Wole Soyinka: Gays, lesbians and legislative zealotry
by Wole Soyinka
LET us go back a little, nearly a year ago, to that earlier attempt to interfere in, and legislate on sexual conduct between consenting adults. Profiting from that experience, I would like to caution – yet again – that it is high time we learnt to ignore what we conveniently designate and react to as ‘foreign interference’. By now, we should be able to restrict ourselves to the a priori position that, as rational beings, we make pronouncements on choices of ethical directions from our own collective and/or majority will, independent of what is described as ‘external dictation’. The noisome emissions that surged from a handful of foreign governments last year should not be permitted to obscure the fundamental issue of the right to private choices of the free, adult citizen in any land – Asian, African, European etc. Those external responses were of such a nature – hysterical, hypocritical and disproportionate – that, speaking for myself at least, I could only wonder if they had not been generated by a desperate need for distraction away from the economic crisis that confronted, at that very time, those parts of the world.
Hopefully, the majority of Nigerians have also learnt to sniff out ploys of legislative distraction within the nation. At that initial attempt to cloak prurience in legislative watchfulness, the timing of the removal of the oil subsidy was coincident with a sudden obsession with homosexual and lesbian conduct. Was this truly an accident of timing? And now? Attempting to mobilize public sentiment against what many, admittedly, do consider deviant sexual conduct certainly takes attention away from the crumbling of society and the failures of governance in multiple directions. These range from minimal infrastructural expectations to mind-boggling escalation of corrupt practices in high places, and the basic issue of security in day-to-day existence of the populace as it affects high and low, affluent or impoverished, old and young, regardless of profession or records of service to Nigerian humanity.
But, to begin with, I implore all those who boast the capacity for reason: let us separate two distinct, albeit related issues within that one bill tabled before our legislatures. One issue is: homosexual practice; the other, same-sex marriage. I first became aware of, and alarmed by, the conflation of the two – quite deliberate in most cases – when, after a lecture at the University of Technology, Calabar, a year ago, I advised the legislators to mind the numerous, and urgent businesses for which they were elected, and take their noses out of sexual practices between consenting adults. Either deliberately – as I have already indicated – or thanks to the now familiar deficiency in listening that sadly characterizes Nigerian responses to public pronouncements, the main reactions were unleashed against something I had not even commented upon, which was: same-sex marriage. With the now confirmed outing of this bill however, the law-makers have served notice that their monitoring zeal is intended at nothing less than the right of state interference in private lives, especially in personal relations of the most intimate kind. This is the warning shot of legislative fascism. It has no place in a democracy.
Basically, such legislations constitute improper encroachment on personal lives, leaving the door wide open for all forms of social persecution, intimidation and even – as we know very well in this society – incitement to violence against targeted individuals, including lynching. Next, as several nations all over the world have come to acknowledge after centuries of blindness and hideous injustice, such state interventions glorify ignorance of the science of the human body, and contribute to the elevation of limited or zero knowledge on any subject to the altar of the morally sacrosanct.
The biological truth is this: some are born with imprecise gender definition, even when they have sexual organs that appear to define them male or female. Years, indeed decades, of scientific research have gone into this, so what is needed is understanding and acceptance, not emotionalism and the championing of ‘moral’ or ‘traditional’ claims. Let us take the first. For those who base their position on moralities extracted from received scriptures, permit me to state bluntly that articles of faith are no substitute for scientific verities, no matter how passionately such faiths are embraced or espoused, or for how long. In any case, faith is also a very private matter, so what we have here is simply one private plaintiff, a ‘conscientious objector’, attempting to lord it over the rights of another private entity, this time one that yields to sexual impulses in obedience to Biological Scriptures. Now, which one should lay claim to precedence?
We must make up our minds where we belong. We must choose either to create a society that is based on secular principles, or else surrender ourselves to the authority of – no matter whose – theocratic claims. What this implicates is that the next time a woman is sentenced to be buried live in the ground and stoned to death on the authority of one set of scriptures, other scripture adherents must learn to hold their peace and allow such ‘laws’ to run their course. The full implications of either position leave no room for fence-sitting. The national train must run either on secular rails or derail at multiple theocratic switches. No theology can be privileged over another in the running of society. This means, theology and its derivates cannot be privileged over material reality and its derivatives.
The science of the body is not limited to issues of consenting adults alone. It is what guides the making of laws in rational societies, what makes the law frown decisively on sexual relations with the under-aged, and spells out just what the law means by ‘underage’ in specific years of existence. Adult males earn several years in prison for sexual relations with the under aged because scientific knowledge has identified – beyond argument – the often irreparable damage that is done to a pre-pubescent body through sexual penetration by males. Society therefore protects the potential victim. Has an adult homosexual run to the law for protection in any society we know of? Only where they have been, or are in danger of becoming victims of rape – and there, the law is firmly on their side. Otherwise, the law should have no interest whatsoever in any form of consensual sexual conduct between adults.
