Sexuality Policy Watch

Article Newsletter N14 – Rahul Rao

Staying positivist in the fight against homophobia

Rahul Rao*

In recent weeks, arguments against homophobia have been made in two paradigmatically positivist registers – science and economics – with varying degrees of persuasiveness. In both cases the arguments have come from outside the LGBT activist community, forcing activists into a tactical engagement with discourses that may not have been their preferred lingua franca. What has been gained and lost in these encounters?


In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni seemed to hesitate before signing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill passed by Parliament in December 2013. In a letter to parliamentarians following the legislative passage of the bill, he declared that he would not sign the bill because of his view that homosexuality was a biological ‘abnormality’. Seeking scientific confirmation of this view, the Ministry of Health constituted a panel of ‘expert scientists’ who were charged with offering an opinion on whether there is ‘a scientific/genetic basis for homosexuality’ (or, as Museveni put it more bluntly: ‘are there people born like this?’) and whether ‘homosexuality can be learned and unlearned’. In its mostly reasonable report, the panel acknowledges the presence of homosexuality across space, time and species boundaries; insists that there is no gay gene or other singular determinant of homosexuality; opines that sexual orientation is a function of biological, psychological, sociological and anthropological factors; and insists that homosexuality is not a disorder and ‘not a disease that has treatment’. Nonetheless, a final somewhat disconnected section of the report expresses the need ‘to contain the present explosion of overt and coercive homosexual activity with the exploitation of our young children’. Museveni seized on this and analogous sentiments in this section, as well as the non-confirmation of the gay gene, to justify his decision to sign the Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law on the basis that ‘experts’ had now confirmed that homosexuals were not ‘born like this’.

The question of whether Lady Gaga (‘Born this Way’) or Simone de Beauvoir/Judith Butler (‘one is not born, but becomes’) are tactically more useful in this moment is interesting but ultimately something of a red herring, for the answer is probably neither. Museveni’s twists and turns were most likely not the result of a new-found interest in the nature/nurture debate, but moves in an elaborately choreographed dance intended to retain the support of Ugandan Christian conservatives and anti-homosexuality activists in an otherwise challenging political environment, while retaining his modernist credentials and some measure of plausible deniability (‘I tried my best to stop it’) in the eyes of international donors. But let us assume, for a moment, that Museveni was genuinely interested in the science. What follows from the shift in register from questions of rights and justice, to those of naturalness and normality?

It is important to remember that Museveni set the terms for the engagement with ‘science’ in his December letter to the parliamentarians. That letter suggested that he might have been prepared to maintain his defiance of Parliament’s will if scientists backed his view of homosexuality as biological ‘abnormality’, as ‘nature go[ing] wrong in a minority of cases’. There is an interesting paradox in Museveni’s view of nature as set out in the letter. He declares nature to be purposeful and its purpose to be that of perpetuating the human species. Homosexuals cannot be part of this purpose because of their putative inability to reproduce. Ergo, they are abnormal even though part of nature, an instance of natural abnormality. Nature here is broadly teleological but not infallible; it makes mistakes, but the mistakes do not detract from its broader purpose because of their presumed infrequency. If we are tempted to ask whether this is theology disguised as pseudo-science, we must also be curious about the theological presuppositions of ‘real’ science. The meta-question here is not so much whether to conduct this discussion in the registers of theology or science, as whether those registers are as distinct as we presume them to be.

All of this presents Ugandan kuchus with a Faustian bargain in which their acceptance in the nation becomes premised on acknowledgement of their abnormality, of their status as a mistake. The chilling implications of this become clear enough when Museveni asks in the letter ‘What do we do with an abnormal person? Do we kill him/her? Do we imprison him/her? Or do we contain him/her?’ Equally disturbing is his bizarre typology of lesbians, whom he categorizes as being born abnormal, or resorting to lesbianism for ‘mercenary reasons’ or as a response to (heterosexual) ‘sexual starvation’. While some of his proposed ‘solutions’ such as economic development sound benign enough, even if beside the point, it does not take much to see that it is precisely tropes such as ‘sexual starvation’ that lend themselves to brutal practices such as ‘corrective rape’. As for those who are ‘born abnormal’—the category to which he appears least hostile— Museveni offers the curiously miscellaneous examples of local kings, presumably the late 19th century king Mwanga, but also of other chiefs and the British scientist and World War II intelligence analyst Alan Turing, as examples of ‘sexually abnormal person(s) [who were] much more useful to society than the millions of sexually normal people’. Here we are offered a different set of terms for the acceptance of queers, namely their occasional super-human utility in the defense of the nation.


