Over the last couple of years we have heard a lot about the bill proposed by Ugandan MP David Bahati, that has become known as the 'Kill gays' bill. It has rightly drawn a lot of international condemnation. It is one thing to still have anti-gay laws on statute books and enforcing them while we can see gradual changes in the population that suggest in the long run things will improve. It is quite another to be introducing new legislation in this day and age, including introducing new death penalty punishments for homosexuality. It has become the focal point for a focus on what appears to be spreading homophobia in some places. What is really going on? Why is it that in some countries social progress is being made, whereas in some countries in Africa in particular, people seem to be trying to take a giant leap backwards?
It's obvious that it is not just what the law says that determines how gays are treated in any given country. If we take South Africa as an example, it was the first country in the world to specifically enshrine rights for gay people in its constitution. Yet recently there was a 'corrective rape' and murder of a lesbian LGBT activist in South Africa amid a backdrop of rampant verbal abuse and threats against gay people. Despite the differences in the legal framework with respect to the rights of gay people, the behaviour of many people in Uganda and South Africa towards gay people is the same. Is there a common factor?
I think there is: Poverty is widespread in South Africa still, as there is in many parts of Africa, and just as there is in Uganda. In fact, when we look around and at different places in history over many years, it is not difficult to spot that generally speaking there is a greater tolerance of gay people in environments where people do not feel they have to fight over inadequate access to basic resources necessary for survival, and where people have felt that their survival is not in doubt over a long period of time.
Another factor that has been a primary influence in these attitudes to gay people round the world has been religion. It has become apparent that either side of a critical threshold of wealth, people have different approaches to religion, generally speaking. When I refer to the critical threshold of wealth, I mean guaranteed access to basic necessities for healthy survival, not an arbitrary financial amount. Below that threshold, people seem to have regard their community's religious faith in a different way, more clinging, more needy, and tending to accept at face value what preachers say the Bible means to them. In communities where people have not only access to basic necessities but a comfortable standard of living also, there is a more open-minded willingness for people to apply their own interpretations and understandings to what the Bible means for them.
The massive exposure of child abuse predominantly in the Catholic Church came about mostly because people were no longer willing to believe unquestioningly that a priest 'could not have done that sort of thing'. People are beginning to question more seriously how accurate popular translations in the Bible are, and to wonder what they might mean instead, and it's clear that in relation to dealing with gay people, there have been some serious misinterpretations of what was originally written in the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. People are using their religious texts in way that utilises the one resource that humans seem to have above all else - our God-given intelligence. There is a saying, "God makes worms for the birds, but he does not throw the worms in the nest. Likewise, I do not think the Bible was created for us to unquestioningly and unthinkingly believe texts mean what our preacher tells us they mean, but to use our intelligence to learn and understand our religious texts.
Yet still in many many more poverty stricken parts of the world, some things have not changed, or indeed they have got worse. Despite long-standing linguistic references to people with different sexualities and or gender identities in many African cultures, in many African communities and countries there has been a backward trend in economic well-being over decades, and what appears to be a corresponding shift away from what ever previous level of acceptance of LGBT people there was.
Unfortunately also, some homophobic and ideologically driven religious activists from more developed countries, while perhaps representing a minority perspective in their own countries, have seized upon these particular economic and cultural environments in Africa to foster hatred of gay people, as a 'bogeyman' threatening society, in environments where people are looking for convenient scapegoats to explain their difficult economic circumstances. This can be noticed in the language used by influential people in Uganda urging the passage of the 'kill gays' bill, where gay people are accused of being a threat to the social fabric of all society. Well, I don't think I'm a threat to the social fabric, do you think you are? I don't know what some preachers imagine my typical day looks like: 9 to 5 - work. 6-7 shopping on way home, cooking and household work. 7-8 plan world domination and destruction of civilisation. 8-9 studying for exams….
So what can we do? Where should we focus our attention?. Well, clearly the attention that Uganda has received over its bill has been having a very positive effect, in the same way that the imprisonment of the gay couple who married each other in Malawi brought international attention to bear on that case and their resultant release from prison. Clearly, international pressure does work. But we also need to work towards improving the economic conditions of poverty stricken countries. Not only are there wider social benefits to the people, it also results in a trend towards greater tolerance generally. In India there has been a breakthrough in legal acceptance of gay people in the law, which has only come about because of a sufficient shift in attitudes, even if just among relatively wealth classes by Indian standards. It breaks my heart when I hear about Christians and Muslims murdering each other in the name of their respective religions in parts of Nigeria, when closer examination reveals that access to limited resources is at the root of the problem.
Clearly, helping countries to move to a place where the majority of the population at least is above the threshold of adequate access to essential necessities will result not only in less direct bloodshed, over time it will also result in people being able take a more open-minded, tolerant and understanding look at the issues of gender-equality rights, greater spiritual understanding of our religious texts, and greater tolerance of freedom for LGBT people.
Davis Mac-Iyalla is a Nigerian LGBT rights activist. He established the Nigerian wing of the British Changing Attitude organization, which presses for internal reform of the Anglican Communion for further inclusion of Anglican sexual minorities.