Look, I set out to write a very different post tonight, but something happened in Uganda that diverted my attention. Two days ago Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti Homosexuality Act, which imposes a sentence of seven years in prison for anyone found guilty of committing a homosexual act or promoting homosexuality in Uganda, with an additional life sentence in prison for anyone convicted of “aggravated homosexuality.” The current version of the bill is a watered down version of the original iteration, which called for the death penalty for anyone found guilty of homosexual acts. I’ve been on Facebook lately and heard a lot of buzz about discrimination in a new law passed in Arizona, but frankly I think what’s happening right now in Uganda is more extreme and deserves our attention.
Tonight I went down to the Hoima Resort Hotel to watch football matches when I ran into G., my football teammate and a representative for Airtel, a Ugandan telecom company. Because the news was on before the matches and everything on the news was a debate over this new bill, I asked him why Ugandans were so opposed to homosexuality. He explained that Uganda was traditionally a conservative culture, and because homosexuality was condemned in the Bible it was condemned in Uganda today. “Haven’t you heard of Sodom and Gomorrah?” he concluded his explanation, “and anyways, when Adam needed a companion did God create another man? No! He made Eve, a woman, as this is the natural way of things.” I found his explanation weak, and told him so. I pointed out that traditional values in Uganda can’t have been much influenced by the Bible, because Christian missionaries only arrived in the last 150 years. Why did traditional beliefs condemn homosexuality? He thought for a long moment before answering quietly. “Have you ever seen a bull mate with another bull?” he finally asked. “or a hog mate with another hog, or a rooster mate with a rooster? Even the simplest animal knows that male is made for female and female is made for male. If humans are the king of the beasts, the cleverest of all the animals, surely it is a perversion if any human mates with another of the same sex.”
I’ve heard variations of this same response whenever I’ve asked any Ugandan why they are opposed to homosexuality. As opposed to the vitriol and political bluster that accompanies most gay marriage debates in the US, condemnation of homosexuality in Uganda is frequently justified with the ineffable, visceral belief that same-sex unions are just wrong, for some reason. Maybe it’s because gay couples don’t have children. Maybe it’s because gay people are seen as unreligious. Maybe it’s because homosexuality is widely believed to be the product of “nurture” rather than “nature,” so anybody identifying as gay is believed to have been coerced into their identity.
I find myself in a weird and liminal position whenever I discuss this new law with any of my Ugandan friends. On the one hand I’m well known around Hoima town: I play football, drink beer and watch matches, work out at the gym, go out to the club, am a terrible cook, and do a lot of activities that people see as incontrovertibly straight. On the other hand, whenever a conversation I have with a Ugandan turns to the subject of gay marriage I find that the person I’m talking with assumes the defensive, because they think that as a white American/European I want to impose my views on them and urge them to adopt a perspective they’re uncomfortable with. Here’s the thing: in my experience the existence of gay couples has never bothered me or jeopardized my happiness, and so I support same sex relationships between consenting adults. But here’s the other thing: I’ve never tried to convince a Ugandan to share my point of view. The overwhelming majority of people here are staunchly opposed to same sex marriage and see it, frankly, as an abomination of some natural order. I’m conflicted. As a traveler I’m here to learn from those around me without imposing my culture on them, but as someone who supports the right of homosexual people to be openly gay, I feel like a guilty bystander in an intolerant culture. Is it my prerogative to support the traditional culture of the country where I’m a guest, or to support the rights of what I believe to be an unjustly marginalized group? What would Martin Niemöller do?
I’m a stranger in a strange land, trying to understand a culture that is not my own. As domestic politicians endorse Museveni for his courage to sign a bill defending traditional culture and international aid agencies yank their aid to Uganda over this benchmark of discrimination, I’m still here in Hoima town, listening to whoever speaks.