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Some African Countries Are Trying to Use Science to Make Homophobic Laws, Now African Scientists are Pushing Back

Some African countries have tried to use science to justify laws that criminalize homosexuality

South Africans celebrate at a gay pride event outside Johannesburg in 2013. While other countries have passed legislation criminalizing homosexuality, South Africa has advocated tolerance. (Niko Knigge/Flickr)
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Over the last few years, a number of African countries have passed legislation to outlaw homosexuality, painting it as unnatural and un-African. On June 10, scientists and other academics took a stand against such discriminatory legislation, as Linda Nordling reports for Nature. The Academy of Science of South Africa released a report refuting and condemning the legislation during a recent conference on AIDS research in Durban, South Africa.

The report draws from an array of academic fields, arguing that anti-homosexuality laws have neither a basis in science nor history nor philosophy. The researchers aim to debunk some key misconceptions about homosexuality, namely that it's "socially contagious," encourages pedophilia and paves the way for HIV and AIDS. In fact, the researchers conclude that such laws actually make it more difficult to monitor and control sexually transmitted infectious diseases.

To bolster their case, the panel also cites biological evidence for sexual orientation and historical evidence for same sex relationships in Africa dating back to the 19th century. "There is no basis for the view that homosexuality is 'un-African' either in the sense of it being a 'colonial import', or on the basis that prevalence of people with same-sex or bisexual orientations is any different in African countries compared to countries on any other continent," they write. Some of the laws draw on religious and anti-Western sentiment. However, the strong reaction from African scientists is largely due to the fact that in some cases, science has been used to justify some of this legislation. 

Of Africa's 53 countries, 38 have laws that make same-sex relationships illegal. Four make it punishable by death. Nordling reports:

In recent years, anti-gay sentiment has intensified. In February 2014, Uganda, where homosexuality was already illegal, passed a law that made it punishable by life imprisonment and made the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality a crime. In the same year, Gambia enacted a similar law, and Nigeria passed a law banning same-sex marriage, gay-rights groups and displays of same-sex affection in public.

The Ugandan law has since been repealed because not enough members of the country's legislature were present for the vote that made it a law. Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni was initially against the bill when it was first proposed and would not greed to sign the 2014 law into effect until after a panel of scientists determine "whether homosexuals were born or made," as Tristan McConnell wrote for National Geographic last year. At the time the Uganadan National Academy of Sciences (UNAS) refused to produce a scientific analysis of homosexuality, citing insufficient time, Nordling reports. Another group of Ugandan scientists did produce a report that was subsequently misquoted and misinterpreted in Parliamentary debates.

The UNAS has endorsed this new report, as have some Ugandan scientists. “It opens up a new outlook about homosexuality seen through the lens of science,” Thomas Egwang, a Ugandan immunologist who was not a co-author on the review, told Nordling.

Though some scientists are optimistic, time will test the report's effectiveness at shifting public perception of people in same sex relationships and instigating political change.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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