Monday, 9 November 2009

It is nonsense to assert that being gay is un-African

Source: Daily Nation


The gay marriage in London two weeks ago between Mr Daniel Chege and Mr Charles Ngengi has brought the vilest Kenyan homophobes out of the closet. Homophobic hatred is so viscerally irrational that it can only be explained by an un-interrogated moral, cultural, and religious certitude.

One common – but completely false – argument is that it is un-African to be gay. This is an absurdly vacuous claim that is internally illogical and utterly ahistorical. Most Kenyans are today indoctrinated by religious institutions, cultural guardians, and the moral police to be anti-gay. Rather than find someone to love, anti-gay crusaders find it convenient to find someone innocent to hate. Why has such a hatefully primitive and backward cosmology gone unchallenged?

Let me illustrate the seriousness of the problem by giving you a short human rights history of the last 50 years. Can you imagine a credible defence today for apartheid or the view that blacks are inferior to whites, and that the former exist solely to serve the latter?

How would you like to be declared illegal – or unworthy of existence – simply because you are black or African? Would you agree that all women and girls in your life – your mother, sister, wife, girlfriend, aunt, and grandmother – are inferior beings because of their female gender?

Do you think it is a good idea to declare Muslims superior to Christians? What about making the Akamba ineligible for constitutional protections? That is the human rights story in a nutshell. Modern democracy is not possible without two key interrelated principles – equal protection and anti-discrimination. Understand that it is “identity” that is afforded equal protection by insulating it from discrimination.

Historically, “identity” referred to your “state of being” – colour, sex, ethnicity, race, religion, language, marital status, national origin, political opinion, disability, and wealth or other social status.

But today “identity” is understood to include sexual orientation. That is why many countries explicitly prohibit discrimination against gays in social, political, and economic life. Others regard attacks on gays a hate crime. Civilised countries recognise gay marriages.

I have heard it said that being gay is “un-African.” Some Africans, who obviously know very little about the continent, have charged that there were no gays in Africa! The historical record, however, amply demonstrates that there were – and continues to be – gay Africans.

In fact, it is homophobia that is not necessarily home-grown. Much of the revulsion of homosexuality in Africa can be traced to Christianity and Islam, the two religious traditions that express homophobia in their doctrinal teachings. Before the arrival of these faiths, Africans appear to have been either agnostic about homosexuality or to have treated sexual orientation as a non-event. This may explain why there are no original gay epithets in African languages.

It is logical nonsense to assert that being gay is “un-African.” Does the assertion mean that it is not genetically possible to be African and gay? This hateful statement has as much basis in science as the assertion that whites are superior to blacks! Nor is there any cultural foundation for such an outrageous claim.

Culture is a dynamic phenomenon that it is neither static nor frozen in time. It is not possible to pigeonhole a biological impulse – such as sexual orientation – in a cultural box. In fact, available evidence suggests that all human societies – and Africa is no exception – have a minority population that is gay.

In most societies, gays are driven into the closet by social stigma and hate. Do you think there will be many gay Kenyans clamouring to “come out” after the furore and vitriol over Mr Ngengi’s marriage to Mr Chege? Isn’t it shocking that a deeply “religious” and “God-fearing’’ country like Kenya could be so hateful of an innocent minority population?

We should remember Pastor Martin Niemoller, an anti-communist who supported the rise of Adolf Hitler only to be disillusioned when the Nazi chief insisted on the supremacy of the state over religion. In a famous poem, the good pastor lamented his failure to speak out when Nazis came for the communists because he was not a communist.

He did not speak out when Nazis came for the socialists, trade unionists, or Jews because he was none of those. His silence over the persecution of others was his own undoing: “Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.” We must remember that we deny others their rights at our own peril. Gay Kenyans are being persecuted today but I can guarantee you that it will be another group tomorrow.

There is no evidence that gay Kenyans have been responsible for the plunder of the country. Kenya has been brought down to its knees by “macho” men and heterosexual women who purport to love God and country. How can love between two adults – of the same sex – be so terrifying to the majority?

The majority is not being asked to be gay, but only to let others seek their happiness in peace. Is that too much to ask as a right of full right of citizenship? It is the duty of every human rights activist to defend gay rights and demand their protection in the draft constitution.

Makau Mutua is Dean and SUNY Distinguished Professor at the state University of New York at Buffalo Law School and Chair of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.

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