The Anti-Homosexuality Bill introduced in Uganda last fall is deeply disturbing: it called for the death penalty for "any form of sexual relationship between persons of the same sex," which was later lightened to life imprisonment. However, capital punishment is still applicable for "serial offenders" and HIV positive individuals. Unsurprisingly, this bill, reflective of the excessive homophobia and ruthless suppression of gay rights in many parts of the African continent, immediately drew condemnation and protests from the West which hoped to pressure the Ugandan congress to stop its gruesome criminalization of homosexual activities.
Among progressive minds, however, there are also objections to the Western pressure and interference. My colleague Dominic Mhiripiri '12 noted "extremely one-sided takes on this controversial issue" in a recent opinion column ("Understanding the odd story of gay rights in Africa," March 5). Underlying the liberal efforts to defend the basic human rights in Uganda, Mhiripiri argues, is a lamentable want of understanding of the ultra-conservative root in African culture; correspondingly, stern attitudes of Western societies on this issue would yield no positive outcomes. Such objections to Western intervention in the Ugandan situation are well-intentioned and laudable, but in this particular case cultural relativism is a poor excuse to support Western non-action in the face of the anti-gay rights bill in Uganda.
To begin with, it is arguable that homophobic sentiments in Uganda could be attributed as much to indigenous culture as to colonial import of Christian doctrines. In any event, we must bear in mind that evangelical groups from America had a hand in stirring up the most recent waves of persecution of homosexual people in Africa. It is certainly no coincidence that the bill was introduced shortly after three American evangelical Christians arrived in Uganda's capital to teach about "curing" homosexuals, which received a great deal of publicity at that time.
If Africans' hostility towards gays is Western in origin — whether the fruit of past imperialism or modern evangelism — it is at least a sign that a portion of African people are already hugely susceptible to Western values and influence. Thus, the real question posed is not just giving the right amount of respect for a different culture, but to propagate Western values of liberalism to countervail an existing culture of homophobia and intolerance that unfortunately was also of Western origin. To exert the right kind of Western influence is therefore more relevant than the concern of cultural relativists.
Second, we need to carefully discern the sentiments of the populace and the ruling elites in Africa. Despite the Ugandan public's determined antipathy towards homosexuality, the political leaders there are clearly in a bargaining mood with the Western countries who implored for the cause of gay rights. So far, the Ugandan government has backed down a little bit and changed the death penalty provision to life imprisonment for the homosexuals for the sake of millions of dollars in foreign aid.
These changing positions likely point to a very cynical circle of Ugandan leaders who reason differently from their constituents, but were willing to mobilize popular feelings and cultural differences to barter for diplomatic gains regardless of the cultural beliefs their people have long held against homosexual behaviors. This shocking cynicism and hypocrisy of the political elites is obviously not something that cultural relativism can account for. Therefore, any moral objection to stronger Western pressure on Ugandan leaders should be removed.
Third, the anti-gay rights bill in Uganda goes beyond the question of cultural relativism and reaches the jurisdiction of universal human rights. Indeed, cultural differences exist not only across national borders but also within a country's bounds. In the United States, for instance, we can easily make an legal argument for protecting diverse and even exotic religious doctrines or cultural traditions — insofar as the most fundamental rights are protected within those religious or cultural groups. For instance, some form of protection or legal exception is offered to peculiar religious groups, but ultimately even in those groups, the recognition of their special status is contingent upon the principle that minimal rights of the members are guaranteed.
We can reasonably compare the right to autonomy of those groups and a nation's right to resist foreign interference: the anti-gay bill in Uganda violated homosexuals' right to live; this must no longer be explained away by cultural relativism. International condemnation and intervention in this case is not just warranted but essential to African gays' survival.
For all these reasons, we should not stop at the concept of cultural relativism in deliberating our strategies in Uganda. True, it is a complicated problem, one of clashing Western values, crooked political calculations of Ugandan political elites and, above all, the urgent need to defend the basic human rights of homosexual groups in Africa. Meanwhile, it is also a case where strong determinations to condemn and stop gross violations of human rights must take precedence over enlightened sensitivities towards different cultures and values.
Yue Wang '12 is a political science and German studies concentrator from Shanghai. She can be contacted at yue_wang (at) brown.edu.