Uganda has been part of my dreamscapes for as long as I can remember. Before school geography mapped Uganda, I knew it as the place that produced my father, the place inscribed in the Makerere-flavored textbooks in the living room, the place where intellectuals were made, where thinking was possible. It was a place that transformed simple Kenyan herdsboys—no matter how elite their high school education—into doctors and professors and writers, healers and thinkers and dreamers. The place from which a young man whose (older) face I now bear wrote letters to a young woman, imagining the (truncated) future they would build. Uganda, in one particular imagining, was an intimacy-making space, a life-producing space, a world-building space.
My father never spoke of his time at Makerere—my retrospective fantasies unsee the racist textbooks that described “Bantu anatomy” and “the African mind,” enabling other fantasies that build on the usable to imagine the possible.
In a way I can barely apprehend, Uganda lies at the center of my possible.
Uganda has been much in the gay press, mostly press from Europe and the U.S., and also, more generally, on international email groups and in many outraged tweets from around the globe. At a historical moment when gay marriage is becoming increasingly possible across the U.S.—a phenomenon those of us outside the U.S. are urged to interpret as globally progressive, the direction that “history” and “development” should head—Uganda has become the obstinate little cousin, the tantrum-throwing space that insists homosexuality is un-African or, more prosaically, anti-national. Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 (AHA 2014), recently signed into law by president Yoweri Museveni, is a historical burr in the world-liberal project. At least, this is the story in the liberal gay press.
On a recent panel, Dr. Stella Nyanzi—who insists I call her Stella, but this is Africa, and professional titles matter, so I insist on that Dr.—announced that she would not discuss AHA 2014, in part because it was expected of her during a queer conference, especially on a panel dedicated to legal matters. The overwhelming international focus on AHA 2014, she explained, imagined Uganda as a one-act space, refusing to see the constellation of laws emerging from, and re-imagining, Uganda. What, she asked, would happen if those focusing on intimate Uganda paid attention to the Anti-Pornography Act, the Public Order Management Act, and the pending Patriotism Bill? To these, we might add the Marriage and Divorce Bill and the HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Bill.
Dr. Nyanzi’s colleague, Sandra Ntebi, reminded us about queer legislative victories in Uganda, in Mukasa and Another v Attorney General (2008) and Kasha Jacqueline et al. v Rolling Stone and Giles Muhame (2010). One notes, in fact, that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the Marriage and the Divorce Bill, and the HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Bill were introduced into parliament after (or around when) Victor Mukasa secured a legal victory against the state. One notes, also, that these legal victories, not to mention the vibrant Ugandan queer organizing and coalition building, have been absent in international coverage intent on robbing Ugandans of the capacity to organize or strategize—not to mention U.S.-centered coverage of Uganda interested primarily in what U.S. preachers do when they travel.
Feminist historians of Africa have discussed the changing meanings of public space and public intimacy during colonial modernity. I continue to learn from Luise White about the roles sex workers played in imagining and creating Nairobi’s urban space. Scholars from other spaces have noted that women in rapidly urbanizing Africa were considered morally impure. Having removed themselves from ethno-national enclaves and participating in the various promiscuities that mark urban exchange—conversations with strangers, sharing public transport with strangers, trading with strangers—these women imagined and created socialities that threatened ethno-national imaginations and formations.
Colonial archives depict threatened male ethno-national leaders who wanted to impede women’s mobility and dictate their clothing options—what to wear and when. Simultaneously, colonial leaders and missionaries similarly wanted to direct women’s lives. Combing through the archives, one finds patriarchal collusion between ethno-national leaders and colonial administrators, both of whom focused on controlling how and when women occupied and traveled through space.
If queer studies has taught me to think about intimate publics—I think especially of Samuel Delany’s Time Square Red, Time Square Blue, Pat Califia’s Public Sex, Gayatri Gopinath’s Impossible Diasporas, and Nayan Shah’s Stranger Intimacy—engaging with Africanist archives—fiction by Cyprian Ekwensi and Veronique Tadjo, poetry by Ngwatilo Mawiyoo and Micere Mugo, history by Kenda Mutongi and Nakanyike Musisi—has taught me to think about public intimacies. Combined, queer studies and Africanist archives, have taught me to think about how publics are produced and sustained, how space is not simply inhabited but actively generated and modified by the bodies allowed and forbidden to circulate in that space, how space is gendered and monitored, occupied and emptied, made possible and impossible.
From Dr. Nyanzi, I also learn the use of circuitous paths, of non-linear approaches, about how knowledge-making layers and cuts.
Speculating on the-then Anti-Homosexuality Bill in 2011, I argued,
it aims to re-organize and discipline the public and private life of intimacy. Arguably, this Bill refuses the distinction between public and private life by turning all intimate acts and spaces into objects of surveillance
This understanding can be extended to the Public Order Management Act, which attempts to define—and restrict—the meanings of “public meetings” and political discourse. In broad strokes, the Act restricts public meetings—an assembly of three or more people in a “public space” “at which the principles, policy, actions or failure of any government, political party or political organisation, whether or not that party or organisation is registered under any law, are discussed.” A “public meeting” may also be one
held to form pressure groups to submit petitions to any person or to mobilise or demonstrate support for or opposition to the views, principles, policy, actions or omissions of any person or body of persons or institution, including any government administration or government institution.
