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What does it meant to build a politics centered on diversity? How do we seek to combat homophobia in cultural contexts different to our own? Can we build dialogue amongst communities of diverse sexes, sexualities and genders across the world? These questions were merely some of the issues, renowned gay Ugandan activist David Kato, who was brutally murdered last week, dedicated his life to.

His death, like his life, has become a symbol for the struggle faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people face in terms of recognition, freedom and visibility. At the funeral, the presiding Anglican pastor eulogised that “homosexuals must repent…or be punished by God”.

In Uganda, rhetoric that repudiates homosexuality is not confined to the pulpit; it is reinforced by laws that criminalise consensual sexual activity between people of the same-sex, often by imposing lengthy prison sentences. In 2009, an Anti-Homosexuality Bill was introduced, increasing the criminal penalties and adding the death penalty for certain kinds of consensual sexual activity between people of the same-sex.

While it is easy, and often necessary, to express our anger and abhorrence at laws motivated by homophobia, we have to ask where does this bigotry come from?

Uganda is not unique in its brutal treatment of same-sex relationships, many sub-Saharan African countries, still attempt to erase the visibility of same-sex attracted or sex and/or gender diverse peoples. Much of the political infatuation with “homosexuality” in this vast geographical area has emerged as a product of British colonialism.

“Sodomy” offences or “acts against the order of nature”, as they are commonly referred to, were introduced through colonialism as a way of policing all non-heterosexual or non-reproductive relationships. Recently, support for such laws were bolstered by evangelical Christian claims that “homosexuality” was a threat to the “cohesion” of African families.

Understanding the broader cultural context that facilitates homophobia does not erase the responsibility of the Ugandan Government for the escalating homophobic violence in the country. Rather, while it is important to condemn such injustices, it is equally necessary to dispel the implications that all African countries as barbaric and essentially homophobic, while all “Western” countries are mythologised as places of acceptance and tolerance.

Homophobia, however, remains a pervasive problem – cutting across many geographic, political, religious and cultural boundaries.

What made David Kato’s activism inspirational was, instead of ignoring the complex transnational and cultural politics of homophobia, he worked across these spectrums to challenge it. Rather than demonise Uganda or romanticise the “West” as a site of “gay liberation”, he worked to challenge the complex religious, national and neo-colonial politics that sought to denounce the specific lives and experiences of same-sex attracted or sex and/or gender diverse people living in places like Uganda. That is, Uganda was not by nature homophobic, nor was the “West” a beacon of hope that activists or LGBTI people in Uganda should necessarily aspire to.

This does not mean we can, or should, collapse the treatment and experience of LGBTI persons in Uganda and Australia by way of example. However, while we may not have laws criminalising same-sex relationships, we still have much further to go to end the homophobia that facilitates the violence, harassment and discrimination that plague the lives of so many sexual and gender minorities in Australia.

For example, if you are intersex, you are likely to experience non-consensual surgical intervention for failing to mimic a particular idea of having an “appropriate” sex. Alternatively, if you are in a same-sex relationship, you are unable to marry your partner, because marriage remains a privilege that can only be shared between a man and woman.

Even now, we still hear the claims that same-sex parenting is a form of social engineering that undermines the “inherent gender complementarity” of mothers and fathers. Is this radically dissimilar to the rhetoric mobilised in Uganda that homosexuality undermines the fabric of the family?

Homophobia is a problem that is not confined to one region of the world. Whether Uganda or Australia, the lives of so many sexual and gender minorities continue to remain disenfranchised by laws that continue to mark out their differences as unacceptable or unnatural.

As we mourn David Kato’s death, we must reflect at what was at stake in his work – an activism founded on dialogue rather than condemnation. He sought to ensure the recognition of LGBTI people and communities in ways that validated their historical and cultural differences. By continuing in this legacy to combat homophobia wherever it exists, we can hope to do justice to the life of David Kato.

This blog entry is adapted/slightly reworded from an article I had published in the Sydney Morning Herald (31 January 2011). See: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/activism-and-the-gay-community-what-uganda-can-teach-us-20110131-1aak3.html

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This is the blog for thinking and talking about culture, Cultural Studies and cultural analysis at the University of Sydney.