Guest Blogger

Uganda's Anti-Gay Bill: What the West Should Know

Filed By Guest Blogger | January 08, 2014 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: Africa, Anti-Homosexuality Bill, colonialism, David Bahati, imperialism, messiah complex, privilege, Scott Lively, Uganda, Uganda anti-gay bill, white privilege

Editor's Note: Guest blogger Sarah Coughtry is a transgenderqueer activist, artist, and writer from rural New York, who is passionate about weaving creativity and spirituality into liberation work. Sarah lived and worked with the LGBTI community in Uganda from 2010-2011.

Author's Note: This piece reflects the work of many people whose theories I have found intriguing and essential to our approach to liberatory work. Thanks to anthropologist Melissa Minor Peters, whose forthcoming work The Pink Savior Complex: Narrative, Violence, and Queer Lives in Kampala makes the important connections between the theories of Mutua, Cole, homonationalism and pinkwashing, and the unintended dangers of Western attempts to 'help'. The original works of Mutua, Cole, Mikdashi, and Ugandan social justice activists are linked throughout the piece.

uganda-map.jpgBy now you've probably seen the headlines: "Uganda passes barbaric anti-gay bill;" "U.S. voices concern over Uganda anti-gay bill;" "Business tycoon Branson calls for boycott of anti-gay Uganda"...

So you know the Ugandan Parliament has recently passed an anti-gay bill that further criminalizes consensual same-sex acts between adults. You may even know that the U.S. had a hand in the development of this bill through the actions of evangelical pastor Scott Lively and others like him, dating back to 2009 and earlier.

However, the depth of the narrative usually stops here. The message delivered becomes a simplistic (and dangerous) sound bite that courts the sympathy of liberal Western queers and their allies, but convolutes what's actually going on. This message generally holds two parts:

  1. Ugandan LGBTI folks need our (Western) help, because they live in a backwards and barbaric country that passes such odious laws, and
  2. Those evangelical Christians are crazy.

What these messages fail to convey is that the current issue in Uganda is a very complex problem - a problem that has its roots in centuries of white Western imperialism, colonization, and coercion by certain sects of Christianity. More importantly, it's a problem that we're continuing to perpetuate with the way we tell this story.

To simplify the issue into something more palatable for us in the West may be easier on our stomachs, but in the long run it only distorts the picture, and does none of us - least of all the LGBTI folks in Uganda - any favors.

The Same Dance In a New Pair Of Shoes

While many things have changed since the dawn of colonialism, a myriad of activists and scholars have solidly demonstrated that centuries-old power dynamics have actually changed very little; they've only taken different forms. The international reaction to what's happening in Uganda provides a perfect example of how, despite our attempt to place colonialism as a thing of the past, we continue to play out a script of Western superiority.

The way we talk about Uganda's anti-gay bill can be summed up in what Makau Mutua terms the "savage-victim-savior" model. Homophobic Ugandans (or homophobic Uganda as a whole) are pitted as the immoral savages who have no sense of human rights; LGBTI Ugandans are the poor helpless victims (alternate term: "noble savages") who are being terrorized by their own backward country; and we in the West are the superiorly evolved moral saviors who must rescue these people from their plight.

Notice the similarities between this model of thinking, and the religious mindset with which we first colonized "Third World" countries: back then, we believed we were a more physically and spiritually evolved race and that it was our duty to save the barbaric heathens from themselves.

Have we moved so much beyond that kind of thinking?

When we use the savage-victim-savior model to examine the anti-gay bill in Uganda, we get to be the heroes, and it makes us feel good. With a headline like "U.S. voices concern over Uganda anti-gay bill," readers are given the impression that the U.S. represents social justice, while Uganda symbolizes a lack of human rights. We're distracted from taking responsibility for our own human rights abuses here at home, as well as abroad.

Because the U.S. has overturned DOMA and Don't Ask Don't Tell, and certain conforming-enough gays and lesbians can now freely access mainstream institutions (which, incidentally, perpetuate systems of oppression and violence), we hold ourselves as the landmark for queer rights toward which other countries should strive - never mind our own continued institutionalized violence against black and brown folks, women, trans* and gender non-conforming people, disabled people, religious minorities, and anyone we consider "foreign" both in our own country and globally.

Africa-globe.jpgThe U.S. has a long history of accusing "Third World" countries of awful and barbaric practices, while remaining absurdly silent about our own. Look no further than our feel-good culture of humanitarian aid, or as some call it, the white savior industrial complex.

To distract ourselves and the rest of the world from our own abuses, and to mitigate any privileged guilt we might be feeling, we position ourselves as saviors, trying to uplift the oppressed peoples of the world. Homonationalism and pinkwashing become common practices in our attempt to "do good" and fight homophobia worldwide, based on how we think it should be fought. As anthropologist Melissa Minor Peters aptly states, Western countries such as the U.S. "exaggerate or trumpet their nation's gay rights records in order to justify military and economic meddling in other regions, while papering over other egregious human rights violations."

Our attempts to "help" can even cause more problems than they solve. Take for example the threat from Western businesses and nations to "boycott" or withdraw aid from Uganda. Despite good intentions, these actions risk directly harming LGBTI Ugandans and increase the risk of backlash against them. As a statement from African social justice activists says, "Donor sanctions are by their nature coercive and reinforce the disproportionate power dynamics between donor countries and recipients."

