The Scientific Statement on Homosexuality – A Useful Document?

Two weeks ago, President of Uganda Yoweri Museveni demamded scientific proof that homosexuality is not a genetic trait before signing the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law. On Friday, the team of scientists – commissioned by Museveni’s NRM party – published their Scientific Statement on Homosexuality. It concludes: “There is no definitive gene responsible for homosexuality.” Consequently, and as promised, Museveni indicates he will sign the AHB.

This development is deeply troubling. Yet the Statement itself can be used to oppose the AHB.

As I have argued elsewhere, the AHB is a product of multiple overlapping interests. Anti-homosexual fervor has been whipped up to scapegoat a minority population. This distracts from rampant corruption and extremely pressing social concerns; wins votes for dubious politicians; enriches incendiary celebrity Preachers, and promotes a damaging, conservative Christian “sexual morality” agenda.

A complex situation is not sound bite friendly, or easily digestible. More to the point, LGBTQ Ugandans are suffering horrific injustices, right now. Simple messaging and sensationalism has galvanized international opposition to the Bill. “End Gay Hate” is a succinct, compelling and currently useful statement.

In this polemical context, opponents of the AHB have perhaps understandably dismissed the Statement out of hand. The twelve-page document is worth reading in full, however. Against expectation – and regardless of the authors’ intentions – it supports many arguments for LGBTIQ equality in Uganda.

In this analysis, I want to argue three points: First, we must not reject the Statement as “junk science,” which perpetuates a long history of devaluing subaltern scholarship. Rejection also implies there is, in fact, a definitive answer to the “gay gene” question. Simply put, there is not. Second, the NRM have misrepresented the findings to support their position. Third, and most important, the Statement’s Conclusions undermine many of the arguments and justifications in favor of the AHB over the past five years.

This is an excerpt from the NRM Caucus press release on the Statement:

“A Ministerial Committee comprising of scientists from MOH and Makerere University was set up to study homosexuality and genetics in human beings and advise the President and the NRM Caucus on the subject of homosexuality…

The following were their observations;

1 There is no definitive gene responsible for homosexuality.

2. Homosexuality is not a disease but merely an abnormal behavior, which may be learned through experiences in life.

3. In every society, there is a small number of people with homosexual tendencies.

4. Homosexuality can be influenced by environmental factors e.g. culture, religion and peer pressure among others.

5.  The practice needs regulation like any other human behavior especially to protect the vulnerable.

6.  There is need for further studies to address sexuality in the African context.

…Presidential Advisor on Science Dr. Richard Tushemereirwe stated that homosexuality has serious Public Health consequences and should therefore not be tolerated.”

These conclusions do not match those presented in the Statement:

“VI. CONCLUSION

a) There is no definitive gene responsible for homosexuality

b) Homosexuality is not a disease

c) Homosexuality is not an abnormality

d) In every society, there is a small number of people with homosexual tendencies

e) Homosexuality can be influenced by environmental factors (e.g. culture, religion, information, peer pressure)

f) The practise needs regulation like any other human behaviour, especially to protect the vulnerable.

g) There is need for studies to address sexualities in the African context.”

Two things stand out: One, the Press Release explicitly contradicts the Statements conclusion that “homosexuality is not an abnormality.” Second, the Presidential Advisor on Science, cited in the Press Release, did not co-author the Statement. In fact, the Statement does not contain any evidence supporting his claim.

The NRM have purposely misled the public as to the Statement’s findings.

Additionally, while the Statement concludes that gays are probably made, not born – Musevei’s personal line in the sand – justifications for the AHB have not, for the past five years, been framed by this question. Analysis of the text reveals the NRM-endorsed Report actually argues against a number of pro-AHB claims:

- a) is an accurate conclusion: There is no definitive evidence that homosexuality is biologically determined, by genes or otherwise.

Some commentators dispute this conclusion, citing a recent study as proof of a “gay gene.” That study is inconclusive. In any case, I do not think that it is productive for pro-LGBTQ activists to pursue this argument in the long-term, despite its intuitive appeal [see endnote 1 for further discussion].

