In February 2012, the Ugandan government’s reintroduction of the controversial bill that would create stricter punishments for homosexuality (which is already illegal) got me thinking. Not just about how heinous I think the bill is, but about the power struggle that the Ugandan government is engaging in with the US and the UK, both formidable sparring partners. In recent months, leaders in both the US and the UK have made public statements regarding the importance of respect for homosexuality and demanded that this priority be expressed in their nations’ aid packages. In essence, rather than simply (or not so simply) tying aid to the fiscal and economic priorities of “developed countries,” (terminology is a discussion for another day) aid may also be tied to their policies regarding gender and sexual orientation, as well.
Now here is my disclaimer: I am unabashedly, strongly, march-on-the-streets pro-gay rights and am proud to work on a team that researches how best to address gender inequalities across Africa. I also lived in Uganda, outside the small town of Mbale, for about 18 months, during which time I fell head over heels in love with the country – with the enormous, glaring hole of the climate of loathing for homosexuality.
With that said, one might assume that I am rejoicing that the US and UK have made protection of gay rights abroad a priority. To be honest, a part of me really has been celebrating this. But there’s another part, the overly contemplative, trying-to-hide-from-the-ugly-side-of-aid-but-can’t development worker part. The fact is, the US and UK may not be discussing legalizing the death penalty for homosexuality in their own legal codes, but there are still very significant and meaningful gaps in their treatment of hetero vs. homosexual citizens.
For example, in the US, sexual acts between persons of the same sex were only legalized at the federal level with the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 –just nine years ago! Before that, fourteen states had sodomy laws on the books, including Idaho, which punished “offenders” with “imprisonment in the state prison not less than five years” and theoretically up to a life sentence. Furthermore, there is currently no federal prohibition against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and it is, in fact, legal in the majority of states (29). Though the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was first introduced in the US Congress in 1994 and has been reintroduced in every Congress except the 109th, it has never been passed. This is not to say that the US has not made strides against anti-homosexual discrimination, but there is still a long way to go. Of course, with an election looming, Obama may have a vested interest in showing his pro-gay rights constituents that making progress on the issue is a priority, though he lacks the political capital to pass the ENDA or a federal marriage equality act. Enter foreign policy.
In the global arena, governments and citizens of developed countries can identify problems that exist in their own countries, such as poverty, economic inequality, and female empowerment, and quickly turn their –and their electorate’s — gaze outward. Problems in one’s own country may appear complex, historically rooted, and challenging (perhaps nearly impossible) to tackle. But in other countries, where one can adopt a sufficiently distant and simplistic perspective, it can all seem so easy. For example, racism in the US – well, now, that’s a tricky issue, embedded in a sad and guilty history of slavery and oppression, and entrenched in a complex cultural and socio-economic context. But tribalism? Well, that’s just stupid. Get it together, Africa! Stop the needless discrimination and fighting! Surely it’s that easy… isn’t it?
By adopting this attitude, it allows those living in developed countries to avoid acknowledging or addressing the imperfections, contradictions, and inequality existing in their own societies, while still feeling like crusaders for global justice. Then, of course, it becomes possible to demonstrate their dedication to “the cause” by flexing a little muscle since, after all, aid is a gift, right? And what’s a little manipulation nudge between friends?
In the US, Obama would need to find a way to pass legislation through Congress. However, in Uganda, a little tug on the purse strings requires no such dance. Before than attempting to control legislative outcomes in developing nations, though, it may be worthwhile to consider why and how proposals, such as Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, managed to get popular support in the first place.
I am not suggesting that the US or the UK should stop pursuing a rights-based agenda abroad, nor am I attempting to comment on Uganda’s legislative priorities. Rather, I suggest that these countries take a long, hard look inward and ponder their own selves – their values, motivations, and the actions that result – before deciding what other nations should or should not do.