Julian Sheather: Ugandan anti-homosexuality legislation: bad law, bad science

For all the fanfare that headline science can generate, it is usually quiet science that arouses my sympathies. Carefully uncovered facts can settle like welcome oil, stilling the troubled waters of moral panic and vengeful politics. I am more drawn to the Victorian naturalists who posted songbirds to each other, carefully mapping variation, than to their bullish champions, the Huxleys, and, more latterly, the Dawkins’, who would batter the world’s opinions into quiescence. Disappointing morning then when I return from a week in Norfolk and find that President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has signed into force draconian anti-homosexuality laws, attaching a life sentence to “aggravated homosexuality.” Even more disappointing to learn that he has done so on the basis of advice from fourteen Ugandan medical “experts.” The clincher, according to these “experts,” is that homosexuality is not genetic behaviour, but learned—not a “natural” occurrence, but a social pathology.

The new law is not an entirely unexpected lurch from the path of liberalism. According to The Guardian under existing colonial-era legislation in Uganda, anyone found guilty of “carnal knowledge against the law of nature” can already face life imprisonment. But the new bill represents a significant hardening of attitudes. It introduces a custodial sentence for failing to report gay people to the authorities, bans the promotion of homosexuality, and imposes a possible life sentence for various same-sex acts, including touching in public.

In response, and quite understandably, an international group of researchers and public health experts has challenged the science of Museveni’s “experts.” “Homosexuality is not a pathology, an abnormality, a mental disorder, or an illness,” they write, “It is a variant of sexual behaviour found in people around the world…Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are normal.” And three cheers for that.

Sympathetic as I am to those writing in protest, I am also wary of trying to fix or authorise sexual behaviour by reference to biology, pro or contra our underlying values. In my lifetime, intellectual fashion has shifted from telling us we are all the blank-slated products of our culture, to a reigning neo-Darwinism, that goes hunting for an explanation of our hearts among the thickets of our evolved past. Despite the apparent reassurance it offers, the concept of “natural” will not go far in protecting our basic freedoms. Does the fact that certain sexual practices have a comparatively low rate of statistical occurrence make them “normal” or not? Who will decide, and on the basis of what criteria, whether a certain level of occurrence is normal or abnormal? Science can give us the data, but beyond the distribution of percentages, it has to fall silent on the normative question. Science can tell us what human beings do, but it cannot tell us what we should do. Although I am not sure that quiet science has given us more insight here than a handful of good writers, (I prefer Chekhov to Masters and Johnson) it has shown us the complexity and plasticity of human sexual response. One “natural” goal of heterosexual sex is reproduction, but I have spent a good deal of my sexual life—in fact on all but two occasions—happily preventing, with the full participation of modern science, such an outcome.

The proper defence of adult sexual behaviour is choice and consent, not biology. The Ugandan law should be resisted because of its violation of fundamental adult liberties, not because of some uneasy medicalised reference to our genes. I am a liberal on these matters: the state has no place in the bedrooms of consenting adults. Yes bad science should be resisted wherever it emerges, but so should bad moralising. We know that like many demagogues, Museveni has had recourse to shoddy science. But the law in this area defines the scope of our fundamental private freedoms. And it should be resisted because it is a bad law, irrespective of what the science says.

Julian Sheather is ethics manager, BMA. The views he expresses in his blog posts are entirely his own.