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Q&A: Caroline Tushabe on homophobia in Uganda

This Tuesday, International Women’s day, Caroline Tushabe, a professor at the University of California-Riverside and native Ugandan gave a talk on the colonial origins of homophobia in Africa.

What is the state of the 2009 Anti-Homosexual bill [which makes homosexuality punishable by death] in Uganda?
The president declared the bill an international affairs problem, so he advised members of parliament to go slow on it. So, we don’t know what’s going to happen to it. We don’t know if it’s going to die out slowly. We don’t know about this parliament that was voted on February 18 is going to reselect the question. So we don’t know.

How is that constructed, the idea that colonization brought homosexuality?
Well it’s not the construction that colonization brought homosexuality; it’s a fact. Because before people who were colonized, like in Africa, and I use the word sub-Saharan but that’s actually not a good word to use because people use the words, global south, whatever it is that they use now. There were people who practiced what is now identified as homosexuality—so there are people engaged in same-sex erotic desires and relations, but they wanted to identify as homosexuals, which means that their practices, or their love relations, were not condemned; they were not prohibited. So when you take that into account, and then now you have an authority, which means colonial authority, that comes in and says “We are condemning homosexuality.” But they come with the idea of how they understood homosexuality from their homeland, from Europe. They’re using what they’re bringing in, which is difference and is new and it is not the same as what they find in those cultures, because they condemn those cultures as uncivilized. So to be civilized they have to drop their own cultures and then begin to adopt what colonizers introduced. So they take on like a Christian moral code you know: sex outside of marriage is a sin, right? If you have sex, that is not intended for reproduction of children, that is against God’s values. So that’s how you come to understand the introduction of homosexuality by colonialism.

But now over time, that condemnation of homosexuality becomes a norm.
Yes, and that’s happening today also in foreign policy. So when you think of HIV/AIDS, for example, you go to the hospital and treatment would not be based on what your sexual orientation is, what religion you have, what region you come from, your height, your weight. But Bush’s policy of ABC, which means abstinence until marriage, being faithful, condoms as a last resort, came as a condition with aid towards HIV/AIDS. So that means people had to interview you before they give you treatment. So they interview you, ask you your sexual orientation. That wasn’t necessary because they wanted to make sure that they meet everybody’s needs based on their sexual orientation, but it was to sort out who are heterosexuals and who are homosexuals. If you are homosexual, what happened in Uganda was that they would not treat you, but they would also call the police and the police would take you to jail. So then you can see how a practice can come very easily when it is attached to social policy.

Certain groups don’t have money; they don’t have the political leverage to influence the government. Some of the homosexuals in Uganda, as you said, are powerful and wealthy, but they are very few so they don’t have enough numbers and political power to really make an impact, to organize, and to be a political force.

I don’t know if I would tie it in that sense. I was giving that example as in the U.S and for me personally, I am against that kind of organizing. First of all, to separate yourself from your community, because this is a colonial condition: that you separate from your community and adopt an identity. So that is very complicated because taking on this identity, for example of gay or lesbian, forces you to discard other identities and other ways of forming yourself, of knowing yourself, in that community. And once you’ve taken this identity, you have to work within the parameters of the government, of the definition of what a person is, of what a group is, of whatever it is. To organize yourself, to prove to the government that you are people, you are human beings who actually deserve the rights of protection.

So I am against that, because first of all you are living in this vicious cycle of lobbying, and lobbying isn’t only taking words, it takes money. So why should we be raising money to give to politicians to put in their own pockets, when we also at the same time vote for them, vote them into office, to do the work on our behalf? So I am against that. That’s one reason why I’m against adopting an identity.

I think that organizing ourselves as lesbians and gays forces us to take on identities while discarding our own identities. When you opt for organizing yourself based on identity, you must also be people who have money and the time, to approach your counterparts in other countries, to raise the money. But it’s not that people don’t have money, it’s that it’s a waste of money. Why should we be giving them the money to do the work they were voted to do in the first place? So I think that there has to be revision of how democracy works. I just don’t know whether that can happen in the U.S. People seem to like the way it happens, but for me I don’t think it’s an effective way for us.

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