d like to say that I made my next point on principle, but it probably had more to do with pride. By now I was beginning to get angry. I could feel the righteous condescension of the whole group converging upon me and suddenly I wanted to lash out. I wanted to make my “opponents” uncomfortable. “Studies show that about one in every 15 people is born homosexual,” I told the pink-shirted man. I swept the assembled participants and quickly did the math before resuming. “That means that statistically speaking, there are probably around four homosexuals with us at this workshop right now,” I said.

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The room erupted with something both raucous and vicious. People pounded their armrests and rocked in their seats, they slapped their hands together in a frenzied pantomime of amusement and glee. “No, no, no!” I tried to shout over the chaos. I searched the crowd for an ally, tried to catch the eye of a woman I’d sat with at breakfast for the past three mornings, turned imploringly to my own colleagues; nobody would hold my gaze. “I’m serious,” I yelled, “it’s not a joke.” But the laughter swelled to a howl, drowning me out completely. Deeply rattled, I stood up and left the room, kept walking until I was out on the street. And then, because I am a person for whom anger and sadness often tangle inextricably, I sat down on the curb and I sobbed.

Two years later, I’m still wondering whether speaking up that day was the right decision. I believe in what I said, but I am not sure I was the right person to say it. I have had fruitful conversations about homosexuality in Uganda. But these have always been with people I have known for years, people whose trust I have earned on a wide variety of issues before ever touching the subject of sexual orientation. This was a very different case. To the local leaders in that youth empowerment workshop, I was a near stranger; they had no reason to hear me out. I doubt that I changed any minds in that room and I fear that for a brief moment I made myself part of a shrill and bombastic contingent of Western advocates whose insensitive activism has in fact done more harm than good in Uganda.

That the groundwork for the Anti-Homosexuality Act was laid—at least in some part—by Americans is at this point widely acknowledged. Western coverage of the law has long highlighted the role of evangelical preachers like California attorney Scott Lively, and films like “God Loves Uganda” have documented the activism of American born-again Christians in the field. What is less often recognized is that the bill could well have languished indefinitely were it not for the fervid attention it received from both sides of the debate. American conservatives may well have stoked homophobic fears in Uganda, but Western LGBT rights activism has also played a role in bringing about this desperate state of affairs.

Much of Uganda’s homophobia is predicated on the notion that gay people aim to impose their lifestyle on the entire society, that there is a widespread effort by LGBT communities both at home and abroad to convert “normal” Ugandans to homosexuality. Unfortunately, American and European pressure on this issue has served only to reinforce this misconception.

One problem with Western LGBT activism vis-à-vis Uganda is that it is largely carried out by people who know little about the country beyond its stance on sexual orientation. Rather than engaging with the full spectrum of social injustice in Uganda, these activists target a problem that affects only a sliver of the population and demand that the whole society treat it as a priority. The fact that this stirs resentment should not come as a surprise. Anyone who works with stigmatized groups in a community where suffering is widespread can probably already see the flaw in such an approach. By singling out one demographic and privileging its plight over others’, you often end up drawing anger and hostility toward the very group you intended to help. Moreover, whenever you force an issue on a community you have not taken the time to fully understand, you run an exceptionally high risk of cultural miscommunication. In this case, well-intentioned but heavy-handed initiatives to foster tolerance were interpreted as attempts at cultural imperialism and conversion.


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