Posts Tagged ‘homophobia’

We’re big on diversity in the my organisation, a Hand Relief International affiliate. It’s a cornerstone of everything we do. We’re all about justice, integrity, raising the voices of the powerless.  We’re especially keen on empowering people: poor people (we still don’t seem to be able to get past seeing them as one cuddly, homogenous whole lot of poor people); women and children; homosexuals; minorities of all sorts. In short, you name them, we are probably, somewhere in the world, trying to empower them.

It sounds so simple. And so right. But the question is: how to work on equality and empowerment when the majority of the population, and your staff, aren’t so interested in empowerment, equality or justice – or at least, they’re not so keen on it for everyone.

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My first brush with this came when working for a donor, in A N Other African country, when I was Emma. Said donor was on a diversity drive around sexual orientation, and quite right too. Where I come from, accepting differences in sexual orientation is seen as A Very Good Thing, and is for me, a no brainer. Every time I wandered through the office lobby, though, something was nagging me. What was it? Aha! After a week or so, I realised that someone had covered up the half of the diversity poster which said that the organisation respected people of all sexual orientations. How embarrassing, I thought. I called a meeting with my slightly loony line managee. (At the risk of being un-diverse about mental health, he later turned out to be an absolute madman, but that’s another story, and at this point I still had hope that I could manage this man without any risk of personal harm, and perhaps even change him. I hear you sniggering at the back).

We sat down for a chat about it. “Ernest*”, I said. “Ernest, I saw something funny the other day. Someone – and I can’t imagine who – has covered up the diversity message on the new poster with the little stick men holding hands with stick men, and stick women with stick women. Can you imagine?”

“I know”, said Ernest, not looking overly earnest at all (which to be fair makes sense, given that it’s not his name. In fact, his real name is not even an adjective). “That was me.”

Hmm. He wasn’t looking overly ashamed of himself. I tried a new, and not particularly original, tack.

“But on joining this organisation you signed up to our Core Values,” I said, trying not to sound whiny. “Can’t you see that this is not OK?”

“But,” he countered (the clever little sod), “homosexuality is illegal in this country, and my first obligation is as a citizen, not as an employee of my old organisation.”

I was slightly flummoxed by this. I’m not sure why. After a few years I am now used to this argument, but at the time it was horrifying. In the end, I used an unoriginal tactic to leap this hurdle. I had to pull the I Am Boss card. “I’m your boss, so take the covering off the poster.”

Now, if in the UK I asked someone to put up a poster to support something that is illegal and, as far as they are concerned should never be legalised and decays society – say, smuggling heroin or kidnapping children – and many Africans do see homosexuality on this level – they’d report me to HR or the police. However, the I Am Boss card works surprisingly well in much of Africa, even when people think you are being completely unreasonable (except perhaps Kenya – don’t try it there). It did this time. In fact, I really do have to check myself to keep myself from turning into some sort of mini despot.

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My only strategy for dealing with this has been to try to become more tolerant of intolerance and to understand it, and to engage with it in a calm, zen-like manner. “Ha!” I hear you say, “sounds impossible, without a large dose of sedatives.” And you’re on the money. My new policy was first tested to its fullest extent in late 2009 when Edgar**, who manages poverty eradication and equality programmes, said that my organisation would need to change its diversity policy if the Bahati Bill passed in Parliament. For those not in the know, homosexuality would be punishable by death under this law, and people who know someone is gay and don’t report it could get 2 years in prison. Oh, and most Ugandans support it. “But Edgar,” I said, trying not sound patronising [I always do  end up sounding patronising in these situations], “if people are born that way, isn’t it best to embrace that diversity?” [Or something along those lines].

“No one is born like that. Africans are not gay. It is the job of their pastor and their family to cure them,” he responded, dispelling my zen state of mind. This is, incidentally, a view allegedly shared by some American evangelical churches who oppose the bill because they think homosexuality can be ‘cured’: no coincidence, as Uganda is the second most evangelical country in the world, after the US. [There’s a high chance any plane headed here has a large portion of missionaries on it. With my fear of flying, this always gives me hope that a crash is less likely on a ‘God plane’].

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It’s easy make light of all of this and to ridicule this bigotry (after all, I just did, for a page and a half). But it’s a very real dilemma for any of us working on, or interested in, human rights issues in Uganda. I find the homophobia here disturbing and repulsive. But Ugandans have a right to their law and opinions. Who are we, as foreigners, to impose our views and judge them, they say? And I can see their point. If some Ugandan came to London and started lobbying for these kinds of Draconian laws, we’d put them straight back on the plane.

It’s also tricky for any of us wanting to make non-expat friends. At home, if someone came out with some of the bigoted comments I hear here, I’d avoid them at all costs. But if you want to have Ugandan friends, you need to be prepared for those kinds of statements, and to find a balance between challenging them and recognising that barring everyone who doesn’t agree with your opinion means you won’t have any local friends, learn much about the country, or enjoy many of the wonderful things the country and its people have to offer. Excluding them from your circle because of their lack of diversity on one issue means that you miss out on learning about the diversity of the country as a whole.

I have almost managed to strike that balance, but I walk a tightrope. I was out with my 2 closest Ugandan girlfriends last week for some tea and gossip. We were having a great time, discussing love lives, marriage, the usual. My friend Bernice*** was telling us about this male friend who she spends a lot of time with, adores [and the feeling is mutual] but doesn’t feel any sexual tension with, and is sooo comfortable with. We mulled over the reasons, and I suggested that maybe he’s gay. Of course it’s only a possibility, but some of my male friends matching that description are gay. My 2 friends threw their heads back and howled with laughter. Rather nonplussed, I pointed out that 10% of the population is probably gay here. After an awkward silence, they rolled their eyes –”here she goes, with her silly Muzungu ideas” – and carried on chatting. How to handle these situations? I still don’t know, a few years in to my time here. It’s offensive to me that people can’t live and let live, but clearly what I am saying is offensive to them. We’ve reached an uneasy truce for the sake of the other areas of our lives where we get on and love each other.

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 In an attempt to boost my tolerance and general happiness, I have taken up yoga. The benefits have been significant, and noticeable to others. On Monday, I was telling my friend and colleague Margaret about this over lunch. She’s just been through a nasty breakup, so I invited her along to class as I thought it might give her a boost.

“I’m sorry, I can’t come. My pastor says we shouldn’t go to yoga,” she said, “because it opens us up to demons.”

I greeted this with an uncharacteristically diplomatic silence and chowed down on my matooke. My yoga teacher would tell me to just send love out to the world, but I’m not quite there yet. I like Margaret’s company a lot, though. Let’s not fall out over yoga, I thought.

Today, she invited me to her church. Instead of gracefully declining, as I usually do, I said, “I’m not going along to a church where some pastor is going to tell me that bl00dy yoga is demonic.”

“Well, if it’s not true, it doesn’t matter, you can still come,” she said, in a reasonable tone.

“Well, if that’s the case, come to yoga then,” I semi-snapped.

It’s hard to be tolerant of intolerance.


*not his real name. Although there are an alarmingly high number of people with names like Ernest in Uganda – it’s like stepping into an episode of Foyle’s War.

**also not his name. But again, a popular one here.

***I’m really not making this up. This isn’t her name, but this one is SO popular here.


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