Note: My recent column entitled “Are Homosexuals Human Beings?” generated, predictably, heated reactions from readers, as indeed my previous interventions in this area of our public life.
No doubt, the subject of same-sex relations excites deep-seated, emotional, even primordial anxieties in people not only in Nigeria but universally. It just happens to be the case that the attitudes to gay rights in the so-called Third World tend to be the ones most likely to be justified on the grounds of moral and cultural exceptionalism: homosexuality is NOT African, for instance. This is also always inseparable from the religious ground of its alleged “unnaturalness” and that it is a disease (though it is never specified if it is a contagious one, and if so, how).
My said column was widely shared on the Internet, among the many places it travelled to in ether being Facebook discussion group where the heat it generated was enough to rival the ever-flaming gas burning stacks of the oil companies that dot the Niger Delta.
Usually, I do not reply to my readers, but this subject has now delved into the heart of our public morality, given the unconvincing anti-imperialist and essentialist Afrocentricism now being touted as a premise to becloud the serious question of how to deal with difference and how to treat minorities in a polity.
Consequently, I decided to write a rejoinder to my critics on the said Facebook forum. I think that with the slightest of editing it will serve as well here where the original column ignited a similar flurry of responses, most of them, alas, ill-informed, the responders being, it seems to me, unwilling or unable to grapple with the intricacy of the subject and my argument.
My aim, I should emphasise, is that some clarity, understanding or sense of perspective and proportion through further explication, would be gained by the reader of this rejoinder. Thank you.
I must begin by thanking you all, once again, for the stimulating responses to my op-ed article “Are Homosexuals Human Beings?” I have benefited from all of the responses, critical (mostly) and commendatory. Indeed, I can say without being disingenuous that I have learned more from the critical responses since they not only make clearer to me the standpoint of the opposing view(s) but also show me where my argument is need of greater exposition.
As you will readily admit, however, the subject of sexual orientation and gay rights is so vast that not even a book would exhaust it, never mind an op-ed column! But I must also add that I had expected greater familiarity with the subject in general and my premises as laid out in the earlier essays I cited by many of those who have joined issues with me.
Though I am a tad disappointed that no one has quite (note my emphasis) picked up the gauntlet of my challenge to mount a proper intellectual engagement (not mere appeals to cultural or religious dogma) of the ideas and position that I have canvassed in my five essays on the subject, I have nevertheless decided that I cannot wait for that improbable event before responding to the issues that have arisen in the responses to me, such as they are, so far.
It seems to me that the responses can be broadly summarised as follows: (1) That homosexuality is foreign, that is unknown, to African culture (2) that it is an unnatural practice, that is, contrary to (human) nature (3) that it is opposed by the overwhelming majority of Africans (and Nigerians) (4) that the draconian anti-gay law recently signed into law by President Jonathan—a redundant act seeing that extant provisions in our laws already prohibit homosexual intercourse (sodomy)—is a proper and legitimate way to stamp out it out (5) that if we defend homosexuality on the grounds of human rights, then it goes without saying that we would also justify every other crime, such as bestiality or pederasty, paedophilia, official corruption, murder, etc., by the same claim.
I think that two other matters arise from the above, so (6) whether or not the three holy books of the Abrahamic faiths—the Torah/Old Testament and the New Testament, which together constitute the Bible and cover Judaism and Christianity, and the Koran for Islam—are to be read literally; that is, understood by the plain meaning of their words, and if so what the implications would be, and (7) what ought to be the proper moral and, or, Christian attitude to sin.
If I’m right, broadly speaking, that this is the essence of the conversation so far, then I will proceed to respond to the questions, not necessarily one by one, as succinctly as possible. Before doing so, however, permit me a word. I have delved headlong into this controversy, even with the apparent risk of being dubbed, all of a sudden, as an enemy of the people (ah that!), not to mention the more abusive name-calling (though, I am happy to report, not on this forum which has been by and large decorous) for a simple reason: I cannot abide oppression. This is what makes me who I am: from my secondary school days when I began to form an inchoate idea of voice to my days in the student and the human rights and pro-democracy movement. It is what led to my expulsion, along with others of like mind, from the University of Benin (though we won our case and were later reinstated), my delayed admission to the Nigeria Law School and my detention for six months by General Abacha. Those in this forum who know me understand that I do not like to speak about myself, but I do so now because of the need to make clearer my motivation in being so outspoken on this matter when prudence or self-interest counsels otherwise. I was reminded, very powerfully (if at all I needed a reminder), of this irrepressible impulse to take the side of truth and justice—what I know to be those two things—by the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu which I read on the plane two days ago on my way home from the US.