If after all these years we're still thinking in terms of this savage-victim-savior narrative, and positioning ourselves unequivocally as savior so that we can rush in and "help" without critical reflection, well, there's proof that the same "past" legacies of ethnocentrism and imperialism are still alive and well.

Scott Lively Doesn't Exist In a Vacuum

Before we point fingers and shame nations for being homophobic, let's take a look at some similarities between ourselves and the folks we're accusing. Before the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, Uganda already had an anti-sodomy law on the books - a law which existed in many U.S. states until it was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2003. Sure, the cultural rhetoric between the U.S. and Uganda is different in many ways, and many of our states now offer legal protection for LG(BTI?) folks.

But 2003, people - that's a little recent to be throwing stones in a glass house. How advanced can we claim to be in terms of human rights when homosexual acts were also illegal in many parts of our country just a few years ago, and LGBTI folks continue to be legally discriminated against in the majority of states today?

Further, the original anti-sodomy law was a Western (largely Christian) invention, put in place by the British when they formed the Ugandan Protectorate in 1894. Prior to this, the region of Uganda - like the rest of Africa - had its own diverse and complex views regarding same-sex behaviors and attractions (see Morgan & Wieringa, 2005, among others). While homosexuality may not have been explicitly accepted in all realms, there were no known laws banning homosexual practices until the onset of Western imperialism.

We're not completely blind to the role of the West in all of this, however. Attention has been directed lately toward the anti-gay crusades of U.S. evangelicals like Scott Lively, who has played an important role in the spurring of anti-homosexual sentiment in Uganda and many other areas around the world. Raising awareness around this is an important step in the right direction.

However, like any step, it's just the beginning. Lively isn't one evil man existing within a vacuum of an otherwise benevolent world of humanitarianism. He's merely stoking a fire that's been burning since the initial days of Western imperialism.

prison.jpgNot only did Westerners put the original versions of these draconian laws in place when we colonized the countries, but we continue to impose draconian labor practices and trade policies that exploit these countries with complete disregard for human rights. Lively is just one of many following a long practice of white folks going into African countries and asserting their will.

Like many others, Lively reproduces what Nigerian novelist Teju Cole describes as a story "in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism." When you think about it, Lively's presumption that he knows what's best for the souls of Ugandans isn't all that different from the homonationalist "savior" belief that we queers and allies in the U.S. know what's best for LGBTI folks in Uganda: each story is rooted in an assumption of Western superiority.

Simple and sensational narratives help to lull us into a false belief that each human rights violation is isolated and unrelated to other oppressions. Popular news articles do little to explore the ties between homophobia, transphobia, racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and poverty around the globe. They fail to explore the funding connections between mainstream gay rights organizations and the exploitation of the global South, or how institutions like the World Bank prevent "developing" countries (including their LGBTI citizens) from ever developing.

How many of us feel outraged by what's going on amidst the Ugandan struggle for gay rights, yet unknowingly support institutions that exacerbate human rights abuses in Uganda by the day?

The Fight Starts At Home

It's important to recognize that the oppression LGBTI Ugandans face is not separate from the racism and economic exploitation they face at the hands of U.S. foreign policy; that the politics of Uganda are no more or less "barbaric" than our own, and are intricately linked to ongoing Western imperialism; and that discrimination and violence along lines of race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, and ability continue to run rampant in our own country, despite our "liberal" laws.

The homophobia and transphobia that exist in Uganda today stem from the same oppressive systems that perpetuate the mass incarceration of people of color in the United States, that intensify income disparity between so-called "First World" and "Third World" countries, and that sanction the economic exploitation of undocumented immigrants. In order to truly stand in solidarity, we must combat all of these oppressions, and recognize the ways in which our own privilege leads us to unwittingly support these systems.

Thumbnail image for Uganda.jpgIf queers and allies in the United States really want to stand in solidarity with LGBTI Ugandans, we will not merely repost articles that perpetuate racist stereotypes of "barbaric Third World" countries. We will not blindly support bold Western-led actions, such as the withdrawal of aid, that perpetuate an image of the white savior without first analyzing the effect that these actions may have.

If we - myself included - want to truly be allies to the LGBTI folks in Uganda, we must learn the skills that all effective allies must learn.

We must pause and listen, rather than rushing in to help without critical analysis.

We must follow the lead of Ugandan activists, and check our assumptions that we know what's best for them - especially since this arrogance was the founding belief that fueled colonialism in the first place.

We must counter simplistic narratives that portray a single villainous "other" (such as Bahati, or Scott Lively, or the Ugandan Parliament), and instead recognize the complex global web of oppressions.

We must reflect on own points of privilege and complicity, as a nation and as individuals.

Above all, we must first do no harm. In the eloquent words of Teju Cole:

"If Americans want to care about Africa, maybe they should consider evaluating American foreign policy, which they already play a direct role in through elections, before they impose themselves on Africa itself... Let us begin our activism right here."

Note: This piece originally appeared under the title "We're Complicit In Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill." It was later changed at the author's request.

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