Africa and homosexuality: Where science meets morality

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Africa and homosexuality Where science meets moralityWhile gay rights have been spearing a wave of human rights advances in western democracies – most recently the extension of ‘marriage’ to include same-sex marriage in the US and Ireland – in Africa, the trend is moving in the opposite direction. A recent report released by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAF) sought to disprove, systematically and scientifically, the false claims used to justify persecution and discrimination of LGBTi people across the continent. By ANDREA TEAGLE.

In 2014, shortly after signing Uganda’s notorious anti-sexuality bill*, Ugandan President Museveni defended it on the basis that homosexuality is a learned behaviour, firing at US President Barack Obama, “When that is proved [there are indeed people who are born homosexual], we can review this legislation”.

Thirty-eight of 53 African nations criminalise homosexuality. The claim that same-sex preferences are ‘learned and can be unlearned’ has been echoed in arguments for anti-homosexual legislation across the continent. From a moral viewpoint, the question of choice vs. genetics is an irrelevant one: an act involving two (or more, for that matter) consenting adults that does not harm anybody is not wrong. From a policy perspective, however, science has an important role to play in dispelling the myths and misunderstandings that underpin homophobia. It is important for another reason as well: it is neutral. 

“It can make an objective and analytical, evidence-based assessment, which is critical in debates like this,” says Glenda Gray, co-chair of the Academy of Science South Africa’s health committee. “What we tend to see are emotional, moral responses, and it doesn’t help us.” 

The human rights rhetoric thrown at African leaders, particularly when tied with threats of aid withdrawal, is seen as patronising and rarely has the desired effect. For countries still smarting from colonialist rule, anything that smacks of neo-colonialism is unlikely to go down well. And so, amid a wave of new laws and a chorus of human rights objections, a panel of scientists set out to evaluate all research on sexual orientation done over the last 50 years, and to make it accessible to policy makers and the public. Importantly for its perceived credibility, African researchers led the report, which was released last week by the Academy of Science South Africa (ASSAF). Written intelligently and accessibly, the report makes for fascinating reading. 

The study found substantial biological evidence for the diversity of sexual orientations in all human populations, and concluded that same-sex preferences are part of a natural spectrum of human sexuality

“We are saying people are born with something that we are calling a predisposition,” explains Professor Harry Dougmore, who authored the report, “And that social upbringing, parenting etc, may impact on the expression of that predisposition, but does not cause it, nor can it do much to contain it, and we note that containment is not needed, because this is a natural variation… that causes no harm.” 

Some of the claims the study individually and collectively shreds include the myth that gay men sexually abuse children as a means of ‘recruitment’ (evidence shows no link between the same-sex preferences and child-abuse); that same sex preferences can be ‘acquired’ through exposure to LGBTi persons; that homosexuality is the result of faulty upbringing; and that sexual orientations other than heterosexuality are ‘abnormal’ or pathological, and can be changed or ‘cured’. The report found that the only detrimental public health effects regarding LGBTi populations arise out of discrimination and persecution of this group. 

Many of these beliefs are linked to the thoroughly discredited idea of homosexuality as a Western import, a learned behaviour that is inherently un-African. Empirical records support biological findings that sexual orientation is determined by genetic and epigenetic factors prior to birth, and is not chosen or ‘acquired’. In every human population, a percentage of people identify as as other than heterosexual, regardless of race, culture or degree of tolerance. This last point is important, because if same-sex preferences could be ‘taught’, societies in which the rights of LGBTi populations are protected would have bigger gay populations. This is not the case (more’s the pity, some would say). Similarly, LGBTi populations persist in the face of extreme intolerance in some countries. 

Indeed, the contention that homosexuality is a colonial remnant is particularly ironic. In many African communities prior to colonialisation, same sex preferences were common and not considered taboo in the way they are today. It was with the advent of colonialism, and the labeling of homosexuality, that homophobia became entrenched in African societies. In modern times, evangelical Christian groups have further fuelled anti-homosexual attitides, particularly in Uganda. With the knowledge that sexual diversity has always existed in African society – and always will – may come greater acceptance of what is now understood to be a natural part of human existence. 

Grey hopes that the ‘Diversity in human sexuality report’ will impact attitudes towards sexual diversity in Africa by exposing myths and misunderstandings, in the same way that scientific reports have successfully challenged contraversial issues in the past.

“During Aids denialism, the Academy did a consensus study on the role of nutrients in treating HIV,” Grey says. “It was very important to have a group of scientists who asked that question, to see whether what the government was saying was scientific.” 

Produced in collaboration with the Ugandan Academy of Sciences and endorsed by that association, the report has been disseminated to scientific academies across Africa. The next step for the panel is to organise dialogues in various African countries to engage the public. It may not shatter discrimination across the continent with a single report. But, bit by bit, science can help to erode myths and stigma, ensuring future communities in which the rights of all people are recognised and protected. However, as current anti-homosexuality laws show, we have a long way to go before that day comes. DM

Photo by Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon.

* Ruled invalid by the Constitutional Court on 1 August 2014, the law may yet see a revival.

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