So far, we have only addressed the issue of the homosexual act itself as it should concern – or should not – a nation’s legislatures. Let us now turn to the related problem of same-sex marriages. My interest is not – as a hysterical prelate, among others, tried to over-simplify in his reaction to my observation in Calabar – it is not whether or not homosexual marriages should be permitted or banned. Let us take it step by step. The issue, to start with, is – ‘criminalisation’! Perhaps such marriages exist in Nigeria – I am not aware of them. But we do know that homosexual liaisons exist. Are they granted the status of marriage? Not that I am aware of. Was there a threat somewhere that this might soon happen? Are they a menace to society? Again, all this is shrouded under legislative mystery. No case, to the best of my knowledge, has been brought to public notice where a court registry has been compelled to register same-sex marriages. No priest has been hauled up so far for sanctifying such a marriage. Always open to debate is the right of institutions (civil or state) to be part of the formal mechanisms for pledges that adults undertake in their relations with one another. Priests – of any religious adherence – remain free to refuse to become involved in the ceremonies of such associations. Individuals cannot be compelled to endorse such conduct. It remains their right to privately ostracize or embrace such liaisons – formal or informal. The state however overreaches itself where it moves to criminalize them. Biology takes precedence over ‘moral’ sentiment. Physiological compositions are increasingly held responsible for a number of mental and/or physical predispositions. Only in the past few decades was schizophrenia successfully tracked backwards to – among other causes – the contraction by mothers of some forms of ailment during pregnancy, as well as to genetic transmission. We should learn to listen wherever the voice of the empirical can be called upon to testify in human conduct.
On the ‘moralists‘, we urge a sense of proportion, and a turn towards objectivity. Yes, a society without moral signposts is only a glorified arena of brute instincts. Nonetheless, morality is far too often mired in subjectivity, sometimes touted as ‘revelation’, erected on untested foundations, increasingly subject to mass hysteria and manipulation. Morality therefore – we must re-emphasize – when applied to the private realm of the human body, must take second place to biology – morality either as derived from cultural usage or religious givens. We are speaking of – plain biological human composition, over which no individual has any control whatsoever. No individual was responsible for his or her birth, for emerging as a precocious being, a budding genius, or handicapped – either mentally or physiologically. Those who evoke ‘morality’ so loosely should take care that they do not keep company with theocratic warlords like al-Shabaab of Somalia, who instituted amputation at the wrist for anyone found guilty of the ‘immoral’ act of shaking hands with a fellow human being of the opposite sex!
Permit me to address some of the anxieties – publicly addressed or not – that I happen to have encountered. No one denies the perverse agency of ‘peer pressure’ in certain societies – or institutions – where homosexuality is considered ‘fashionable’, or even becomes a membership card for advancement in some professions. It is also the admissible right of the individual to experience and express disgust at the mere thought of homosexual conduct: the complement, incidentally, also obtains among some homosexuals with regard to heterosexual practice. I have encountered some who declare that the very thought of heterosexual act makes them sick. Also, there exist the bi-sexual individuals who live and die at ease – or with resignation – with their complex anatomy. None of these tendencies justifies criminalization. The heterosexual – or ‘straight’, to use that tendentious expression – minds his or her business like the rest. Laws, if any are promulgated in these cases, should be towards the protection of the vulnerable in society, vulnerable from whatever cause, including deviations from the sexuality of the majority genders. Non-consensual conduct is a different matter, or coercion, such as rape or other forms of sexual abuse, and these apply both to the homosexual and the heterosexual. I have had occasion to intervene in boarding schools to demand protection for some young pupils whose lives were bedeviled by sexual harassment from their senior colleagues. Their teachers turned a deaf ear to the victims’ complaints to an extent that virtually amounted to connivance. Now that is one area against which legislators might usefully want to turn their legislative ire – such teachers deserve to be brutally purged from their positions and made to face prosecution.
I shall be remiss if I do not also to address the appalling evidence of hypocrisy among the law makers. New laws are being proposed for private conduct that has never constituted a danger to the fabric of society. By contrast, the notorious violation of existing laws by a member of the law-making fraternity was rendered a non-event by a conspiratorial silence, amounting to connivance and enthronement of impunity. A former governor and present Senator violated the laws of two lands – Egypt and Nigeria – through his sexual behaviour. Serial paedophilia and cross-border sex trafficking are criminalized near universally. Laws for the protection of minors are rigorously enforced in civilized societies. On that, and allied issues, the law-making conclaves of wise men and women remained mute or conciliatory. An opportunity to enforce the existing laws in high places as a high profile deterrent to others was simply discarded. No new laws have been proposed, not even as a sop to outraged public conscience, to re-criminalize such acts, yet the legislatures take time off to make laws that criminalize private conduct that have not constituted a threat to the well-being of the vulnerable in society.
Is it too much to ask that our legislators cool their moral ardour for a study period during which they seek to understand a phenomenon that many hold abhorrent? (Please note: this is not intended as yet another incentive to undertake expensive study tours around the world – the relevant publications are available everywhere.) If there are scientific explanations for homosexual conduct — and these have been expounded in profusion — then a process of education is called for, enabling a more empathetic response to what appears an aberration to the majority. That it appears an aberration to some does not however make it immoral or socially subversive. And foreign interventionists should – let me repeat – at least exercise a sense of proportion, recalling that even within their own societies, such issues are still up for debate, with see-saw decisions between state and federal courts – examples include the United States – right up to the present. The high moral grounds that those nations attempt to occupy by hurling threats of sanctions etc etc. merely strike one as extreme cases of hypocrisy, unmindful of their own scriptural injunctions that urge: ‘Physician, heal thyself ”