"The majority of Ugandans are not homophobic"

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This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

Uganda's decision to deport David Cecil, the Kampala-based British producer of the play ‘The River and the Mountain', prompted our blogger to address what he believes is a spreading misconception about anti-gay attitudes in his country.

By SebaSpace

Cecil is quoted as saying: “Uganda is not a terrible place and most people are not homophobic but they are conservative” and “There are pastors preaching hate, they are the problem.”

I couldn’t agree with him more on homophobia. I tried to illustrate way back in 2010 that Ugandans then were no more homophobic than the South Africans, Americans or the French of 2013. Attitudes towards homosexuality worldwide are deeply visceral and the difference tends to be in the lengths governments are willing to go to discourage citizens from acting ruinously on the feelings they are perfectly entitled to.

In that light, the Scandinavian countries are years ahead of almost any place else in the world. Homophobic sentiment exists in Sweden and Denmark, too. But the politicians are setting an example by leading the campaign to actively discourage the feelings from going beyond that – and perhaps even change them to acceptance and tolerance.

But it is on the issue of ‘conservatism’ that I want to dwell at this time.

The confusion
My suspicion is that Cecil is confusing ignorance and/or lack of education about homosexuality with conservatism. There is scant evidence to show that most Ugandans are conservative. What they are is unschooled about some aspects of life and sexuality, and too many of them hide their lack of knowledge in bombastic, shrill, often foolish knee-jerk throwaways that observers mistake for conservatism.[related-articles]

Then there are Ugandans who are incapable of logical thought who – because this country’s education system focuses largely on churning out examination grades rather than critical thinking – run to the Bible and ‘tradition’ as their refuge.

The ignorant ones, who are not familiar with or educated about homosexuality, simply parrot what they have heard Pastor Martin Ssempa yell out. If you try to engage them in an intellectual exploration of the issues, they are visibly at sea. Since Ugandans typically don’t want to admit that they don’t know, it is little wonder they opt for ignorant din instead.

Ssempa is of course a cynical and opportunistically homophobic pastor who knows that he is talking nonsense all the time but nonetheless tries to encourage his listeners to be homophobic because he is hoping it will get him paid. It all makes for great mindless noise – sadly – which many people mistake for ‘conservatism’.

Remember that more than 50 percent of Uganda’s population is under 25 (48 percent is under 15). That is precisely the age group that is demonstrably more open-minded about sex and sexuality – to Ssempa’s acute frustration since it is also this group whom he wants to convert.

See why it is a complete misunderstanding to argue think that Ugandans are homophobic or conservative?

What my grandmother knew
That said, Cecil has clearly used the years he has spent in Uganda rather well. He never met my grandmother who died at the ripe old age of 96, but he would be correct if he realized that she was not homophobic or conservative. Having only gone to Bible school, she wasn’t the kind of woman anyone today would call ‘educated’. But she showed critical thinking and an enlightenment that a lot of schooled Ugandans would do well to emulate. How so?

My grandmother knew David Kato [the Ugandan LGBT rights activist murdered in 2011]. He lived down the road from her house. She knew that he was gay and spoke about how odd it was that a man could ‘unite’ with another man that way. But she also knew to mind her own business and made sure she never raised Kato’s homosexuality with his mother whom she also knew well. One of her stepsons, my father’s brother, spoke positively of Kato at his funeral and my grandmother totally approved.

My grandmother had more sense than ten Ssempas, and do you know how I know that? She was angrier about the wanton abuse of office by government officials than she was about homosexuality. She recognized that homosexuality was a curiosity, but would not expend energy on it because she was aware that she had known ‘odd’ people like that all her life and they had never affected her life the way lack of medicine and doctors in hospitals had robbed her of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Uganda is not at all a terrible place, and the majority of Ugandans are not homophobic or conservative. The pastors and politicians preaching hate for their own opportunistic, selfish ends are the problem.