Solidarity and Scope: Some Thoughts on Russia, Nigeria, India and Uganda

February 24, 2014 in General

What does LGBT solidarity mean in the context of current debates about the travails of LGBT communities in Russia, Uganda and India?

Let’s deal with India first, as it is in a more beneficent ideological condition than perhaps either of its counterparts in this context. When India’s Delhi High Court decriminalised male homosexuality in 2009 after it struck down Section 377 of the colonial era British Indian Penal Code, many LGBT Indians and overseas onlookers were startled at its abruptness but happy- followed by bewilderment and then anger as India’s Supreme Court just as abruptly reinstituted Section 377 several months ago. That decision has been met with mixed reactions. Elderly social conservatives, the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party opposition, elderly religious leaders and conservative federal Congress Party politicians expressed their support for the Supreme Courts actions, while Bollywood celebrities, liberal senior Congress ministers, liberal judges and LGBT community figures expressed their outrage at the Supreme Court’s decision. Much of the Indian political divide appears to be generational and on the basis of religious affiliation, with the added detail that in sprawling, multicultural India, the divide is between conservative older religious affiliated leaders and citizens and their younger, better educated secular counterparts. It may take years to resolve this impasse, as India is hamstrung by dysfunctional federalism, residual poverty and economic inequalities, a sclerotic bureaucracy and governing party. But still, there is healthy, unrestricted debate over the abolition and restoration of Section 377. Despite the setback, India may be in a better position than its counterparts in this blog entry, however.

Let’s compare that to Uganda, Nigeria and Russia. First, Uganda. Uganda has been cursed by generations of dictatorship and then civil war after it won independence from the British Commonwealth in the early sixties. The brutality of the Amin and Obote eras was well-known to anyone with even a rudimentary interest in black African human rights and civil liberties. Although the advent of Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement has provided stability for his nation, it did not prevent the regime embarking on a brutal civil war with Northern Uganda’s Akholi tribal communities and the Lords Resistance Army guerrilla movement, only recently resolved. Both the Lords Resistance Army and the Museveni/NRM regime committed atrocities, employed child soldiers and resorted to child prostitution over the fifteen year conflict, which also pulled in neighbouring Sudan and the ever-fragmented Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although Uganda has shell game parliamentary institutions, it is still effectively a one-party state, with an imperial presidency and a weak, stunted civil society and meagre economic development, as well as endemic government corruption and cronyism. Thus, it proved easy for the US Christian Right extremist Scott Lively to subvert rapacious local Ugandan fundamentalist Pentecostal religious figures and National Resistance Movement MPs, particularly David Bahati, the credulous sponsor of the draconian and murderous Anti-Homosexuality Bill, leading to mob violence, assaults and murders of Ugandan LGBT community activists. There was some dissent from prominent Ugandan feminists and human rights activists, but oddly enough, it was Uganda’s authoritarianism, corruption and economic dependency on foreign aid that proved an unexpected barrier to the final passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The US State Department is a primary foreign aid donor and strongly pressured  the Museveni regime to relent from its path. Museveni delayed final  signature of the bill and stalled for time, trying to balance domestic NRM homophobic party members on the one hand and the displeasure and threatened sanctions from the Obama administration on the other. Unfortunately, however, he eventually did sign it on February 24, 2o14. One hopes that he is aware of the consequences of this foolhardy defiance of mainstream international public opinion- not that his corrupt regime will experience reprecussions firsthand, as that will be the unfortunate Ugandan people themselves.

After signing the bill into law, Museveni (69)  made several scientifically illiterate statements that indicated that he had no real comprehension of gay sexuality. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill arranges for  first-time offenders to be sentenced to 14 years in prison and makes it a criminal offence not to report someone for being gay. Lesbians are covered by the bill for the first time as well as gay men.

On signing the bill, the president questioned why gay men “failed” to be attracted to women, described them as “mercenaries” who have sex for money, expressed displeasure at the idea of oral sex and claimed that he had “listened to scientists” as a basis for his claims. Going on, he also said that there was something “really wrong” with gay people, and that he is “prepared” to be on a collision course with the west over the law.

He said: ”I have failed to understand that you can fail to be attracted to all these beautiful women and be attracted to a man. That is a really serious matter. There is something really wrong with you. Homosexuals are actually mercenaries. They are heterosexual people but because of money they say they are homosexuals. These are prostitutes because of money. No study has shown you can be homosexual by nature. That man can choose to love a man… is a matter of choice. After listening to the scientists, I got the facts. Can somebody be homosexual simply by nature? The answer is no.”

Oral sex was described as a “culture”, and the mouth as an “address”. Museveni went on to say that it was “engineered for kissing”, and that the mouth was not meant for oral sex. He said: “One of the cultures that we detest is oral sex. The mouth is for picking food, not for sex. We know the address for sex. That address is not for sex,” he said. “The mouth is for eating not for sex. The mouth is engineered for kissing. It is not healthy. You can contract STDs. You push the mouth there, you can come back with worms and they enter your stomach because that is a wrong address. You can also contract Hepatitis B.”  To add insult to injury, the newly emboldened antigay Ugandan tabloid Red Pepper   has published a list of what it called the country’s “200 top” homosexuals, outing some people who’d not identified themselves as gay.

In response,  Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands have become the first three countries to cut their aid to Uganda following the decision to sign the bill by Museveni. The Netherlands has stopped around £6 million in aid money which was intended for Uganda’s legal system, as the country did not want to contribute to the persecution of gay people. Norway and Denmark have also said they will redirect aid directly to human rights groups, rather than the government. This is the same policy which the British Department for International Development, which provides aid directly to organisations such as the UN, World Bank and Amnesty International.

