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Robert Leitch: Why the West must be cautious about lecturing African countries about the tolerance of homosexuality

Picture 20 Robert Leitch is a party activist who is working in Parliament for a Conservative MP.

On Tuesday evening, BBC One repeated a documentary entitled “The World’s Worst Place to Be Gay” presented by Scott Mills, a BBC radio presenter who himself happens to be gay. The hour long piece focused on Uganda and the controversial Bill in that country which was recently put forward by David Bahati MP in an attempt to further criminalise homosexuality.

Much has previously been written about Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill and whilst its progress has been slowed down by the President for the time being, it is feared that it will shortly return either under a different name or even spilt into several different pieces of legislation.

What cannot be questioned is the clear desire of many Ugandans to further criminalise homosexuality. Sadly, permitting the use of the death penalty as an appropriate punishment to tackle homosexuality and its perceived growth amongst African countries remains a well-supported proposal in Uganda. Such a thought makes me, as a gay man, feel both depressed and rather uncomfortable.

Indeed, regardless of political allegiances or religious faiths, I am sure that the overwhelming majority of us would agree that such homophobic views are unacceptable, offensive and dangerous. Of course, we live in a country which strongly believes in universal human rights and deplores discrimination (perhaps even swinging that particular pendulum too far, as I have previously blogged).

However, whilst I agreed with almost everything that Scott Mills said during the programme, I must confess to feeling somewhat uneasy about the West’s quite aggressive reaction to Uganda’s internal legislative debate.

After all, the supposedly reliable statistics highlighted by the Ugandan Government show that around 95% of the country’s citizens do not accept homosexuality as being a natural form of life. If valid, that is a rather overwhelming statistic which provides David Bahati MP and his supporters with a remarkable mandate to progress their cause. 

In total 37 African countries do not tolerate homosexuality at present. With so many individuals persecuted because of their sexuality, it can often feel as though the West should be doing more to help. 

However, in light of the BBC programme, I would urge caution. The people of sovereign African countries, many of which are still at the early stages of democratic, economic and social development, will not take kindly to Western foreigners intervening in their culture, nor dismissing their genuine beliefs. Such widely-held attitudes towards homosexuality are deeply embedded within certain African societies and mere outrage from Western gay lobby groups or political leaders alone will not lead to some miraculous breakthrough in tolerant thinking.

It seems that we have yet to learn that religious fundamentalism in distant parts of the world tends only to strengthen in its resolve when confronted by aggressive and dismissive Western opinions, which are often viewed as an attack on cultural beliefs and backgrounds. Furthermore, given that homosexuality in the UK was banned until 1967, we could probably also stand accused of hypocrisy with our own society having started and concluded the gay rights journey only a short time ago. 

Ultimately, I fear that Ugandans and other like-minded nationalities will only engage with the debate if it continues to be held within their own communities, led by fellow Africans of more tolerant religious faith in particular.

In the meantime, Britain should continue to stand up for human rights across the world, but let us be careful – using our voice foolishly and aggressively simply threatens to further entrench the many prejudices that we frequently seek to challenge.  


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