As you all doubtless know, Tutu, the retired Archbishop (Anglican Communion) of Cape Town, is a titan of the struggle against apartheid and for justice in the world, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate to boot. And he is an indefatigable gay rights advocate. He has not only been gushing with praise for Pope Francis who is gradually softening the attitude of the Catholic Church—I quoted him in my article under reference—towards persons of same-sex orientation but also had something very remarkable to say about our common humanity, the universality or inter-connectedness of oppression, and how the marginalisation and persecution of persons of same-sex orientation is inextricably tied to the question of justice. Asked what he considered “the most pressing issue in which Christians need to relate their faith to power and injustice,” he replied as follows:
“Anywhere where the humanity of people is undermined, anywhere where people are left in the dust, there we will find our cause. Sometimes you wish you could keep quiet. It’s the kind of thing you heard the prophet Jeremiah complain of where he says, ‘You know God, I didn’t want to be a prophet and you made me speak words of condemnation against a people I love deeply. Your word is like a fire burning in my breast.”
Then he zeroed in on the specific danger of speaking up for people of “different sexual orientation” thus:
“It isn’t that it’s questionable when you speak up for the right of people with different sexual orientation. People took some part of us and used it to discriminate against us. In our case, it was our ethnicity; it’s precisely the same thing for sexual orientation. People are killed because they’re gay. I don’t think, ‘What do I want to do today? I want to speak up on gay rights.’ No. It’s God catching me by my neck.”
I particularly like that expression, God catching one by the neck, to speak truth to power, as with Jonah who sought to evade an unpleasant duty in Nineveh. If Tutu reminds you of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s famous words in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” then rightly so.
Which is why I find it rather cold-blooded that some have justified their antipathy to gays by saying simply that the overwhelming majority of Nigerians (99% it is claimed) approve of the anti-gay law. As if that alone a good law or act makes! I made a subtle quip about this by reminding that it was the majority that elected to free Barabbas, a condemned murderer, and to crucify Jesus in whom Pontius Pilate could find no wrong-doing, but that seems to have made no impression.
Similarly, my observation that among the Africans who killed twins (mostly in South-eastern Nigeria), the majority believed in the practice as good and necessary for the well-being of the society appears to have had no effect as well. Well, then, how about this: that it was the majority in Europe who, under the spell of stereotypes of the Jew, either watched or actively participated in their persecution and slaughter known as the Holocaust?
Does anyone here doubt that racism as the ideology of colonialism—and we mustn’t forget that a cheap anti-imperialist nationalism is a major premise for the general approval of the draconian measures contained in the new anti-gay law—is a function of the stereotypes and prejudices that convinced Europeans of the subhuman status of Africans? Albert Schweitzer, one of the good Europeans who assumed the burden of “civilising” the savage Africans, famously said, “The African is my brother, but my junior brother.” Are we now emulating him, in the second decade of the 21st Century, to say that “The gay person is my brother or sister, but my junior brother or sister? In which case, his or her rights are not equal to mine?
For his part, Mandela presided, as the first democratically elected president of South Africa, over a constitution that blazed the trail in protecting the rights of persons of same-sex orientation.
Bringing his great moral stature earned by three decades of incarceration and an almost inhuman capacity for tolerance and forgiveness to bear on the solemn task of fashioning a truly representative constitution, Mandela approved a basic document that includes a clear and unambiguous protection from discrimination against any person on the basis of sexual orientation, the very first document of its kind in any bill of rights. Chapter 2, Section 2 of the South African constitution states, tritely, that “Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.”
Then it takes the unusual step, in Section 3, to clarify the term “Everyone is equal before the law” by stating that the state (government) may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.
There you have it. So in the light of the first two heads of my summary of the anti-gay position—to wit, that same-sex relations are foreign to African culture and that they are an unnatural practice, what does that make Mandela, Tutu, and the South African people who made, enacted and gave unto themselves this constitution? Was Mandela an African? Tutu too? Should Nigerians be ashamed or proud of both men? Did those giants of Africa’s liberation struggles sacrifice their hard-earned reputation as freedom fighters, as icons of equality and justice, on the altar of defence of an “unnatural,” un-African practice? What, indeed, constitutes natural sexual intercourse when evidence abounds in the animal world, in particular among the apes, of same-sex practice? I cited a book-length study in my essay “Homosexuality, Biology and the Bible,” but a quick internet search would reveal a trove of material.
