Walking on the gayest eggshells possible

One concept that we don’t discuss much in the “Western” world (a label that I find completely inaccurate and useless) is that of colonialism. Since Canada’s political structure and demographics are made up overwhelmingly of the descendants of European immigrants, we have much less of a post-colonial headache than South American and African countries (and indeed, many Asian countries as well). The United States points repeatedly to its birth as rebellion from its colonial masters, allowing it to throw off the weight of post-colonial detritus. The European countries are the ones who did the colonizing, so their relationship with the subject is quite different. The result of this confluence of historical and political/economic factors is that the only people who really discuss colonialism are members of minority groups.

We’re going to need to understand the issue a lot better:

The UK is showing a “bullying mentality” by threatening to cut aid to countries where homosexuality is illegal, a Ugandan official says. UK Prime Minister David Cameron said at the weekend that those receiving British aid should respect gay rights. But Ugandan presidential adviser John Nagenda told the BBC Ugandans were “tired of these lectures” and should not be treated like “children”.

The issue at discussion here is the proposal to withdraw foreign aid from countries that refuse to recognize universal human rights for homosexual people. The move is lauded by gay rights groups who say that it is hypocritical of countries like the UK to talk about promoting human rights, but to provide aid to regimes that criminalize homosexuality. It is derided, on the other hand, by African leaders who see it as an attempt to force “Western” moral standards on the rest of the world. Uganda is one of the worst offenders, to be sure, but they’re not alone:

Ghana’s President John Atta Mills has rejected the UK’s threat to cut aid if he refuses to legalise homosexuality. Mr Atta Mills said the UK could not impose its values on Ghana and he would never legalise homosexuality. (snip)

Mr Atta Mills said Mr Cameron was entitled to his views, but he did not have the right to “direct to other sovereign nations as to what they should do”. He said Ghana’s “societal norms” were different from those in the UK. “I, as president, will never initiate or support any attempt to legalise homosexuality in Ghana,” Mr Atta Mills said.

Because I think it’s important to understand the different perspectives at play here, and because I don’t think the answer to this problem is cut and dry, I will borrow a device from one of my fellow FTBorgs and present this discussion as a dialogue between Mary Washburn from Essex, England and Jason Ngeze from Kampala, Uganda.

Jason: With all due respect, Ms. Washburn, England has no right to dictate its morality to Uganda. We see homosexuality as a deeply troubling social issue that threatens the family structure and basic underpinning of African society. You may not agree, but your society is not built on African traditions. Forcing us to legalize homosexuality is as immoral as Saudi Arabia demanding that England adopt Sharia law in its courts.

Mary: With an equal amount of respect, Mr. Ngeze, Uganda is not in a position to dictate the manner in which we direct our aid. The majority of English people do not share your views, and do not support the idea of their tax dollars being spent in the service of persecuting minority groups. We once struggled with the question of homosexuality, and now understand it to be a natural part of the human experience. Denying rights to your gay citizens is intolerable to us, and we will not participate in it.

Jason: That’s all very well, but you have placed us in a position where once again, the colonial masters are making decisions that the people do not support. England knows very well that Uganda cannot survive without assistance, so now it is using our vulnerable position to force us to comply. Our citizens will suffer if we do not comply with your threat (which this undoubtedly is), but our country and sense of self-governance will suffer if we allow you to bully us.

Mary: While I am sensitive to that, the fact remains that Uganda is a member of the international community and must therefore be open to compromise and political pressure from its trading partners.

Jason: You say ‘compromise’ and ‘partners’ as though you are speaking of equals. England has never treated Uganda as an equal, and is now holding our economic future hostage in order to force your beliefs on us.

Mary: That’s ridiculous. We are doing no such thing. We do not owe you aid. You speak as though we have some kind of obligation to provide you with money simply because you do not have any. If you are asking us for help we are happy to give it, but it does not come without strings.

Jason: And you speak as though England and the other colonial powers are not responsible for the abysmal shape countries like Uganda are currently in.

Mary: What? Decades of war and corrupt political leaders are why Uganda is in such terrible shape. You once had a powerful economy but have squandered it through short-sighted economic policy and lack of effective leadership. That isn’t England’s fault!

Jason: Like hell it isn’t! Colonial presence in African countries completely obliterated the human resource infrastructure available to grow leaders. The power vacuum and the buildup of arms given to us for use in fighting your wars with other colonial powers and your political enemies in the 20th century meant that as soon as you left, opportunistic warlords seized power. You could have helped establish stable governments, but you abandoned us.

