At the time of writing, the Uganda Anti-Homosexual Bill has just become law. Having been tabled, revised, debated, postponed, re-introduced and passed by the Ugandan Parliament, President Museveni has now signed off on one of the most draconian pieces of legislation against homosexuals in the long history of draconian pieces of legislation against homosexuals. This, he has decided to do, after asking scientists at the eleventh hour, both in Uganda and the US, to tell him whether homosexuality is genetically pre-determined, or a choice.
The arguments both for and against the Bill have been well documented and do not need to be repeated at length here. In brief, those in favor of the Bill see homosexuality as an aberration to Africa and the Uganda nation – a foreign imposition that has the potential to do immense harm (never clearly defined) to the Uganda people and the state. Those against the Bill (which includes UN, most governments of the Western world, the Catholic Church and Amnesty International) see it as inhumane persecution of a vulnerable minority by a discriminatory majority. Such opposing positions have remained at loggerheads for nearly three and a half years. Therefore the sudden call to ask science its opinion by the President, even though the Bill has now passed into law, should not be taken lightly.
Indeed, while gay rights activists have rightly attempted to point out the necessity to see gay rights as a human right that requires protection, reactionaries in Uganda have countered this by extolling what they see as the neo-colonial overtones of such a view. Legal rights, it is suggested by those who supported the Bill, are not inalienable – but quite possibly place-specific, historically contingent and subjective. If that is the argument being used by certain groups in Uganda to support the Bill, the decision by the President to focus on something that is not viewed as quite so subjective – science – should be taken heed of by those who will continue to fight against the new law.
That is not to say that those who oppose the new law should get drawn into the 'nature/nurture' debate about human sexuality. That is a debate that many have long decided does not necessarily 'prove' anything, instead only adding to confusion and misunderstanding. Everyone from evolutionary biologists, through to developmental psychologists, through to feminists have pointed out that this debate is inherently a simplification of a set of far more complex processes. Many scientists (both social and natural) have long since dismissed the very question that President Musevini has asked of them.
But this does not mean that science has not offered us other, perhaps far more important evidence relevant to this debate. Recently a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK and the Anova Health Institute in South Africa have been involved in a programme to try and unpack why gay men in places like the townships of Cape Town, South Africa, have very high HIV prevalence rates despite decades of HIV prevention materials targeted at them. One important piece of evidence that has been uncovered is that gay men in the townships of Cape Town suffer very high rates of depression and that their depression is associated with homophobia and with risky sexual practices that can lead to HIV infection. They have shown such links both through complex statistical modeling and through more straightforward interviews with local gay men from these communities who explained how homophobia is associated with risk of HIV infection. Other scientists too have pointed out that homophobia in health services increases the HIV burden on gay men. The scientific inference from the weight of such findings clear: If you decide to persecute and discriminate against homosexuals you may well lead to increased HIV infection rates among your populous. Homophobia is a form of health violence that can lead to increased HIV infection rates and increased burdens on health systems for all. The passing of the law now gives added impetus for societal discrimination and continued discrimination in health services.
As President Museveni tried to decide whether to sign the Anti-Homosexual Bill or not this past week, he perhaps asked of science to give him some concrete and irrefutable evidence to justify his eventual decision. Of course science, like anything, is open to interpretation. Nevertheless his decision to turn to science should illuminate to him just how dangerous homophobia is for the health of his own people.
Tucker is with the Anova Health Institute in Johannesburg.