- b) and c) explicitly contest the language used by anti-gay factions in Uganda and elsewhere. The Statement elsewhere asserts: “Homosexuality is not an illness that can be treated” undermining “conversion therapy,” which is used to terrorise LGBTQ individuals in Uganda – and elsewhere.

- d) outright rejects the popular belief that homosexuality is a “Western import” or “unAfrican.” Earlier, the Statement makes explicit that homosexuality existed “way before the coming of the white man,” and even notes that “Evangelical” outsiders have, historically, promoted intolerance towards homosexuality (p.3). These same points were made by SMUG, in their recent publication addressing the AHB.

- e) is tentative, not definitive. More importantly, there is no assertion which “environmental factors” influence homosexuality. Culture, religion, information, peer pressure all influence heterosexual desire and behavior, too: Monogamy, marriage, legal age of consent are all social norms. The Statement implies negative experiences as influences, however the category of “environmental factors” is limitless. It must also include socially desirable phenomena: Having positive same-sex role models, for example, or falling in love.

- f) implies homosexual activity must be regulated only in the same ways as heterosexual activity is currently regulated. For example, through age of consent, nudity, and anti-rape laws. While the language of “vulnerability” and “regulation” evoke negative stereotypes about homosexuality, this is nonetheless a universal statement. The section (V.) covering this point is explicit in this sense.

- g) also undermines the ongoing “unAfrican” debate, and indeed opens the door to further studies and debate.

— —

The Statement at no point implies consensual, adult, and safe [2] homosexual activity should be punished. It does not say that such homosexual behavior is detrimental to health. It does undermine the popular notion that social acceptance of LGBTQ people will influence others to become LGBTQ themselves (the internationally popular “propaganda” argument) by stating:

“…homosexual tendencies can be taken up based on the person’s judgement on what is pleasurable for them. Why this happens to some people is not clear. Whereas some homosexuals may take up the behaviour as an open choice, for others it may be due to indoctrination. In summary, homosexuality has no clear cut cause, several factors are involved which differ from individual to individual.”

While I am emphasizing positives elements of the Statement, the authors do, repeatedly, portray homosexuality as undesirable, at least in present day Uganda. This is not surprising: Scientists live in society, and are influenced by cultural norms, pressures and prevalent wisdoms. It is frustrating, however, that they speculate:

“African cultures had contained sexual vices. Maybe we need to revisit them to contain the present explosion of overt and coercive homosexual activity with the exploitation of our young children” (p.8)

The equation of homosexuality to paedophilia is a long-standing and pernicious slur with no basis in scientific, or social studies – a point made by 200 international health professionals in an open letter to Museveni. Restatement of this myth is disappointing. Here, Statement readers harboring anti-gay attitudes find easy confirmation of their views.

Other AHB-supporters dismiss the Statement, saying that scientific conclusions do not alter the immorality of homosexual activity. Yet in-depth analysis of the Statement remains useful – even as the deadline for a decision looms, and reasoned debate appears unlikely. Yes, LGBTQ Ugandans face horrific persecution and international efforts should be directed at their immediate protection. But we must continue to oppose the AHB – and all intolerance towards homosexuality – on multiple levels.

Museveni hails the Report as a “historical document,” and declares it the basis of his support for the AHB. By engaging with the arguments presented in the Report, LGBTQ rights advocates have an opportunity to use the master’s tools against him.

ENDNOTES

[1] The “born this way” perspective limits progressive social understanding and acceptance of myriad gender and sexual non-conformity. It denies, for example, bisexuality, or any sort of sexual fluidity. It implies that gender is biologically determined by sex. Most gene studies focus on males, sidelining female sexuality. The idea that a homosexuality gene test could be developed has alarming potential consequences. Agreeing that nurture, not nature, overwhelmingly shapes sexuality does not imply that homosexuality is in any way choice – as this report also asserts.

[2] I use the term “safe” here to emphasise that the public health and safety concerns and regulations around heterosexual activity can equally apply to homosexual activity in the Ugandan context. I do not seek to police sexual activity myself.

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