Unfortunately, though, Nigeria and Russia are not in comparable positions to India or Uganda. Neither Nigeria or Russia are functional democracies. Since independence from the British Commonwealth in the sixties, Nigeria has experienced periods of political instability, military dictatorship, brutal human rights and civil liberties repression, internal ethnic cleansing and sectarian Christian/Muslim religious communal violence. As with Uganda, this has stunted the development of a stable middle class and democratic institutions, with the added curse of petrochemical wealth. This means that while Uganda may be vulnerable to threatened foreign aid cutoff reprisals from the international LGBT community and allied liberal western governments and transnational corporations, Nigeria isn’t in the same predicament and cannot be pressured into abandonment of its own corrupt practises and religious and political extremism. Russia is in a similar situation. Although the initial post-communist Yeltsin government saw a brief period of democratic institutional development, it also marked the onset of severe economic deprivation, mass starvation and loss of military and foreign influence, leading to relief when authoritarian ex-KGB colonel Vladimir Putin stepped in from St Petersburg and snuffed out the abruptly truncated experiment in democratic rule. Power was centralised around his ‘imperial presidency’ and his apparatchik “United Russia” Party, and petrochemical wealth flowed to newly privatised corporate CEOs who collaborated with the regime, as well as everyday Russians…and the backward, hidebound pre-Enlightenment Russian Orthodox Church, which underwent mushrooming institutional growth and religious revival, exploited by the Putin regime. This has led to repression of domestic dissent, human rights and civil liberties. As with the Thatcher era in the United Kingdom of the eighties, religious outcasts like the Russian LGBT communities and Muslim immigrant communities have suffered. Unfortunately, given Putin’s control of the military and media institutions, as well as his security apparatus and Russia’s petrochemical wealth, reform may be a long distant prospect in the Russian context. Indeed, events took a sinister turn in early March 2014, after months of turmoil caused by an anti-EU trade decision in neighbouring Ukraine, a former constituent republic of the Soviet Union. Amongst far right pro-Russian factionalists, some LGBT commentators have noted sinister homophobic, racist and other such elements.

(It should also be noted that Ukraine isn’t exactly an oasis of tolerance, human rights and diversity when it comes to its LGBT inhabitants either. The Ukraine only decriminalised male homosexuality back in 1991 and Ukrainian society is influenced strongly by the conservative and homophobic Ukrainian Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches. The Ukraine does not include sexual orientation or gender identity within its antidiscrimination laws, although it does have an equal age of consent, IVF access for lesbians and access to commercial surrogacy for gay men, as well as legal recognition of the right to change sex through reassignment surgery if one is over twenty five. It also practises military service discrimination. However, to its credit, it did refuse to pass an ‘anti-propaganda’ bill akin to that passed in Russia under Putin. There have been Pride marches, although homophobic and transphobic assaults are also common. However, Ukraine is divided between pro-European western inhabitants and pro-Russian eastern inhabitants. Crimea has long been a Russian and Soviet naval installation.)

What lessons does this lead one to learn? In the case of Russia and Nigeria, reform may not come quickly. However, there is the example of South Africa during much of the twentieth century. Given its abundant resource wealth, it often seemed as if the apartheid regime would never fall during the ordeals of Sharpeville, Soweto and other periods of brutal repression. However, with the fall of communism and the advent of liberal western governments in the new post-communist era, it no longer became necessary to prop up repressive, murderous rightist ‘anti-communist’ regimes and military dictatorships as counterbalances, and so the apartheid nightmare was dismantled in the early nineties. The late Nelson Mandela even became South African ANC President of a free, multicultural South Africa, unthinkable a decade before. Solidarity may take time and a long haul of political effort, but ultimately, if it results in meaningful democratic transformation and institutional change, it can all be worth it in the end.

Update: As if to poignantly reflect this situation, Pinknews reported that  23,000 British people have signed a petition against the deportation of Apata Adejumoke (46), a lesbian asylum seeker to Nigeria who says that her girlfriend was murdered in the country and fears the same fate.  The group Movement for Justice (MFJ) said Adejumoke had been subjected to homophobic torture, persecution, and brutal arrest in Nigeria.

In a YouTube video for MFJ, Adejumoke said: “I fled Nigeria to seek asylum in the UK ten years ago in 2004, after I was exposed as a gay woman. I was arrested by the Nigerian police; I paid them a bribe to avoid jail. A death sentence of stoning was passed on me by the sharia court.  My girlfriend of over 20 years was brutally murdered by the vigilantes in 2012. I’m still struggling to get protection in the UK… returning to Nigeria is not an option for me because, as well as a death sentencing hanging over me, I will face 14 years in prison due to the anti-gay law that was passed by the Nigerian Government in January 2014. And also I want to remain in the UK in order to contribute positively to the society and support my girlfriend who I am now engaged to.”

Speaking of the United Kingdom, UK Labour leader Ed Miliband has said that an incoming UK Labour government would appoint a LGBT rights envoy to tackle discrimination around the world.

Meanwhile, in that abyssmal homophobic hellhole known as Zimbabwe,  a Zimbabwean man who stabbed an acquaintance he claimed had hit on him has been allowed to walk free by a Zimbabwean court. 22-year-old Bongani Phiri was acquitted by a Bulawayo court over the stabbing incident which he claimed was provoked by the man’s ‘behaving like a gay’ and sometimes caressing him without his consent.




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