Such meetings, if held in “public spaces,” require permission from the Inspector General of Police. I leave others to parse the specifics of this law and the varying and shifting meanings of “public.” Rather crudely, though, this Act attempts to manage the possibility of political publics, of publics becoming political. To use a different language, it attempts to monitor (and manage) the public-making labor of consciousness raising.
If the Public Order Management Act attempts to control the meanings of “public” and “political,” the Anti-Pornography Act attempts to police public and private expression, mobility, and desire. Known casually as the “miniskirt law,” the Act attempts to regulate what appears and circulates in public and private.
“pornography” means any cultural practice, radio or television programme, writing, publication, advertisement, broadcast upload on internet, display, entertainment, music, dance, picture, audio or video recording, show, exhibition or any combination of the preceding that depicts—
(a) a person engaged in explicit sexual activities or conduct;
(b) sexual parts of a person including breasts, thighs, buttocks or genitalia;
(c) erotic behaviour intended to cause sexual excitement; or
(d) any indecent act or behaviour tending to corrupt morals
Importantly, “pornography” does not include teaching aides or “any act or behaviour between spouses or couples performed in fulfillment of their conjugal rights and responsibilities, where such matters remain strictly private.”
In their classic Pornography and Civil Rights, Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin argue that in the U.S.,
Law has traditionally considered pornography to be a question of private virtue and public morality, not personal injury and collective abuse. The law on pornography has been the law of morals regulation, not the law of public safety, personal security, or civil equality. When pornography is debated, in or out of court, the issue has been whether government should be in the business of making sure only nice things are said and seen about sex, not whether government should remedy the exploitation of the powerless for the profit and enjoyment of the powerful. Whether pornography is detrimental to “the social fabric” has therefore been considered; whether particular individuals or definable groups are hurt by it has not been, not really.
Despite the Ugandan law’s very expansive definition of “pornography”—it extends beyond the too-cynical “you know it when you see it,” while also absolutely relying on the policing eye to “pornographize” (to coin an ugly term)—it depends, ultimately, on a notion of moral regulation, as seen in (d), refusing to consider the notion of “harm” or “violence,” except in the abstract.
MacKinnon and Dworkin frame pornography as anti-woman; the Ugandan legislation against pornography is anti-woman.
Note, for instance, how MacKinnon and Dworkin define pornography:
(1) Pornography is the sexually explicit subordination of women, graphically depicted, whether in pictures or in words, that also includes one or more of the following:
(i) women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things or commodities; or
(ii) women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation; or
(iii) women are presented as sexual objects who experience sexual pleasure in being raped; or
(iv) women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or
(v) women are presented in postures of sexual submission; or
(vi) women’s body parts – including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, and buttocks – are exhibited, such that women are reduced to those parts; or
(vii) women are presented as whores by nature; or
(viii) women are presented being penetrated by objects or animals; or
(ix) women are presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, abasement, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual.
(2) The use of men, children, or transsexuals in the place of women in (1) (i-ix) above is pornography for purposes of subsections (1) – (p) of this statute.
Where MacKinnon and Dworkin’s labor to increase women’s possibilities and freedoms, to remove women from an always-pornographizing public gaze, the Ugandan legislation, especially with its focus on “breasts, thighs, and buttocks,” turns every woman’s body into a potential pornographic spectacle. The Ugandan legislation makes public space less safe for women, a space of continual surveillance and management.
(I think it’s worth noting that visual pornography circulated in a very different way in the 1970s and early 1980s, as a kind of shared vernacular in public venues, so MacKinnon and Dworkin are writing into a differently understood space. While my politics incline toward the pro-pornography feminism of Gayle Rubin and Samuel Delany, it’s worth noting that even that strand of thinking is firmly against harm to women.)
Following the Act’s broad definition of “pornography,” what follows is fairly standard—prohibitions against making or distributing pornography, especially child pornography. But a few provisions are worth noting:
15 (1) Where information is brought to the attention of the court that there exists in premises, an object or material containing pornography or an act or event of a pornographic nature, the court shall issue a warrant for the seizure of the object or material and for the arrest of the person promoting the material or object.
(2) An authorized person in possession of a search warrant issued by the court may enter any premises and inspect any object or material including any computer, and seize the object, material or gadget for the purpose of giving effect to this act.
Given the capacious definition of “pornography,” what exactly would acquiring such a warrant require? Note, for instance, that much international culture features breasts, thighs, and buttocks—ranging from travel shows to music videos. Anyone scrolling through my internet history, for instance, would find the multiple instances where I have watched RuPaul’s “Peanut Butter,” which is certainly a buffet of thighs and buttocks. Based on this “evidence,” the state would have the right to comb through the entire content of my hard drive.
Section 17 of the Act is equally troubling.
