Crucial tool for lobbying to misinformed African politicians
June 11, 2015, by Melanie Nathan
This month by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) countering the notions that underpin homophobia and the criminalization of LGBTI people in Africa and the impact on HIV.
Eleven respected experts, mostly academic scientists based in South Africa, authored a report that expressly proves that laws criminalizing homosexuality, not only have no basis in science, but also cause serious harm to the prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
At this time at least 38 countries in Africa criminalize homosexuality, either through draconian penal codes, remnants of Colonization, or ramped up more recent anti-homosexuality legislation.
Five countries in particular have received much publicized criticism in recent years for what LGBTI activists on the continent and abroad view as state sanctioned homophobic legislation as well as political rhetoric, which have served to persecute and victimize LGBT people. These countries include Nigeria, Uganda, The Gambia, Cameroon and Zimbabwe. Persecution against gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgender and intersex occur through being ostracized, public and press exposure, evictions, firings, banishment, blackmail, long prison terms, detention without trial, police brutality, torture, assault, mob justice, stoning, murder, and threats of such.
The authors, of whom 11 work in South Africa, 1 in Uganda and 1 in the United States, were able to use their expertise in the fields of medicine, anthropology, psychology and philosophy to counter arguments used to justify the criminalization of homosexuality.
Linda Nordling in Nature.com reflecting on the report it is notes:
“The authors reference a review of literature dating back to the late nineteenth century that documents homosexuality in Africa (see go.nature.com/7un5vx), including woman-to-woman marriage on the Slave Coast (in present-day Togo, Benin and Nigeria), homosexual relations between shepherd boys in Ethiopia, and cross-dressing male prostitutes in Senegal. ….
The report also counters the notion that homosexuality is unnatural, citing evidence for a strong biological role in sexual orientation. And it tears down the ideas that homosexuality is ‘socially contagious’, promotes the spread of HIV or encourages paedophilia, citing papers that have disproved these, or similar, claims.”
The report warns that criminalizing homosexuality is the real threat to public health. This was illustrated in Uganda when a staff member of a US–Ugandan research project at Makerere University was arrested on charges of recruiting homosexuals and carrying out ‘unethical research’: the US funder suspended the project because of fears about staff safety.”
When the now defunct Anti-Homosexuality Act was passed in 2013 and signed back in 2014, President Museveni requested a scientific report from the Uganda National Academy of Sciences (UNAS), which declined to produce a report on the scientific basis of homosexuality supposedly because of insufficient time. However a group of scientists, with clear political leanings and pressure, hastily produced one that was later misquoted by members of parliament who supported the bill.
In my capacity as the Executive Director for African Human Rights Coalition, we welcome this report, understanding that it is a crucial lobbying tool for activists in the various countries where homosexuality is criminalized. it is my hope that this comprehensive, and timely report will now have the desired impact – to thwart new anti-Homosexuality legislation in Uganda and other countries and possibly trigger the repeal of old penal codes. However while it ought to influence politicians to steer clear of that which is now proven to harm citizens, I have little hope. I believe for as long as religious fundamentalists continue to rile up a desperate populace, politicians will continue to use gays as a scape-goat tool to distract constituents from corruption and the real failures of government.
Juliet Kiguli, an anthropologist at Makerere University and the only Ugandan on the expert panel, is more optimistic than I am. She is quoted in Nature.com: “The majority of Ugandans think this is not part of our culture. But culture is not static,” she says. If policy-makers take a lead in forging a more tolerant society, public opinion will follow, she says.
I believe Kiguli is underestimating the harm caused by U.S. Evangelicals and the religious community in Uganda, which spent years pushing for the Bill, and what it will still take to counter the harm done. Indeed this report is a crucial tool for activists to use in their local lobbying efforts. It is now time for local activists and advocates on the ground to ensure that parliamentarians read and understand the science.
The religious anti-gay fervor and political scapegoating continues and must be tackled on several fronts in many African countries.
Here is the list of the authors of the Report: (please read the report for more details on each participant)
Prof Hoosen (Jerry) Coovadia is currently a Director at MatCH Health Systems (Maternal, Adolescent and Child Health). MatCH Health Systems with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funding (through United States Agency for International Development-USAID) supports the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Department of Health in their provision of HIV, TB and related diseases treatment, prevention and care services in the eThekwini and uMkhanyakude districts. (Read more on report)
Prof Glenda Gray [MBBCH, FCPaeds, DSc (honoris causa)] is the President of the MRC of South Africa and a National Research Foundation (NRF) A-rated scientist. Prof Gray trained as a medical doctor and paediatrician at the University of the Witwatersrand, co-founded and led the internationally renowned Perinatal HIV Research Unit, based at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, South Africa. Prof Gray has expertise in mother-to-child transmission of HIV, HIV vaccines and microbicides. She is the Co-Princi- pal Investigator of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network and Director of the HIV Vaccines Trial Network (HVTN) International Programmes. In 2002, she was awarded (together with Dr James McIntyre) the Nelson Mandela Health and Human Rights Award for pioneering work done in the field of mother-to-child transmission of HIV-1. She is a Member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, and chairs the Standing Committee on Health. She is a member of the United States Institute of Medicine, and serves on their Global Health Board. Additionally, in 2012 she was admitted as a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. Prof Gray has also been awarded the Outstanding African Scientist Award and the International Association of Physicians against AIDS “Hero of Medicine” award for work done in the field of HIV treatment in children and adults. In 2009, Dr James McIntyre and Prof Gray received the N’Galy-Mann lectureship in recognition of their HIV research contribution in South Africa. In June 2012, she received a DSc (honoris causa) from the Simon Fraser University, Canada for her work in the field of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. In 2013, she received the country’s highest honour, the Order of Mapungubwe granted by the President of South Africa.
