Gay rights in tanzania

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent threat to withhold foreign aid from countries without a legal framework for ensuring gay rights has caused a stir in Tanzania. While other East African countries have been embroiled in this debate for many years, Tanzania has opted largely not to engage the issue. While parliamentarians in Uganda and Malawi have been whipped into homophobic frenzies, pressing for life-imprisonment and even death sentences for homosexuals, Tanzanian parliamentarians have largely demurred. While Anglican bishops in Kenya and Rwanda have made opposition to gay rights a central theological battleground, their Tanzanian counterparts have sidelined the issue, proclaiming it as not among their priorities. Given Tanzania’s diverse socio-ethnic make-up and its 50-year history of adaptive international cooperation, this should come as no surprise. To carve a national identity out of more than 215 tribal cultures and proactively engage with international partners of every political and religious stripe, Tanzanians have had to become adept at ignoring divisive moral issues to reach a broader consensus. Nevertheless, the public chastisement by the former colonial government has drawn a sharp rebuke from President Kikwete and given license to indignant editorializing from prominent Tanzanians that their cultural and moral values are not for sale.
Were the United Kingdom to begin consistently applying universal standards of human rights and good governance as preconditions for all foreign aid (humanitarian and military alike), I would welcome the measure. Even with that goal in mind, however, Cameron’s tactics have to be regarded as misguided at best. If his purpose were indeed to improve the social status and legal protections for gay men and women, there were far more constructive alternatives available than scolding and threats. It was reported in the Guardian newspaper that the British government had been attempting to place an openly homosexual diplomat and her partner within the country for some time. Having failed in this engagement, closed door diplomacy on the matter was completely abandoned in favor of the current public relations battle between the Prime Minister and African presidents throughout the continent. Again, were I to believe that this signaled a new concern from the U.K. to draw strict moral lines on the issue of foreign aid and human rights, I would support the stance. However, it seems rather as though the Prime Minister was looking for a strategy both to cut the foreign aid budget and to placate the political left in his country. Eliminating all bilateral aid from the U.K. to Tanzania for this reason has the potential to exacerbate prejudice, hatred and misunderstanding of the issue. Given no opportunity to improve gay rights without looking weak in the face of pressure from the former colonial government, chances are now higher that the political leadership in Tanzania could fall into the easy political trap of demonizing homosexuality and equating it with imperialistic decadence. Britain may very well be able to take its money and go home, but where does that leave the rest of us who wish to see the issue of gay rights in Tanzania discussed in open, rational, scientifically-informed fora?
Sitting at a popular lunch spot in downtown Dar es Salaam, reading the front page story about Cameron’s threat, two strangers sharing my table drew me into discussion on the matter. They wanted to clarify to me as a foreigner that Tanzanians were universal in their cultural rejection of homosexuality and that official sanction of homosexual behavior would have disastrous consequences (though the nature of these consequences was never clarified). I suggested that before the spread of monotheism, there was a great deal of diversity in sexual prohibitions among Tanzania’s multitude of ethnic groups and that same-sex sexual behavior was not in every instance regarded as a criminal violation against the community. Moreover, I continued, same-sex sexual behavior not only exists among every mammalian species, but in every human population on the planet. Official recognition I therefore argued was unlikely to significantly change the number of people engaging in homosexual behavior, only the visibility and dignity of it. I then explained that I had yet to hear a cogent argument about the tangible social ills that supposedly stemmed from homosexuality.
One of the lunch debaters communicated a strongly negative visceral response to homosexuals and said he would “slash someone” he thought to be gay, slicing his hand through the air for emphasis. Interestingly the only outcome of the official sanction for homosexual behavior that he could envisage was its potential popularity. “We Africans are likely to copy and practice this behavior,” he said, shaking his head and shuddering at the thought. Visibly communicating less physical discomfort at this subject matter, my other debate companion pursued a medical pathologizing approach. He insisted there was a single neuropeptide responsible for inducing homosexual behavior and described homosexual deviation as a genetic disorder. I countered that questions of hereditability or genetics were irrelevant to the evaluation of whether homosexuality was in any way injurious. Interestingly, he asked if I had ever seen a delivering mother who had injuries from anal sex. The idea that rough heterosexual anal sex was an argument against homosexuality struck me as too bizarre to let stand. I explained that not only did consensual anal sex not have to cause injury but that not all homosexuals had anal sex. Moreover, it was obvious from his very example that plenty of heterosexuals had anal sex and rough sex at that.
When I taught biology as a secondary school teacher in Tanzania, students often posed frank questions about anatomy, reproduction and human sexual behavior that revealed, what seemed to me, to be a shocking lack of basic knowledge about their own bodies. Clearly, this ignorance is not confined to the youth or even to rural or uneducated populations. If the U.K. truly wanted to engage Tanzania in a positive way that would contribute to the acceptance of gay rights, they would begin with sex education at the highest medical levels. Until the biological and medical elite can be swayed with the evidence from contemporary science and medicine that sanctions the current political case for gay rights, this influential population will remain a stumbling block. As long as ignorant, misinformation flows from the highest ranks of Tanzania’s scientific and medical elite, homophobia and other sex-negative postures will continue to dominate. Religious and political leaders are not likely to support gay rights, if it cannot even gain a foothold in the scientific and medical communities.

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