When the dictatorship of the majority threatens the rights of the minority, it is time to emerge from the citadel of passive observation and stand with the minority. For many years, white supremacists believed that people of a darker skin complexion were not quite human, and there was no way they would have equal rights with them. It was unimaginable, for them, to think of black and right in the same sentence. For that very reason, slavery and slave trade- one of the most disgraceful acts of man- lasted more than four centuries, subjecting more than 15 million men, women and children to the horrendous experiences that characterised that man-made tragedy.
In their bigoted minds, the racial supremacists believed it was a kind of abomination for the whites to sit at the same table with black people. To them, it was against the will of God to have such equality of rights. That the majority of white people believed and practiced these despicable acts of discrimination did not make them right. In families on plantations, there were men, women and children who watched the violence being meted out on the African slaves with muted pain. They couldn’t dare to speak out against the slave masters, for in that same society, women faced subjugation from the male chauvinists who gave them a drubbing if they did as much as raise a finger against their cruelty on the slaves. A few white people, like Abraham Lincoln, refused to believe in this perversion of the truth upon which racial supremacy was premised, and when the moment came, they chose to be on the right side of history, and stood with the sons and daughters of the slaves in the push to abolish those acts.
The same can be said of the civil rights movement of later years, and apartheid. Today, memories of what made the whole world so fond of Nelson Mandela (with the exception of a few people, who have the right to not feel the same way the rest of us do about Nelson Mandela) are still fresh. Educated and employed, he did not choose to stay quiet in the comfort of his job and look on as the apartheid regime subjected black South Africans and other people of colour to deprivation and persecution. When he had the right moment, he spoke out for what was right. After 27 years in prison, Mandela was presented with an opportunity to exact revenge on his persecutors, but he didn’t! He chose, instead, to stand for what is right, and in doing so, shamed his jailers, giving them a lesson that has come to define his lasting legacy. He opposed white supremacy as he did black supremacy.
In a number of traditional African societies and other societies in other parts of the world, the birth of a girl child was, instead of being greeted with joy and ululation that is characteristic of African celebration, received with grief. The same happened with twins in some societies, who even suffered the cruelty of death because people believed, wrongly, that they were taboo babies. Someone did stand up against this, and the practice has been banished from the earth, at least as far as my knowledge can tell me.
For many years, growing up in rural Kenya and Uganda, I was made to understand that homosexuality was not quite regarded in the same way as heterosexuality, and people who were thought to be having same sex relations were frowned upon. People spoke about them in low voices, pointing fingers, but only went thus far. I later noticed the same thing when a boy and a girl started having a heterosexual relationship, or when a married man or woman had an affair out of their matrimonial precincts, which made me realise that where sexual relations were involved, people would always gossip. None of the men who were talked about these rural places had made any contact with the world outside the villages they lived in. To me, that invalidates the argument oft fronted by the proponents of the antigay bill that homosexuality is alien to Africa. In secondary school (a boys only school), we heard rumours of boys who had same sex relations, yet there was no internet then or the massive amount of pornographic material that we have today for them to learn this supposedly ‘alien’ practice from. But I came to believe, from hearing people talk against it, that homosexuality was a bad thing. At that time, I didn’t even know a law existed against it. As an adult, I came to hear a lot of negative talk about homosexuality, but didn’t hear anyone encouraging violence against people in homosexual relationships.
As a high school teacher, I saw young boys and girls exhibiting characteristics that we thought were, (if I may use this phrase, at the risk of being accused of generalisation), typical of what we noticed with many gay people. Once these kids were grown up and out of school, I would later learn that they, indeed, fell under the LGBT group and were not at all inclined to people of the opposite sex. No one had coerced or enticed them to become gay. That, to me, was enough proof that there are indeed people who are born gay, and the narrative that it is an entirely taught thing that can be unlearned gets invalidated by that experience with my students.
One of my best friends, whom I have known since I was a teenager, is gay. For many years, I believed he was straight, like me, until I started noticing that he was keeping company of gay people. As we sat out one day, drinking, his friends joined us, and later invited us to go with them to another place. Before we entered this new place, he called me aside and told me, in a whisper, “by the way, I just want to warn you that this place is dominated by a gay clientele. If you are uncomfortable with it, we can leave these guys and go to the pub next door.” I could see that my friend wanted to go into this place with his gay friends, yet he valued my friendship with him as well and respected my heterosexual orientation. I said, well, going into that pub isn’t going to make me gay, so I went in. Indeed I had a few disconcerting moments with gay guys making advances at me (colloquially expressed as ‘hitting on me’), but I categorically stated my sexual orientation, as my friend told them, sternly, I was straight and that they had to respect it and leave me alone. Later that night, as we went home in a shared taxicab, my friend asked me, “Josh, what do you think of me when you learn that I keep the company of these gay friends, and that today we went to this pub with many gay guys?” I told him I only thought of him as my friend, and whether I started harbouring suspicions that he was gay or not, it wouldn’t change how I viewed him. With the confidence emanating from that response, my friend opened up and told me he was bisexual, though sometimes he felt he was just outright gay, and that the inclination towards women was more to do with wanting to please his family than what he really was.
Without going into what else we discussed, that, together with what I had seen with boys in my secondary school and the students that I taught, changed my attitude completely. The only thing, I realised, that I had learned was my unfounded discomfort with gay people, which made me indifferent to their plight. There has been a law, from the colonial days, that criminalised homosexuality as ‘sexual acts against the order of nature,’ just as there is one against sex trade or what is commonly known as prostitution. However, I have not heard of a single person who has been successfully prosecuted for these acts. We could argue that the new bill, though prescribing harsher penalties like life imprisonment, does not criminalise homosexuality anew. What it does instead, I dread to predict, is incite a hitherto indifferent public into acts of hate and discrimination against the gay community.
I must make this clear: if any gay person commits sexual offences against minors, they must be treated the same way a straight person commits sexual offences against a minor, be it a boy or girl. The alleged recruitment of minors, which the supporters state as the reason for proposing this law, remains just that: an allegation. If there is evidence, that can be proven beyond reasonable doubt, I will be here again apologizing for that. What we must recognise, as a society, is that we can’t let personal prejudices infringe the rights of other people.
I have heard the proponents of the antigay bill say that gay people should not have rights. There is everything wrong with such declarations, as they are in direct violation of universal human rights declarations that Uganda has acceded to. Indeed today, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement to that effect, emphasising, “the provisions of this bill stand in clear violation of the rights to liberty, privacy, non-discrimination and freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association protected by the Constitution of Uganda, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that Uganda has ratified, and by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
The Government has a legal obligation to prevent discrimination and cannot withhold basic rights from certain individuals because the majority disapproves of them. All people, including LGBT individuals, have the same human rights and are entitled to full protection by the State.”
Simply put: the prejudices we hold against things we do not like should not make us believe that we are right. There can be no better right than the protection of human rights of all individuals, whether we like what they do (unless it harms others or deprives others of their rights) or not. We have to make a clear distinction between belief and reason, for quite often, one begins where the other stops. Reason, not belief, is what is requied when it comes to protection of human rights.