Mary: Hardly, we were practically forced out. Now that you have freedom you wish to throw it in our faces that you have failed to thrive?

Jason: But we don’t have freedom as long as you continue to make foreign aid contingent on us abandoning our traditions and identity, essentially forcing us to assimilate into European culture.

Mary: We aren’t forcing you to do anything. If you want to be free from our ‘tainted’ foreign aid, then don’t accept it!

Jason: Ah yes, then we shall be free to starve to death.

As you see, this is not a simple problem with a quick solution. While I find the homosexual attitudes of these African countries repulsive and largely false (homophobia is not ‘culture’, it is superstition), I also recognize how much of an existential threat colonialism is. It is also a useful ‘card’ to play to extort false support from Ugandans/Ghanaians who would otherwise support these moves for human rights, although I sincerely doubt that the move is as calculated as that. What is more likely is that a real resentment to foreign interference, carried by people whose very identities are under seige, is manifesting itself. In order to be able to navigate these somewhat-uncharted sociopolitical waters, we need to be fluent in the language spoken by both sides.

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  1. Zugswang says

    We see homosexuality as a deeply troubling social issue that threatens the family structure and basic underpinning of African society. You may not agree, but your society is not built on African traditions.

    But isn’t much of modern African culture strongly influenced by the previous injection of many foreign values, social structures, etc. brought as a direct result of colonialism? (I’m not asking in a rhetorical sense, I’m actually curious. Is there actually a history of homosexuality being taboo that predates western colonization, or is it an attitude that was largely brought about by indoctrination via Christian missionaries?)

  2. Alice in Wonderland says

    I’d say there’s a third perspective missing from the hypothetical dialogue: that of an actual gay Ugandan person.

    (I have no helpful answers here, but I’ve been struggling philosophically with the related question of supporting feminism in, for instance, Afghanistan.)

  3. Crommunist says

    The question as to whether or not homophobia is actually an African tradition is an open one. My guess is that homophobia exists in many cultures. Considering that Christianity is a colonial import, I think most of this “African tradition” nonsense is posturing and attempting to justify their own monstrous attitudes. The irony in this particular situation, of course, is that the Ugandan law against homosexuality is a relic from English rule.

    The issue is not about who is right, and who is wrong. The issue is about understanding why holding aid hostage is seen as more than simple “tough love” diplomacy, the way it is likely seen in England.

  4. Dunc says

    Hmmm…. I’m generally not in favour of using aid as a tool of foreign policy. There are many other tools available – diplomacy, political pressure, trade sanctions, cultural sanctions, and so forth – so why use the one tool which is most likely to cause suffering predominantly amongst the least powerful members of the societies in question?

    Also, if we were genuinely concerned with LGBT rights, we would stop deporting LGBT asylum seekers back to countries with poor records on the matter. Until we do that, at the bare minimum, I cannot take any protestations of official concern seriously. The UK coalition government promised to stop deporting LGBT asylum seekers to countries where they are liable to face persecution last year, and yet they are still at it. Only the intervention of the Supreme Court has managed to stop them in some cases – sometimes quite literally at the last minute.

    Indeed, I can’t help but suspect that this pressure is being applied in the hope that it will make such deportations easier, rather than out of any genuine concern for human rights.

  5. says

    This is a damned good post, which gives me a great deal to consider. When I clicked “read more,” I did it with the understanding that nothing could make me question the ethics of making aid contingent on acknowledging human rights. I believed this even acknowledging that European colonialism was the *reason* countries like Uganda now need aid. Despite both of those things, I did find myself questioning my position.

    However, human rights for homosexuals is not part of the UK’s culture, nor is it even part of western culture. Human rights for everyone is part of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/). And while the UN may be more heavily influenced by western powers, I think making aid contingent on an internationally agreed upon definition of human rights is perfectly acceptable.

  6. Crommunist says

    LGBT rights are currently a hot topic in the Commonwealth. Each country, my own included, is being forced to face its own hypocrisy in many regards.

    I don’t know how trade sanctions would harm the least powerful any more than aid cuts, but then again I don’t really know much about how sanctions work.

  7. Crommunist says

    I find these kinds of “take both sides” posts to be incredibly therapeutic. Often I’ll find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with whichever argument I’m supporting at the time, only to throw my allegiance the other way when writing the refutation. It’s a fun exercise, and makes me feel better about not knowing which is the correct answer.

