Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Uganda's Victorian Age

One of the missed teachable moments during the recent global outcry against Uganda's draconian anti-homosexual bill, has been the convoluted logic of colonialism and African pride injected into the discourse. While many have fittingly pointed to the role of recent U.S. conservative right-wing evangelicals--some of them elected officials--in the recent bill, not many have chosen to tackle why Uganda, and many other parts of Africa, have such seemingly retrogade policies towards the gay community. Advocates of the bill in Uganda claim homosexuality is traditionally "un-African," stating they don't want European norms being enforced on them. And they have invoked a new breed of anti-colonialism to fend off the criticism and threatened sanctions directed their way from Europe and the West--the very industrialized nations that keep the global poor impoverished. But wonder of wonders, Uganda's anti-homosexual laws don't have their origins in the traditional African past or the neo-colonial present. They arrived in Uganda just slightly over a century ago--under the banner of the white man's burden and British colonialism.

The tragic irony is that Uganda's anti-homosexual laws are not part of African culture--at least nothing indigenous. African cultures have long showed a diverse approach to sexuality, with gender sometimes extending far beyond the limited Western imagining of "male vs female." In fact, anti-homosexual laws in much of Africa--and elsewhere--were first instituted by European colonizers. In the case of Uganda it was the British, as a means to regulate what they saw as either deviant or gender-ambigious modes of sexuality that conflicted with their Victorian derived notions of morality and civilization. So we are left today with a bizarre situation, where Africans tout the values of their former colonial rulers as a valiant example of African pride and anti-colonialism.

Of course, there are other factors involved in Uganda's homophobia--a misdirected fear of HIV/AIDS which has decimated the country, disrupted families, increased poverty and left many searching for a reason for their troubles. Too long ignored by Uganda's rulers and much of the world, this desperation has opened the path for blame and hysteria. In the 1990s, some 100,000 Ugandans were dying of AIDS each year, with millions more infected. If 9/11 drove Americans just a little bit crazy and ruined their better judgment, imagine a prolonged 9/11 that happens everyday, doesn't seem to have an end, comes with an ostracizing stigma and which much of the world mostly just stands by and watches. Still, this is no excuse for the types of laws that have become so popular in places like Uganda. And most vexing are when so many, either willfully neglectful of the past or attempting to rewrite history, make erroneous claims that their actions are actually done in the name of "African pride" or "anti-colonial defiance."

As Chinua Achebe warned us when looking at the nexus of politics, culture and the colonial past--Things Fall Apart.

More about Uganda's proposed law here, the role of U.S. evangelicals here, and the diversity of traditional African sexuality here.


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