The Problem with Freedom: Homosexuality and Human Rights in Uganda

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The recent backlash against homosexuality in Uganda, culminating in the introduction of the 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill, has focused tremendous attention on the role religious activists have played in shaping Ugandan attitudes about sexuality Drawing on long-term fieldwork among the Ugandan born-again Christians at the center of this controversy, I argue that anti-homosexual rhetoric is animated by something more than a parroting of American homophobia. Rather, it reflects a tension between two divergent frameworks for ethical personhood in Uganda, one related to the Ganda value of ekitiibwa or "respect/honor," and the other based in a discourse of rights, autonomy, and "freedom. " The born-again rejection of a rights-based discourse is analyzed in relation to broader anxieties generated by a neoliberal emphasis on the autonomous, "empowered" individual during a period of growing inequality and economic and political dissatisfaction in Uganda. [Keywords: Homosexuality, Christianity, human rights, personhood, Uganda, Africa, ekitiibwa]

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Over the past decade, the subject of homosexuality has been pushed to the fore of public consciousness in Uganda's capital, Kampala. Street demonstrations in support of the "African family" have been staged, and taxi touts and young boda boda (motorbike) drivers have made the bumper sticker slogans "Say No 2 Sodomy; Say Yes 2 Family" and "Ebisiyaga Tubigobe" ("We should drive out homosexuality") popular vehi- cle adornments. Uganda's 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill was condemned by an array of international leaders and human rights activists for the dra- conian measures-including the death penalty-it would enforce in an ef- fort to further criminalize homosexual sex.1 But these rebukes seem only to have strengthened the sentiment among many Ugandans that such a bill is necessary to protect a distinctly "African" way of life from the encroaching, and morally suspect, influences of Western culture and its attendant "freedoms."

In Uganda today, arguments against homosexuality are often framed in terms of the cultural legitimacy of certain sexual "rights" and the free- doms that such rights engender. As one Ugandan woman, responding to an article about the bill, declared, "What kind of human rights when people are turning away from reasonable human beings to evil?" This profoundly troubling sentiment highlights the difficulty of forwarding "universal" hu- man rights claims predicated on a liberalism rooted in Western constructs of social action and moral subjectivity (Asad 2003:157; cf. Merry 2006, Cowan 2006). Such rejections underscore the way human rights struggles are moral debates, predicated on questions not only about what rights mean and do, but how categories of ethical personhood-and human- ity itself-are demarcated and experienced differently in different places. Sexuality has played an increasingly important, yet still under-analyzed, role in transnational development projects and rights-based struggles (Murray 2006, Miller and Vance 2004, Cornwall et al. 2008). Controversies such as Uganda's lay bare the need to better understand how rights-bear- ing subjects are locally defined in relation to sexuality, and how those con- structs both enable and limit the perception of who should have access to rights and how those rights should be deployed.

In this article, I consider how a Ugandan homophobic discourse has emerged in response to a neoliberal sexual subjectivity that is predicated on the embrace of personal rights and "freedoms." The "problems" with freedom that Ugandans expressed to me when discussing homosexual- ity reveal a particular tension over moral behavior and social action, a tension not easily explained by a transnational alliance with American religious activists, or the bald political motives of the bill's most prominent local advocates. To understand this tension better, I analyze the current controversy alongside the larger movement for "sexual morality" among born-again Christians in Uganda, a community in which I have conducted fieldwork since 2004. …