Prof Chris Beyrer (MD, MPH) is Professor of Epidemiology, International Health, and Health, Behavior and Society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Balti-more, USA. He serves as Director of Johns Hopkins University (JHU) HIV Training Program in Epidemiology and Prevention Science, and founded and directs the Johns Hopkins Centre for Public Health and Human Rights. He is Co-Principal Investigator of the JHU Centre for AIDS Research (CFAR) and directs the CFAR Developmental Core. He is a member of the HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN) MSM Working Group, and Protocol Chair for HPTN 078, a study of recruitment, linkage to care, and an enhanced treatment intervention for MSM living with HIV infection. He currently serves as Co-chair of the Epidemiology and Natural History Planning Group of the Office of AIDS Research of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). He has extensive experience in conducting international collaborative research and training programs in HIV/AIDS and other infectious disease epidemiology, in infectious disease prevention research, HIV vaccine preparedness, in HIV among key populations and in health and human rights. Prof Beyrer has done HIV re- search in Thailand, Burma, China, India, South Africa, Malawi, Tanzania, Russia, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan and is the author of over 220 scientific papers. Prof Beyrer was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the US National Academies in 2014. He is the current President of the International AIDS Society.
Dr Derrick Higginbotham [BA (Honors) Dalhousie, MA Simon Fraser, MA, MPhil, PhD Columbia] is a lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Cape Town (UCT). He has hosted several events at UCT and in Cape Town about sexuality in Africa, and is editing a collection of essays with Dr Victoria Collis-Buthelezi called Contested Intimacies: Sexuality, Gender, and the Law in Africa, which will be published in May 2015. He also teaches queer theory and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) literature – most of it South African and some other African countries – along with early modern English literature. He has published several essays on early modern English theatrical texts and their depiction of gender, economics, and sexuality. His approach and specialization is in the socio-cultural history of sexuality on the African continent and in ‘The West’.
Dr Juliet Kiguli (PhD) is a Senior Lecturer, in the Department of Community Health and Behavioral Sciences at the College of Health Sciences, Makerere University, Uganda. She is an anthropologist and gender analyst, teaching and carrying out community-based research and is also a consultant on several bilateral and multilateral projects in gen- der, culture and health.
Prof Jerome Amir Singh (BA, LLB, LLM, MHSc, PhD) is Head of Ethics and Law at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). (see more in report)
Prof Michael Pepper is the Director of the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Medicine and a Professor in the Department of Immunology, Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Pretoria. (See more in report)
Dr Jason van Niekerk holds a BA and MA from Rhodes University, and completed his doctorate in philosophy at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is currently a postdoc- toral research Fellow in the Department of Jurisprudence at the University of Pretoria. (See more in report)
Prof Juan A Nel is a Professor of Psychology at the University of South Africa. A registered clinical and research psychologist, he completed his doctoral studies in 2007. Prof Nel’s expertise in sexuality and gender – in particular, LGBTI mental health and well-being, as well as in hate crimes and victim empowerment and support, more generally, is recog- nised. His related academic research, tuition, advocacy and community participation have contributed to improved theory, professional practice, policy changes and com- munity mobilisation. (See more in report)
Prof James McIntyre (MBChB, FRCOG) is the Chief Executive Officer of the Anova Health Institute, Honorary Professor in the School of Public Health and Family Medicine at the University of Cape Town and International Vice-Chair of the US NIH-funded IMPAACT Net- work, the leading global collaborative HIV research network in women and children. He previously worked for 25 years at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, South Africa, where he was the co-founder and Executive Director of the Perinatal HIV Research Unit (PHRU) of the University of the Witwatersrand. He has been involved in research and programming on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV for more than 20 years. (See more in report)
Prof Beverley Kramer (BSc, BSc Hons, PhD) is Professor of Anatomy in the School of Anatomical Sciences, and Assistant Dean: Research and Postgraduate Support in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand. Prof Kramer’s main field of re- search is in embryology and developmental biology. She has published widely and has presented her research at numerous international and local congresses. (See more in report.)
Addressing Important Questions:
1. What is the evidence that biological factors contribute to sexual and gender diversity? To what degree is the wide diversity of human sexualities explained by biological factors?
2. Do environmental factors such as upbringing and socialisation explain the diversity of human sexuality?
3. Is there any evidence for same-sex orientation being ‘acquired’ through contact with others, i.e. through ‘social contagion’?
4. What evidence is there that any form of therapy or ‘treatment’ can change sexual orientation?
5. What evidence is there that same-sex orientations pose a threat of harm to individuals, communities, or vulnerable populations such as children?
6. What are the public health consequences of criminalising same-sex sexual orienta- tions and attempting to regulate the behaviour/relationships related to some sexuali- ties?
7. What are the most critical unanswered scientific research questions regarding the di- versity of human sexualities and sexual orientations in Africa?