Labels and assumptions – and single stories

Pride parade in Uganda
Pride parade in Uganda

This blog has been surging up in me all day –more like festering, actually. It started with a Facebook post by one of my friends of a small group of courageous Ugandans having a Pride parade. Recently Uganda has passed laws that have made extreme penalties for homosexuals. These folks were risking a lot to openly declare their support for same sex relationships.

At the same sitting I came across a CBC article by Neil MacDonald talking about the power of words and their interpretation. He was referring to the name Redskins as a football team and how that carries a stereotypic racial connotation that is insulting and degrading to North American native people. He also, in the article listed all the initials that are now used to label in some way people of various sexual persuasion – LGBTTIQQ2SA – or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Questioning, 2-spirited, and Asexual.  Are there any letters left? And does this really even include everyone? Can anything as complicated as sexual identification or feelings be reduced to a single letter or word? One single story to determine who we are?

I suspect that each person has their own sexual personality, as unique as any other part of them. No label or initial can adequately or accurately describe that. We are humans. Humans are all sexual (or perhaps asexual) but that is the extent of the categorization that I think can be made. What individuals do with their sexual feelings, as long as it is consensual and respectful, is their own business and really ought not to need a label. So can we get rid of all these restrictive labels, please? Give us back the alphabet.

In Uganda, there has been a lot of public propaganda against homosexuals, generally initiated by American-based, right-wing, Evangelical, Christian groups. Gays are depicted as people who chose their orientation and who are out to convert others to their depraved sexual practices. How silly is this? Yet, even the Ugandan government has reacted to this position by passing the recent draconian laws.

Now this presents a bit of a problem for me. Because as much as I abhor this position, just like I don’t think homosexuals should be labeled, I don’t want to label all evangelical Christians as hateful, bigots…or all Ugandans as intolerant. Unfortunately, however, our human tendency is to pick a descriptive label and then make general assumptions about an individual based on the label.

I am a male, white-haired, senior, Canadian physician. Describing me as that will help pick me out in a crowd from a young native woman. So using words descriptively has a purpose. But please don’t make any assumptions about who I am as a person based on that description. I might surprise you. (There was also a video on Facebook of three 70-year-olds dancing with a caption suggesting how awesome it was that they still wanted to dance, let alone to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean.)

It was refreshing to have our recent election campaign in Ontario not even mention that one candidate for Premier is lesbian. No one cared. It was not an issue. She, herself, identifies publicly that way but it is not a label that pertains in any way to her abilities as a politician. And she won a majority government.

To end my afternoon I went out on my balcony to have a drink and watch a wedding unfold by the waterfront in front of my apartment building. Guests were arriving, all dressed up. Kids in suits and girls in party dresses. A big white limo drew up. The minister stood waiting for the couple to arrive. Bridesmaids walked down the aisle. There were flower girls. Everyone smiling.

Time for the bride to arrive. Out of the limo arose a young woman in a white strapless dress. She slowly walked down the aisle and stood at the front. Then another woman and her father got out of the stretch limo. Another bride. He walked her down the aisle and kissed her on the cheek and presented her to the other woman.

Two brides

I had assumed this would be a wedding with a bride and a groom. I was wrong. These two women exchanged vows with their friends and family supporting them in this commitment. The ceremony ended with cheers and applause.

I was surprised and reminded that I had made assumptions that were subsequently upended. I don’t know this couple but I wish them well. I am so glad to live in Canada.

Now this isn’t just about sexuality.  It refers to all labels that we might put on people, reducing them to a single story. In a Ted Talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story” (linked below…i highly recommend it), an African woman, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says ” The single story creates stereotypes and the problem of stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete… the single story robs people of dignity… It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

P.S. As a result of my rumination today, I am going to try to be aware of when I am consciously or subconsciously labelling anyone, reducing them to a single story. I know I do. We all do. I am going to try to stop.

Replacing the word “Draconian” with “Musevenian”

As my friends know, it is not like me to be “speechless”. But I have had great difficulty finding the right words for this blog article. I will try.

The word draconian seems an understatement when it is used to describe the anti-homosexual law signed two days ago by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni.