  8. Dunc says

    It rather depends on the specific sanctions. There’s a big difference between (for example) restricting the export of agricultural produce and restricting the import of luxury cars. As another example, the cultural boycott of apartheid-era South Africa made it clear that they were considered a pariah nation, and there is (I believe) a fairly good argument that it did hasten the demise of the regime. It’s a very complex and difficult matter, and I’m certainly no expert – this is what we have diplomats for. But cutting aid seems like the worst choice of the lot… Unless, of course, you’re a reactionary party looking to capitalise on domestic dissatisfaction with the idea of giving money to foreigners amongst certain sections of the electorate.

    Basically, what I’m saying is that I can think of a number of ulterior motives for taking this particular approach, and a number of sensible alternative actions, which would be no-brainers if the concern with LGBT rights were genuine, which are not being taken. Therefore I suspect that the professed concern is not genuine, and I think that playing politics with both LGBT rights and foreign aid (which, lets not forget, is keeping people from starving to death) is disgusting. I’m not prepared to play oppressed minorities and starving children off against each other. We need to find other options.

  9. Crommunist says

    You make some very compelling points. That may be exactly what Uganda’s point is – that there are other options and this particular approach is bullying.

  10. theophontes, feu d'artifice du cosmopolitisme says

    We should also consider that many anti-gay leaders are in no way representative of their fellow country-peoples’ positions. Often they are pandering to populist (usually very conservative) positions.

    Mugabe is a prime example. While perhaps a majority aspires to basic human rights in Zimbabwe, he is spewing the most puerile and bigoted remarks from his well defended and broadcast soapbox. If a “Western” country is to give aid money, it should not just fling cash at the problem and hope for the best. It needs real engagement with all sectors of society. Like Zimbabweans, Ugandans are a diverse group of people. It certainly doesn’t help to focus on a power elite wrt aid.

  11. says

    Many of the worst pieces of homosexual hatred, like the “Kill the Gays” bill, show the influence of colonial interests. (See: http://lezgetreal.com/2011/06/the-uganda-kill-the-gays-experiment-operation-minnesota/) The evangelical Christian missionary tradition can’t be overlooked here. In areas where missionaries controlled access to food, health care, and education (and they did just that), their favoritism determined who was prepared for leadership. They favor, of course, those who think the way they do.

    That isn’t to say that the imposition of aid restrictions isn’t a colonial move. It’s to say that this, like pretty much everything from the last few hundred years in Africa that we’ve had enough interest in to pay attention, is a battle to determine which colonial influences will win out.

  12. Lauren says

    Reading the dialogue, it really appears to me the discussion boils down to whether aid is owed unconditionally for old colonial oppression or not. Shouldn’t we focus on that question so we have the information to answer the larger issue and move the discussion forward?

  13. Crommunist says

    I don’t know what you mean by the word “old”. Colonial oppression is still occurring, just without the presence of boots on the ground. But yes, by all means, we should be having a conversation about colonialism. Right now it is only its victims having that discussion.

  14. seanrussell says

    We should be having discussion of colonialism throughout the “Western” world, but here in the US at least, it won’t happen in any near future. Most of us USAns have grown up in one of the most abusive of colonial powers, but have been raised with continuing self-deception and secrecy about it. I am not sure how anyone here could even begin a broad conversation about colonialism and keep it honest.

  15. Crommunist says

    Black nationalists and advocates from the central american community have been talking about colonialism for decades. That’s where I was first introduced to the topic. It’s not that people aren’t talking about it, it’s that the few who are talking aren’t being listened to. I think that is changing though, if the discussion around the use of the word “Occupy” in places like Vancouver and Arizona are any evidence.

  16. Brandon says

    The hypothetical conversation (which I enjoyed!) seems to have Jason sidestepping a pretty crucial point here – killing or imprisoning gay people isn’t wrong because it goes against “Western” values, it’s a clear violation of human rights. Jason’s opener, which states

    We see homosexuality as a deeply troubling social issue that threatens the family structure and basic underpinning of African society. You may not agree, but your society is not built on African traditions. Forcing us to legalize homosexuality is as immoral as Saudi Arabia demanding that England adopt Sharia law in its courts.

    brings a sort of moral relativism that I find rather repellent, in which each culture is perfectly well entitled to its own set of morals, and they’re all equally valid, so no one should ever try to impose those morals on anyone else. The reason why various Sharia dictates and the putatively African traditional bigotry against homosexuals is wrong isn’t because England says so; it’s because every valid ethical argument points to persecution of homosexuals as being wrong.

