Gay rights and HIV/AIDS: African societies at cross roads

The month of October seems to have been a month gay activists designated for their stepped up pressure for social recognition and legal protection.  

It all started in the United States of America where on Sunday, October 11th, thousands of gay rights supporters marched from the White House to Washington DC’s Capitol Hill to demand that President Barack Obama keeps his election pledge to allow gays to serve openly in the military and that he would work to end discrimination against gays. 

According to Associated Press (AP) the rainbow flags and home-made signs-dotting huge crowd that filled Pennsylvania Avenue chanting “Hey, Obama, let mama marry mama” and “we’re out, we’re proud, we won’t back down,” was not only composed of adults, but children too.     

Since that great Capital-Hill gay rights match, gay rights issues have taken centre stage in various Africa countries.  

In Uganda, on 14 October, a law maker, one David Bahati  tabled a highly controversial bill in parliament in which he demanded that a death penalty be imposed on any one who dares to engage in gay sex with someone below 18 years or when the accused is proved HIV positive.   

This was followed by Kenya where the Government commissioned a survey of all gay people throughout the country, be it homosexuals, lesbians, transgender, bisexual, and intersex citizens in order to determine the actual number of people claiming to be socially excluded and discriminated on the basis of their sexual-orientation by lack of social and legal protections.  

In Namibia, Women Claiming Citizenship have since targeted the on-going national election campaigns to pressure the various participating political parties vying for the country’s leadership to spell out their position on gay rights. 

It was against this background that during a social evening of the just ended Church Leaders Consultation in Nairobi, Kenya, I took the opportunity to share a table with 6 young men and opened the subject for a cordial discussion.  I had noted that the gathering of some 50 African Church Leaders had been at great pains to ensure that neither condoms nor gayism featured in their discussions on strategies to build a HIV/AIDS competent Church. 

Having attended the August 2008 International Conference on HIV and AIDS in Mexico where the rights of the most vulnerable social groups (prostitutes, men who have sex with men, trans-genders, bisexuals and inter-sexuals) to HIV transmission had taken centre stage, I had been surprised that a high profile group of African religious leaders mapping out ways of creating a HIV competent church did not have this topic on its agenda.  So I sought to figure out the opinion of the meeting’s younger religious leaders who included a Catholic Priest, an Anglican theologian, a Pentecostal pastor and 3 faith-based developed workers. 

Being the only woman and elderly person around the dinner table that was discussing an otherwise African taboo issue, I noted the unease with which the young men struggled to reconcile present-day human rights, health challenges and moral and religious ethics.  

To break the ice, I had detoured to enquire about their families. Who among them was married; what did their spouses do for a living, who had children and how old?  The young Priest and I had looked on keenly as the gentlemen charmingly shared lovely features of their young families before I came around the moment’s topic of interest which raised an animated debate in which we all participated.       

Finally, one of the development workers, a bright young Zambian who, a few years ago headed a British-based HIV/AIDS Programme in Lusaka but is now working for an HIV/AIDS Rights NGO in Johannesburg said something that truly shook my nerves: 

‘We are cheating ourselves.  Absurd sexual behaviour exists not only among the seemingly different, but even among the seemingly normal.  

Do you recall what goes on among many young same-sex boarding school learners?  For many, faced with the challenges of their changing bodies, they experiment with one another. 

However, they don’t necessarily grow up to be homos.   

On the other hand, if you were to ask how many married heterosexual couples practice acts similar to those that prevail among gay sex partners you would be surprised at the number who do.  The sooner we understand that we live in a world too complex to entirely comprehend the better.  Think of the contradiction between one of the region’s great politicians’ statement that even animals know better; and the righteous Jews of Jesus Christ’s time who, challenged to stone a woman they claimed to be unclean if they themselves had never sinned, failed to do so.” 

“But what about the health hazards which come into play in these situations? I recall the difficulties sexually abused street boys had sitting on benches.  

They always talked about how bad their ‘butts’ hurt,” asked I. Isn’t that the reason why people who practice these acts are more vulnerable to HIV infection transmission than other social groups?     

“Whichever way you put it, hurting or not hurting, who are we to judge? Only God has that prerogative.  He alone will judge in His own time! Until then, life goes on as it did in the beginning, is now and for-ever shall be”, the young man gently concluded, to the bewilderment of our Priest colleague.      

Amidst a sense of helplessness, we all agreed to ask God to teach us the difference between those things we can change and those we can’t.  

While I had not entirely found the answers to my searching mind, I had none the less come to appreciate the dilemma our Church Leaders’ consultation meeting Bishops and Reverends found themselves in and why they had opted to remain mum on an issue posed to remain humanity’s great puzzle. 

One more day of learning, one more day of life’s mystery, one more reason why life will always be beyond human comprehension!

November 2009
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