Those who argue that homosexuality is a choice, and so unnatural, say only that God intended sex for procreation, which is possible only with opposite sex mating. What is more, the overwhelming majority of humans are heterosexual. First, this argument disdains science which shows that its proponents do not believe in evolution or rational argument.
Yet, as has been shown, creationism, which traces the origin of human life to the mythical Garden of Eden would put the age of the earth at approximately 6-10,000 years—a clear absurdity. But even so, why then are some heterosexuals barren—some incurably so? And does every act of copulation lead to procreation? How then is intercourse that fails to meet that goal, which is the case in the astronomical majority of the time, to be described—nature misfiring?
How shall we, for that matter, deal with couples or partners in heterosexual relationships, even married ones, who practice anal sex? The truth of the matter is that sexual desire remains to a large extent a grey and nebulous area of human experience. And because sexual desire comes encrusted with the strictures, taboos and mysticism of the Judeo-Christian civilisation that governs for the most part our attitudes to the very natural act of sex, we are geared to the point of being hard-wired by now to view anything outside its controlled and utilitarian use as unnatural and so deserving of punishment.
The Catholic church even devised a whole liturgical practice of the confession to further implant the idea of sex as sin. I touched on this aspect in my essay “Sex and the Church’s Missionary Position.” So what, then, is natural? And how can a desire that emanates from a human being, who is part of nature (we often forget that!) be deemed unnatural? Mind, this is not an argument for promiscuity (however that may be defined); I am only here concerned with the definition of the word “natural,” especially in the absence of a clear or any attempt at explication by my interlocutors.
As I hope to have shown, it cannot be defined by resort to ends—procreation—given that that end is not guaranteed, but I would welcome further light on the subject.
This brings me to the question of how to read the Bible—literally, that is by taking every word and phrase at its surface meaning, or as is inevitable with every literary document (one composed of words), LITERARILY, thereby requiring of the reader the full array of hermeneutical tools available to him or her in order to reach the heart of the matter, the words’ ultimate truth or meaning?
That the Bible lends itself to easy interpretation, precisely due to the plain and repetitive diction of the King James version, and yet remains one of the most frustratingly complex texts ever known to humankind is proved by the fact that hermeneutics, the study of the interpretation of texts, arose out of efforts to understand the Christian holy book.
We can easily show the danger of a literalist approach to the Bible, first, because its language is very literary (that is, poetic or metaphorical, or put another way, figurative). And, second, because Jesus spoke mostly in parables. Does anyone believe, for instance, that Methuselah lived for 969 years—unless, of course, they are not earthly years? And would even the most fanatical literalist here actually pluck out his “right eye,” hack off his “right arm,” if either would lead him to hell as Jesus commanded in Matthew 5: 29-20? And why only the right eye or arm? What if it is the left eye or hand that gives “offence,” that would lead the believer to hell?
A verse earlier, Jesus revises the Old Testament definition of adultery by expanding it such that it becomes a thought crime as well. “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart,” Jesus says. And just to take one more example of the pitfalls of literalist constructions of the Bible, would any reader here agree that whoever marries a divorced woman “committeth adultery?” (verse 32). And why only her? Can it also be a “him,’ a divorced man?
Does this gender insensitivity, as indeed many other prejudices and chauvinisms that abound in the Bible, reflect the historical context of the time of Jesus’ work? And just to advert to one more instance of the folly of biblical literalism, who in this day and age, calling him or herself a devout Christian, would faithfully follow the many prohibitions, taboos and injunctions of Leviticus—the same that together with Genesis 19 is the scriptural fulcrum of homophobia?
But don’t take my word for it. Here is the response of one James M. Kauffman, an emeritus professor at the University of Virginia with expertise in the fields of curriculum, instruction and special education, to Dr Laura Schlesinger, a well-known conservative radio talk show host in the United States, on the question of homosexuality and God’s unchanging word
“Dear Dr. Laura: Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination … end of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.
1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are from neighbouring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?
2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of Menstrual uncleanliness – Leviticus 15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offence.
4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord – Leviticus 1:9. The problem is my neighbours. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
5. I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?
6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination, Leviticus 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?
7. Leviticus 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?
8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Leviticus 19:27. How should they die?
9. I know from Leviticus 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Leviticus 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend).
He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Leviticus 24:10)
Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Leviticus 20:14) I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I’m confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging. Your adoring fan.”
I hope you at least had the sense of humour to laugh, even if you are a die-hard literalist! Still, it is no wonder, at least to me, that Jesus rails against such literalness. He uses the Pharisees as his perfect example of the Christian who delights in the surface of things. Paul takes up this theme with his accustomed fervour in 2 Corinthians 5-6 where he counsels against following the letter of the law while blissfully ignoring its spirit.