    That said, I do not see a practical solution to the real world problem.

  17. TYFW says

    I have no doubt that certain leaders such as Museveni use an issue such as homosexuality to get votes from people who would otherwise would not be pleased with the work of his administration. I also think that these leaders are not righteous enough to dare endorse these laws if it meant seeing millions in aid come out of their country’s (and far too often their own) pockets. Notice that leaders like him is able to get away with pretending like he supports such legislation and keeping Western leaders happy by vetoing these bills while pointing the finger at someone else for doing so.

    I find myself seeing the decolonization of the former Commonwealth as a game. On one hand, you have to appeal to millions of people who speak different languages, cultures who have historical strife with one another. On the other, clever politicians get away with bad governance by either using a colonial history to be impartial to all groups (such as choosing English as an official language over a native language) or using the West as a scapegoat for people to deflect their anger towards.

  18. naturalcynic says

    Something that has muddied the situation in Uganda is the history of the late 19th century Kabaka [king] MwangaII of Buganda who tried to expel the influence of Catholicism, Anglicanism and Islam from his kingdom in revolts against the British. Among those who were killed were dozens of pages in the court who had become Catholics or Anglicans and failed to renounce their new religions. They were martyred because they failed the test of submitting to the homosexual advances [rape] by the king.
    So we have the historical irony of a vicious homosexual anti-colonialist in the background.

  19. Pierce R. Butler says

    Is there actually a history of homosexuality being taboo that predates western colonization…

    Look up the story of King Mwanga II, who persecuted Christians and men who refused his sexual advances with equal bloodiness. He was a native ruler, from a native dynasty, but in a time (1880s-early ’90s) when Buganda (as his area as known) experienced major pressure from Christian and Muslim proselytizers and probably felt themselves oppressed in a colonial way.

    Anyhow, Mwanga managed to give male homosexuals a real bad rep – if he hadn’t existed, the hyperchristians would have had to invent him.

  20. Retired Prodigy Bill says

    How about this? “We see Jews and homosexuals as a deeply troubling social issue that threatens the family structure and basic underpinning of German society. You may not agree, but your society is not built on Germanic traditions. Forcing us to legalize Jewishness and homosexuality is as immoral as Saudi Arabia demanding that England adopt Sharia law in its courts.” Does that not put Brandon’s “human rights” point in context?

    In point of fact, any sanctions against a country are going to help engender more inequality within that country, which means more misery and harm coming to those least able to protect themselves. But you either allow human rights violations, you use non-violent yet harmful sanctions, or you use violence. There are no good real world answers. People who commit evil rarely think of themselves as such, they have some “righteous” reason for what they do, but that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and say, “Oh, well, I have to treat them as if they aren’t arbitrarily killing people.” (Which, in this case, I don’t think they actually are — a lot of the legislation is new, and some, I believe, was formed with the aid of USA missionaries.)

    Attempting to dismantle the USA’s imperialism is a good place to start being moral, as is trying to prevent genocides and ethnic (or sexual) cleansing. The solutions will not be perfect, but at least they won’t be final.

  21. says

    Off the top of my head (I, also, don’t have a clear-cut answer), I’d say that unconditional aid is irrational. The whole point to the aid is that these colonial countries harmed the colonized, and the aid is to help repair the damage done. If one reasonably believes that the aid will harm the “formerly” colonized countries, then one has an obligation to withhold it.

    Put another way, the former colonizers have an obligation to aid those they harmed; they do not have an obligation to provide “aid”. They have an obligation to help, not an obligation to throw money at them. If they will be helped more by withholding the funds… then isn’t that the logical and ethical choice?

  22. Dunc says

    I think we need to draw a distinction between aid and reparations.

    Aid should be delivered on the basis of need. If I see a starving man in the street, I don’t ask to what extent I’m responsible for his suffering before trying to help.

    Reparations are a whole other very complex question.

  23. says

    The UK is not required to give aid, there are plenty of countries without laws against homosexuality that need the aid.

    Uganda is talking like it’s their money, it isn’t. The UK have every right to not give any more, and Uganda must recognize this.

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