A few days before Christmas 2009 I went onto the BBC Africa website and came across a headline and discussion flagging a programme to be broadcast a couple of hours later that afternoon. The discussion was entitled; ‘Should homosexuals be executed?’ I spend a lot of time on African issues and my blood was boiling. It was clear to me that the BBC had made a terrible mistake and it was important they recognised that immediately.
I was in a position to do something about it. I left my office and literally ran to the chamber, where the final debate before the recess was taking place (in which, traditionally, any issue may be raised by members). If anyone had got in my way I would have knocked them over and that would have been a fair one.
I made this speech off the cuff, condemning the title and nature of the on-line debate and broadcast, the latter of which was underway as I spoke. I contacted the BBC from my seat in the Commons and later had a communication from the Acting Head of BBC Africa that she thought the topic and title were absolutely fine. I thought her reply was the most ignorant, arrogant and ridiculous I’d ever had from a broadcaster – it was clear to me her mind was closed.
So much for public servants’ respect for the House of Commons. I went right back to my office, wrote a blogpost on the subject and tweeted it. The public response was enormous and the next day the then director of the BBC World Service wrote to me apologising for the story and then made a public statement to the same effect.
18 months later, I led the House of Commons debate on the sad death of Ugandan gay rights campaigner David ‘Kato’. Absent from the debate, physically but certainly not in spirit, was my colleague David Cairns – one of the finest people I’ve had the privilege of knowing – who’d campaigned alongside David Kato and knew him well. David Cairns sent me his best wishes and thoughts for the debate even though he was himself gravely ill and, shockingly, near death himself. He died tragically, at 44 a few short weeks later.
When David (Cairns) died, the Archbishop of Glasgow, suggested that his death, from pancreatitis, was due to his ‘gay lifestyle’. Tom Harris MP’s reply, at the link, spoke for decent folk everywhere in the UK.
I’ve done a couple of bad things at the House of Commons, and a whole lot of pointless things. But on gay rights in Uganda and Africa I’ve done the right things, and so have a lot of other MPs. So have folk from all walks of life in the UK.
But let me say one thing about today’s stories about the latest anti-gay rights activity in Uganda, all over the news tonight.
It’s this: We desperately need to find ways to encourage African leaders to learn over time from South Africa on how to implement gay rights, of course, but at the same time we must at almost all costs stop acting like old-world imperialists telling ‘the black folk’ how to live.
I’ve met a lot of African leaders, including President Museveni of Uganda, and discussed issues ranging from gay rights, to the obvious poverty faced by millions in Africa, through to the high aspirations such leaders have for their people.
And people like Yoweri Museveni have done a lot of good, there’s no fair doubt about it. Not everything any African leader, any leader in the world, does is perfect. But there are a lot of good things going on in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa; genuine progress. If you don’t agree with me, go to Kampala or elsewhere in Uganda and take a look. Do that at least, before you condemn millions of Africans in the round; before you demand that aid be withdrawn and sanctions be applied to democratically-elected politicians acting with the support of their institutions and citizens. Think about the consequences of such immediate demands on the poorest Ugandans, and on the attitudes of all Africans. And consider, maybe, about how leaders, president Museveni and other decent African people I could mention here, deserve more praise than brickbats?
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Archbishop of Glasgow’s anti-gay comments about David Cairns were made in a modern UK, where may people’s main worries are less about survival and more about, say, whether organic crops are healthier than GM. Even here, though, Uganda-born Church of England Archbishop John Sentamu has often argued against gay equality in the UK, with its own impact in Uganda. The same church still lobbies heavily against significant anti-gay legislation.
Imagine, now, you are a democratically-elected African political leader with the right social and economic intentions and are lobbied by your established church, with the support of the general public, to enact anti-gay legislation. And think about how much power you want your own politicians to hold. The power to tell people what to think overnight, or the power to work to change things for the better over time? Think about why it is that Scotland legislated for equal marriage only this year - the legislation hasn’t actually received Royal Assent yet. In England, gay marriage won’t come into effect until next month. Ask yourself why the Church of Scotland only began accepting gay ministers (of which, apparently, theres only one) in 2013? Why it was illegal to be gay in the UK until the same year Celtic won the European Cup in football?
I understand very well why a lot of people in the UK are angry about the anti-gay situation in other parts of the world. But it has to be put in context. We live our pretty cosy lives according to choices we’ve made over time as a developed state. People here in the UK need to think carefully about the effect of demanding that Africans accept immediately and without question our (minority) norms on pain of sanctions which would, by the way, hit only the poorest. And ask themselves why there’s been no similar outcry over the huge swathes of the world where homosexuality is illegal. India? Saudi Arabia? Dozens of countries where western secular liberalism isn’t de rigeur? We’ve got too much to risk there, right? So we pick on a developing, and thoroughly encouraging, African state for special treatment?
Really – why should people in Uganda and Africa as a whole do what we tell them? We put the original anti-gay legislation on their statue books. Western religious organisations campaign for it to stay that way. Now we’re demanding they do what we tell them or else, and pronto? How would you respond to a threat like that from Ugandans? Think about it.
The truth is, the line taken by many people in the UK now – attacking Uganda and Ugandans – is not only unfair on Ugandans (who will come to their own decisions over their own destiny) per se – it will in any case have the opposite effect from that intended.
So If your aim is to feel good about yourself, then crack on. But if you want to do something decent for all folk, including gay folk, in Africa then tread very, very carefully. Ugandans will decide for themselves on the gay issue and many others. Like we have done. And, you know what? That’s a good thing in itself. Surely to God.