17. (1) An Internet Service Provider (ISP) who . . . permits to be uploaded or downloaded through its service, any content of a pornographic nature, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine . . . or imprisonment not exceeding five years or both.
If the overly-broad definition of “pornography” attempts to control what might appear in “public,” Sections 15 and 17 attempt to control what might be consumed “in private.” The private—one’s home, one’s computer, however it may be defined—becomes subject not only to the state’s gaze, but to its right to invade at any arbitrary moment (subject to a warrant, the evidence for which seems entirely too idiosyncratic).
A necessary note: in the Act, “pornography” is defined as
any representation through publication, cinematography, indecent show, information technology or by whatever means, of a person engaged in real or stimulated [sic] explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a person for primarily sexual excitement
This definition appears to be much more limited–and sensible. Still, it is informed by the thinking in the Bill, and one could argue that the broadness of “any representation” includes the earlier, too-broad definition. If the explicit attack against women’s bodies is absent from this definition, it can still be seen as what is to be regulated, as noted in the Ugandan press’s discussion of this Act as the “ban on miniskirts.” One notes that miniskirts are nowhere mentioned in the Act.
No doubt, many other paths can be taken to approach the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 (AHA 2014). I have chosen this broad management of spatial possibilities to explore how AHA 2014 figures into how legislative processes imagine Uganda broadly. Approaching the AHA 2014 in this way also skirts, I hope, the “gay marriage” and “African homophobia” frames through which it’s been apprehended, frames that disembed AHA 2014 from other intimacy-making and intimacy-regulating legislation.
And, so, a few words on AHA 2014.
Before president Museveni signed the Bill into law, a special panel of scientists was convened to provide “guidance.” Perhaps this happened to counter suggestions that the Bill had been engineered, and was mostly driven, by religious groups. The assembled scientists concluded that homosexuality is neither “a disease” nor “an abnormality,” a noncommittal response that did not support the Bill. In a curious turn, the scientific report was read as supporting the Bill—it’s heartening to note that the scientists responded that their work had been misread and misused.
Much can be written about AHA 2014, and I fear I am becoming interminable. So, a few quick notes.
As with the Anti-Pornography Act, definitions are crucial in AHA 2014.
“sexual act” includes—
(a) physical sexual activity that does not necessarily culminate in intercourse and may include the touching of another’s breast, vagina, penis or anus;
(b) stimulation or penetration of a vagina or mouth or anus or any part of the body of any person, however slight by a sexual organ;
(c) the unlawful use of any object or organ by a person on another person’s sexual organ or anus or mouth;
“sexual organ” means a vagina, penis or any artificial sexual contraption;
“touching” includes touching—
(a) with any part of the body;
(b) with anything else;
(c) through anything;
and in particular includes touching amounting to penetration of any sexual organ, anus or mouth.
To use an absurd example: my touching a friend’s sex toy—be it a cock ring or a dildo—might, in a very strict reading of this definition, be considered a “sex act.” One notes the proliferation of “any” and the strategic use of “anything,” which has the overall effect of giving the state and its agents control over the meanings of “sexual act,” “sexual organ,” and “touching.”
This absolute—if absurd—control over meaning is central to how the state imagines homosexuality.
2. The offence of homosexuality.
(1) A person commits the offence of homosexuality if—
(a) he penetrates the anus or mouth of another person of the same sex with his penis or any other sexual contraption;
(b) he or she uses any object or sexual contraption to penetrate or stimulate sexual organ of a person of the same sex;
(c) he or she touches another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality.
I get stuck on 2.c, on the state granting itself (and its agents) the ability to interpret sexual intent. (I will not cite the obligatory Foucault passage, but will place his name here to mark the trail of my thinking.)
To return to a slightly earlier moment, this will to interpret intent extends the patriarchal collusion between colonial administrators and ethno-national leaders as they sought to control women’s bodies and movements: when, for instance, they claimed that wearing “western-style clothing” indicated that women were sex workers or that men who wore western-style clothing were attempting to conceal venereal disease. To this historical context, I would add the pressures of our surveillance now, when “development” and “progress” proceed by accumulating bio-data, by using technologies that try to detect “suspicious people,” when the securitized gaze is omnipresent.
What are the possibilities for Ugandan intimacy now?
The histories I know best, and the art from those histories, teach me that, sometimes, the embattled survive, and even thrive. We here:now celebrate those moments of survival, even as we mourn the many gone who linger as an ethical demand, who ask us to make livability possible.
Speaking in South Africa, Sandra Ntebi described fragmenting coalitions, panic-stricken queers seeking exile, refuge, possibility. I heard anger and exhaustion, a desire to fight and to have a life. Strategies to create safety and to build coalitions. The need for exit plans and the courage to stay.
I return to those few, fragile photos of my father as a student in Makerere. I wonder, now, about the dreams that kept him there, about the scars that made Makerere unspeakable, about the shapes of fantasies spun from his silences that populate my imagination. From those fantasies, I attempt to distill the usable so I can imagine the possible.