There is no gay white man’s burden
Do-gooding Westerners will only make things worse for Ugandan homosexuals threatened by oppressive new legislation.
Social work is full of rhetoric about care, protection and anti-discrimination. The trouble is that these words often disguise problematic and anti-human sentiments.
For example, in Britain the expansion of Criminal Records Bureau checks and policies around abuse and protection, such as those contained in the No Secrets document and the government’s Every Child Matters agenda, get presented as sensible measures to reduce risk and protect the vulnerable, when in reality they are based on the view that we are all potential abusers and/or abused subjects. Far from being human-centred initiatives, they actually represent the institutionalisation of misanthropy, in which thinking the worst about people is now held to be a commendable civic duty and positive social-work value.
Such is the doublespeak of social work. Imagine my surprise, then, to be forwarded a recently published National Association of Social Workers (NASW) document that needed little analysis in terms of its message. Homosexuality is abnormal, it informs us, a behavioural symptom of a mental disorder. The decision in 1973 by the American Psychological Association to declassify it as such was wrong, the result of fraudulent scientific evidence and political lobbying by gay and lesbian activists. Homosexuality should not be viewed as normal but as a ‘behaviour-management’ problem. As a key function of social work is to assist individuals ‘experiencing difficulties in behaviour’ then social workers are well equipped to intervene. ‘[W]here these interventions have been done properly and ethically’, the document declares, ‘hundreds of people have overcome homosexuality and achieved appropriate social functioning’.
The document in question comes from the National Association of Social Workers of Uganda (NASWU). It is titled Statement on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009, which is currently before the Ugandan parliament and which would, if passed, prohibit ‘any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex’ with the possibility of the death penalty for repeated convictions. The bill will also outlaw the promotion of homosexuality and will make it a criminal offence to be aware of someone engaging in homosexual activity and not reporting him or her to the authorities. The NASWU backs the bill, believing that ‘there is justification for Uganda to put in place appropriate legislation to comprehensively prohibit homosexuality’. The NASWU statement also links homosexuality to paedophilia, AIDS and other public health problems.
According to some commentators, it was a visit by three American evangelical Christians in March 2009 that was the catalyst for the renewed focus on the repression of homosexuals in Uganda. Presented at a conference as ‘experts on homosexuality’, the evangelists discussed how to make gay people straight and described the gay movement as an ‘evil institution’ whose goal is ‘to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity’. One month after the conference, a hitherto minor politician in Uganda introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009.
Unsurprisingly, the proposed legislation has met with vociferous criticism, predominantly, though not exclusively, from the West. The US president, Barack Obama, and secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have both spoken out against the bill, with Obama calling it ‘odious’. Canada has also condemned it, and it has been reported that Sweden plans to cut aid to Uganda if the bill is passed. UK prime minister Gordon Brown has discussed the proposals with the Ugandan president. The UK is reportedly Uganda’s fourth largest donor. There is also some criticism from within Uganda. Canon Gideon Byamugisha of the Ugandan Anglican Church argues that the bill will be tantamount to ‘state-legislated genocide’ against the gay community, and several gay groups have demonstrated against the proposals.
The bill is most certainly odious and carries great implications for homosexuals in Uganda. The Ugandan protesters deserve our admiration for their courage in standing up for their rights, especially given the severe consequences they could face if arrested. As a social work academic, I find it galling to see the NASWU endorsing anti-homosexual attitudes and commending the proposed legislation.
Nevertheless, tempting as it might be for Western observers to organise or agitate around their feelings towards the Ugandan bill, to do so would be to forget the role of Western intervention in Ugandan affairs in exacerbating the current situation in the first place.
Care needs to be taken not to overstate the influence of three extreme and objectionable American evangelical Christians. Ugandans are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with whatever nonsense such people pour forth. The reasons for the current anti-homosexual climate are complex, influenced by historical, social, religious and cultural factors. However, the role of the West, from the colonial to the contemporary period, is of relevance when considering what is happening in Uganda today.
Attitudes to homosexuality in Uganda, as in most countries, have varied historically – at points being tolerant, at others intolerant. However, the current criminalisation of homosexuality is a legacy of British colonialism, whereby the colonial powers sought to punish local practices that they deemed to constitute ‘unnatural sex’. More recently, the US administration under George W Bush praised Uganda’s heterosexual, family-values policies and donated millions of dollars to sexual abstinence programmes. And now, Uganda finds itself being used as a proxy site for Western culture wars, with politicians, church leaders, gay and anti-gay activists getting involved in the debate and escalating the situation.
While homosexuality has not had widespread acceptance in modern-day Uganda, and police harassment and arrest of gays, as well as public attacks, are not uncommon, recent Western intervention has, if anything, only made things worse. According to some gay activists, while not widely accepted, as recently as five years ago homosexuality was not such a prime subject of national debate, and many people were not so threatened by same-sex activities as they are today. Moreover, Ugandan politicians have played the ‘colonial legacy’ card in order to justify their actions: it is not uncommon to hear homosexuality referred to as a ‘Western import’ and Western criticism of Uganda decried as a form of ‘moral colonialism’.
In this regard, further Western intervention into Ugandan affairs is unlikely to help homosexuals in that country. In fact, such intervention will exacerbate the situation, creating a new divide between civilised outsiders and the object of their civilising mission: the backward Ugandans. Consequently, the issue of homosexuality is likely to become further politicised. For those Ugandan politicians suspicious of Western interference, to be anti-homosexual is to be anti-Western, a gesture through which patronised Ugandans can thumb their noses at their supposed betters. In turn, their supposedly more enlightened betters in the West call for their own good governments to isolate Uganda until it changes its ways.
The situation for Ugandan homosexuals is not improved by any of this. They become mere cannon fodder in a battle between Westerners in search of a terrain on which to prove their moral superiority and elements in Uganda who dislike Western intervention. And the more that observers call on Western forces to resolve the situation, rather than trusting Ugandans to do it themselves, through developing their society and winning the social progress that comes with it, the more the situation will worsen for increasingly isolated homosexuals.
This brings me back to social work. Some within the profession argue that all action and indeed non-action is political, in the sense that to ‘do nothing’ about oppressive practices is to condone them by your silence. I disagree. Political action is contextual. In the Ugandan situation, direct intervention will do little other than allow Western observers to adopt a moral stance with no progressive consequence other than an easing of the radical conscience. Rather than place my faith in further Western intervention, whether by politicians, campaign groups or social workers, I would rather place it with those Ugandan activists risking so much in pursuit of their rights.
Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. His book Social Work, Politics and Society: From Radicalism to Orthodoxy is published by Policy Press.
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