Perhaps expectedly, the language of utility is prominent in a recent World Bank report setting out the economic case against homophobia. The report purports to offer a conservative estimate of the cost of homophobia to the Indian economy, quantified as ranging from 0.1-1.7% of its 2012 GDP (US$1.9-31 billion). The core of the argument is that homophobia lowers productivity and output as a result of ‘employer discrimination and constraints on labour supply; inefficient investment in human capital; lost output as a result of health disparities that are linked to exclusion, such as HIV/AIDS, violence, depression, and suicide; and social and health services required to address the effects of exclusion that might be better spent elsewhere.’ If procreation is the currency of the ‘scientific’ register (at least in Museveni’s conceptualisation of it), productivity plays an analogous role in the economic one.

Leaving aside the crucial methodological questions about how this estimate was reached, we ought to reflect on the implications of having an argument about queer inclusion on the basis of claims about productivity. What does such an argument do to those not judged to be ‘productive’ within its terms—the disabled, the illiterate, the unemployed, the elderly, the development-induced displaced, and others who are constitutively unable and/or unwilling to function as good capitalist citizens?

Of fundamental importance here is the relationship between capitalism and queer movements. Historian John D’Emilio long ago pointed to the inherently contradictory nature of this relationship in the West. Capitalism enables the expression of sexuality as an aspect of individual personhood by promoting the individuation of wage labour, thereby disrupting traditional family and kinship arrangements. But capitalism has historically maintained an allegiance to heteronormativity in order to reproduce the next generation of workers. Hence its alliance with socially conservative ‘family values’ agendas, for whom the feminist and the queer provide convenient scapegoats for the very forms of precariousness for which capitalism is responsible. This makes queers both creatures of, and potentially antagonistic to, capitalism, in much the same way that Marx considered the proletariat to exemplify the internal contradictions of capitalism.

Lisa Duggan’s account of homonormativity cautions us that these early hopes may have been overly optimistic. Far from contesting dominant heteronormative forms, a new neoliberal sexual culture seeks inclusion within the protective embrace of the nation precisely by making its peace with state and market. In some ways queer movements outside the West are even more beholden to capitalism because the vectors of Euro-American originated identities such as ‘LGBT’ – global media, HIV/AIDS funding, human rights discourses, diasporic travellers – have journeyed along the circuits of transnational capital. Although these identities take their place within enormously complex and variegated landscapes populated by older indigenous gender matrices, their disproportionate power and leadership role in those landscapes might render the movements that they lead less antithetical to capitalism than Western queer Marxist utopian texts had hoped.

Already, even without decriminalization, we can read the signs of an emerging homonormativity. Jasbir Puar identifies one of the subtler trajectories of homonormative nationalism or ‘homonationalism’ in the phenomenon of ‘homonational spending’, in which the market proffers placebo rights to queers who are hailed by capitalism but not by state legislators or judges. When the Indian Supreme Court delivered its devastatingly retrograde judgment affirming the constitutional validity of section 377 — the anti-sodomy provision of the Indian Penal Code inherited from the colonial era — in December 2013, some major Indian corporations advertised their products in ways that underscored their opposition to the decision. The luxury jeweller Tanishq advertised a set of glittering earrings with the tagline ‘Two of a kind always make a beautiful pair. #377’.  In Puar’s argument, far from suggesting an opposition between state and market, in moments such as this the market functions as a sort of escape valve, offering a form of recognition and achievement that sucks some of the zeal out of queer movements, obviating and precluding a more concerted attack on the state. The World Bank report seems to take the logical next step in providing a market-friendly argument that might appeal to the state. By offering a growth-oriented argument against homophobia, it could have the insidious consequence of effecting a reconciliation between gays and growth, thereby demobilizing any incipient queer Indian opposition to capitalism-as-usual.

5- Kuchu is the local Ugandan language term to name a gender non conforming person.


* Rahul Rao is a Lecturer in Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He is the author of ‘Third World Protest: Between Home and the World’, and and is currently writing about queer movements in the global South.

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