Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2010

The Uganda Controversy: Solidarity vs. Imperialism in LGBT Organizing

by Emi Koyama

Earlier this year, I attended a U.S. rally against proposed legislation in Uganda that would make homosexuality a capital offense. The legislation had been reportedly inspired by evangelical Christian leaders from the United States, and it was receiving a great deal of critical attention from Western media and governments at the time.

The rally was organized in Beaverton, Oregon, by members of local high school gay-straight alliances. It brought together hundreds of students and dozens of adults, including several elected officials and their representatives. It was encouraging to see so many youth advocating for human rights for all, but seeing their handmade "youth power" signs made me feel uneasy. If the rally were to have any impact on the Ugandan legislation or the U.S. response to it, it was imperialist power—not youth power—that would accomplish that.

Students who were among the featured speakers at the rally generally kept their messages positive, insisting that to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Ugandans was to support Uganda as a whole. But many elected officials who spoke, either in person or by proxy, strayed away from this sentiment, often invoking language laden with colonialist implications such as "barbaric" and "uncivilized" to mock Ugandan leaders. Such comments are not just offensive, but counterproductive, since they echo the self-serving justifications for colonial conquests in the name of Christian salvation or Enlightenment.

Worse, a number of them called for economic sanctions against Uganda in the event the legislation were to pass, and received big applause for it. The threat of economic sanctions is effective, but very problematic: if deployed, sanctions could lead to the collapse of social order in a country like Uganda, endangering many more lives of LGBT Ugandans than the legislation itself would. And yet, none of the speakers opposed the sanction or even voiced a concern or caution.

Speaker after speaker repeated the cliché that we must be "the voice for the voiceless" or "stand up for those who can't stand up for themselves." But LGBT Ugandans are not simply voiceless, faceless victims: there actually is an LGBT rights group in Uganda, whose members have held press conferences in its capital city of Kampala, fiercely and proudly announcing their sexual and gender identities. They do not need Western LGBT activists to speak for them; we need to listen to their voices and help amplify them so that others will hear them.

I do not question that there is a need for transnational alliances and collaborations to advance the rights of sexual and gender minorities everywhere. Western LGBT and human rights activists can, for example, confront American right-wing leaders who travel to countries like Uganda in an effort to spread their version of "family values" around the globe (although it would be an insult to presume that Ugandan politicians aren't capable of being homophobic without the aid of American hate-mongers) and provide financial and moral support to locals fighting for justice in their own communities and regions. But there needs to be more awareness about the historical, economic, and political context in which we live, or else our engagement will become indistinguishable from the forceful, imperialist imposition of Western values and views on the rest of the world.

Emi Koyama is putting the Emi back in feminism at http://eminism.org.

Koyama, Emi. 2010. The Uganda Controversy: Solidarity vs. Imperialism in LGBT Organizing. Tikkun 25(4): 59

tags: Colonialism, Gender & Sexuality, Imperialism, LGBT, Queer Spirituality & Politics, Uganda  
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