(Draco,by the way,  was a legislator in ancient Greece who is renowned for passing laws that called for particularly harsh punishment for offenses that were minor.)

In the past few months a large divide has developed between countries that see the rights of gay individuals as being basic human rights and regions where homophobic rhetoric has led to laws that are punishing and restrictive. The debate over Russia’s laws punishing anyone who “promotes” homosexual lifestyle became overshadowed by the fireworks and glistening white snow of the Olympics. The Olympics are done but the law remains.

In Arizona, recently, the state government passed a law that would allow restaurant owners to refuse service to gay clients, the argument being that it could be against the restauranteur’s religious beliefs. This law has not yet been signed by the governor but it was obviously supported by the legislature.

This week, in Uganda, the president signed a law that called for imprisonment up to 14 years for individuals who participate in homosexual acts and life in prison for “repeat offenders” or individuals with HIV who have gay sex. (The original version of this law actually called for the death penalty for some homosexual “offenses”.) The current law also calls for imprisonment of anyone “aiding or abetting” homosexuality and makes it a criminal offense not to report someone for being gay.

Museveni claims that homosexuality is unnatural behaviour that can be controlled. He claims that the west is trying to lure Ugandan youth into a deviant homosexual lifestyle and has directly thumbed his nose at he U.S. and Obama in particular over this issue. He claims to be resisting “Western social imperialism.” Although it is hard to believe, in an interview with Stephen Fry, one Ugandan government minister reportedly has even said that rape of a young woman is less problem than consensual gay sex because it is more “natural”.

In neighbouring Kenya, there are laws in place that outlaw homosexuality but they are rarely enforced.  Still, there is a widespread intolerance and disapproval of homosexuality in Kenya and there are reports of people being brutally killed in some African countries because of their sexual orientation. But let’s not be too smug here. “Gay-bashing” has been (and still is) alive in North America, too.

9549034Today, the day after the law was signed, a prominent newspaper in Kampala, printed names of 200 Ugandan homosexuals, many of them prominent citizens and not publicly “out”. This may lead to a backlash of not-so-subtelly-sanctioned harassment and even violence against gays. At least one gay activist was brutally murdered a couple of years ago after a similar newspaper outing. Many gays in Uganda claim to have been beaten and are understandably afraid. There are disturbing photos posted online of one fellow being burned alive, children watching, ostensively getting his just desserts for being homosexual.

What also angers me even more about this, whether it is in Arizona or Uganda is that it seems to be a sentiment that is pushed by Christian Evangelists. The anti-homosexual rhetoric in Uganda certainly has its foundation in religious zealots who may be losing their cause in the West but turning to vulnerable communities in Africa to promote this kind of intolerance and hatred. Even the head of the Anglican Church in Uganda has expressed support for this law. This is “Christian”? Really? I find it incomprehensible.

In some reports, I have also read that the Ugandan law calls for jail terms for directors of non-governmental agencies that support gay rights or gay individuals. Although the charity that I work with has no connection with any gay rights groups, we do support clinics and schools where we hope that all individuals will be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their race, religious beliefs, age, sex or sexual orientation. We support the rights of all people. Will all clients and students be treated with respect? We do expect that. We may have Canadian supporters who are gay and who wish to visit our project partner sites? Can they be safe to do that now?

As a fall out, several countries, including the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway have announced today that they will withdraw governmental aid from Uganda. Canada has expressed disagreement with the new law but the official stance is not yet clear. To withdraw aid may make a principled statement but, as usual, those who will suffer will be the vulnerable people who live in poverty with no political power.

Societies differ. I can understand certain groups rejecting the idea of homosexuality or disapproving.  It may be totally outside their sphere of understanding or culturally “wrong”.  But punishment with life imprisonment for simply being homosexual is not tolerable. The argument that sexual orientation is a choice, that gays are “recruiting”  Africans to their lifestyle or acting like pedophiles is ludicrous.

Where will this all end? In Canada, we have debated and had strong disagreements  whether same-sex marriage will have the same legal rights as marriage between a man and woman. In some countries the debate is more whether a homosexual has the right to exist. Centuries from now laws like this may be termed as Musevenian, not Draconian.


(Photos were taken from recent internet news feeds)