#AfterEmpire: Why should homosexuals be beaten up, raped, jailed or killed?

2016-02-09 22:37

As part of marking 100 years since the Easter uprising that freed Ireland from the British Empire, the University College Dublin hosted a discussion by select leaders from former British colonies. Leaders such as former president of the Republic of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki,  former president of Tanzania Mr Benjamin Mkapa, and  Mr Salman Khurshid who has served as Minister of External Affairs,  and Minister of Law and Justice in India. The discussion was themed #AfterEmpire which focused on experiences from these countries – some of the legacies of the British Empire.

It was a fascinating discussion and the audience was able to pose questions on Twitter. Some were answered, and of course you couldn’t possibly get to all the interesting questions aksed since #AfterEmpire was trending in Ireland. I was happy they got to my question which sought to understand the meaning of freedom from the former British colonies. Particularly considering that some groups such as LGBT+ people and women remained oppressed (legally and/or through social opinion) by “freedom fighters” long after countries gained independence from Britain.

Mr Khurshid from India provided a response that was more along the lines of John Stuart Mill’s articulation of the harm principle saying if people are not harming anyone, it should be permissible. Of course in India, laws that prohibit homosexuality enacted by the British Empire were never repealed. But his answer satisfied my question which sought to understand his conceptualisation of freedom.

Then former president Thabo Mbeki provided his response referring back to Apartheid’s Immorality law which regulated sexual relations among sexes and races. Mbeki said he believed that though many South Africans may not approve of homosexuality, they are likely to object to the State policing sexual relations when you consider how they disapproved of State interference on bedroom matters in Apartheid South Africa.

Mbeki did not give me much with his reply considering that Gay rights activists had to campaign for the inclusion of sexual orientation on the prohibition of unfair discrimination clause on the constitution. And the Gay community in South Africa had to fight on the streets and in courts, against his administration’s refusal to extend the enjoyment of the right to equality to homosexuals.

Of course after losing court cases, at least they complied with them rather than amending the Bill of Rights. I still did not get his personal stance on freedom because of what he said, in a way that suggests that it was at the initiative of the South African government or the anti-Apartheid movement as a whole, not the activism of the gay community in the Anti-Apartheid movement and post-Apartheid South Africa.

A disturbing response came from former president of Tanzania Mr Benjamin Mkapa who told the audience that homosexuality is not allowed in his country and laughed. He said that they do not enforce the law that punishes it by life imprisonment. He further appealed for “exceptionalism” against universal rights.

In other words, he believes that there exists a plausible argument for the legal and social oppression of homosexuals. Put differently, that he as a heterosexual man, should have more rights than his fellow citizens who happen to be gay. They should be thrown in jail for life for having the same sexual attraction he has, except theirs is directed at people of the same sex. So deprive homosexuals of the freedoms you enjoy Mr Mkapa?

 This is the fundamental problem with legislating morality because it gets really absurd. Go back to Mbeki’s revision of history where South Africans were forbidden to have sexual relations with people of other races. What right does the State have to prohibit citizens from loving each other and adults having sex with each other?

The morality argument gets lost the minute you claim religious or cultural rights because those do not come with the right to impose them upon others. So Benjamin Mkapa can be as Christian or Muslim as he wants but imposing his religious views upon others doesn’t come as part religious rights. You would expect Mkapa to understand the oppressive nature of this since he has suffered oppression too.

But this has been the trend from most “freedom fighters” across former British colonies. That the freedom they fought for is not freedom for everyone but freedom for some, particularly for the majority. In South Africa, freedom from the British Empire meant freedom for whites to continue the oppression of black people. And for the freedom fighters of the oppressed black majority to continue the oppression of LGBT+ people and women as such groups had to advocate for their particular interests in the Anti-Apartheid movement and in Post-Apartheid South Africa.

South Africa knows that tyranny of the minority is wrong and accepted that tyranny of the majority is just as wrong. Hence Nelson Mandela’s famous quote which reads “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another “. These are words that Mkapa has yet to grasp in his appeal for exceptionalism. So a gay Tanzanian should be sent to jail for life, gay Iranian should be killed because the majority says so. And there is nothing wrong with that?

Mkapa fails to understand that even though the law is not enforced, it may lead to a gay teenager killing themselves because they are taught from birth that homosexuality is wrong and punishable by life imprisonment. So even if the law is not enforced, it does prevent homosexuals from living openly the life that feels most natural to them.

Thus the laughter in his response to the question shows a deep lack of understanding of the impact that such laws have on  the lives of homosexuals within societies where they exist and how they serve to legitimise harassment and violence against them. I wonder if he would be able to look at a lesbian who was gang raped for being a lesbian, or a gay teen who is at risk of committing suicide after being bullied at school, laugh at them and justify that with his appeal for exceptionalism. But then again he may laugh at them because freedom to him and others means freedom of the majority to oppress minorities.

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