To be “able ministers of the new testament,” he says, Christians must discern the spirit of its commandments, “for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”
The imperative of understanding, of discerning the wisdom behind the words that we read, is what led God, according to Acts 8, to command Philip to go and meet the Ethiopian man who was labouring in vain to unravel the meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy of the manner of death of the Messiah. Philip’s famous question to the Ethiopian, “Understandest thou what thou readest?” may very well apply to all who even today insist on a literal approach to the bible.
I believe I need say no more on this point. Now to the question that many have posed to me, not only here but at other forums where my interventions on the equal humanity and rights of gay persons have been published or where I have been part of the discussion. And that is the question of morality. If it is the case that homosexuality is biologically determined, and so is a human right, they ask, why shouldn’t that be said of paedophiles, pederasts, serial killers, corrupt politicians—in short, any sort of evil-doer under the sun?
The question seems clever at first blush but never ceases to surprise me. First, because it seems to me that those who ask it are of the firm view that the entire moral order of the universe depends on the criminalisation—extermination, even, through some sort of final solution, a la Adolf Hitler, who, by the way imprisoned homosexuals among Gypsies, the handicapped, Slavs and Poles (whom he considered inferior specimens of humanity) together with Jews in Auschwitz—of same sex desire.
Secondly, they never for once remember that in the history of humankind, the moral order codified in the Abrahamic texts is very new! Was there no moral order before the advent of systematised religious beliefs, before organised religion? Specifically, and this to those who harbour that view in this forum, didn’t African people have a well-defined sense of right and wrong before the arrival of the first Christian missionary from Europe?
To be sure, all cultures have negative and positive qualities, and progress or civilisation is a function of cultures’ ability live down negative attributes while retaining and continuing to refine the positive ones. It is, in a sense, akin to the Darwinian theory of natural selection, in as much as it parallels the retention of only those traits which help the species survive and ensure self-perpetuation. Consequently, cultures that fail to adapt die off.
Thirdly, and perhaps more important, those who ask this question commit the error of “false equivalency” by conflating morality and crime. Moral shortcomings amount, in the religious sense of the Abrahamic faiths, to sins. They are “offences” against God, while a crime, on the other hand, is an act specifically designated as such by law and is an offence against the public.
Now, none of those who have posed the question under discussion to me would advocate for the criminalisation of sins, of every moral failing. Indeed, many of them would view with horror, and oppose, Islamic Sharia law because of the draconian punishments it prescribes for all manner of infractions, even though Christ’s pluck-your-right-eye-out-and-cut-off-your-right-hand injunction is no different if taken literally.
The first question I must pose in return, then, is, What is the harm to society of two adults consenting to a sexual act in the privacy of their bedrooms, or even of an open demonstration of their affection, within defensible bounds of decency, for each other? None that I can see, as long as there is consent. For the absence of consent turns even an act of heterosexual intercourse into a crime (rape, criminal assault), and into an actionable tort (assault and battery, invasion of privacy, trespass). It seems to me that this takes the wind from the sails of the argument—if ever there was any wind in it to begin with—that if gay rights are recognised as human rights, then paedophiles and pederasts, etc., must also be defended as merely exercising their human rights.
And this for the simple reason that children or minors and animals cannot give consent. Which is why, even though it would seem a strange notion to many here, there is such a thing as marital rape, which is when a husband forcefully has intercourse with his wife against her consent (which may not be given due to any number of reasons, whether good or bad not being the point). The point is the integrity and dignity of an autonomous human being.
But let me return to the argument of those who oppose same-sex relations because they do not lead to procreation. Again, a false premise of this view is that all opposite-sex relations are procreative. This group would limit sex to reproduction and nothing else. As if the human being were a reproduction machine and the marital bed a baby factory. Sheer sexual desire and pleasure would have no place in this mechanical setting of sex.
I wish these people would read Michel Foucault’s magisterial study of the origin of the repression of sexual desire in his three-volume study, The History of Sexuality. It mustn’t be forgotten that a popular interpretation of the cause of the Great Fall from Eden is that Adam and Eve knew each other, as in the manner Abraham knew his wife and they begat Isaac, and that this is the real fruit of knowledge (of themselves) that they ate.
And you have to agree that the language of Genesis 6 gives warrant for this interpretation, but I digress! If sex is justified only on the basis of reproduction as a natural duty of replenishing the earth—of obeying God’s command to so do—then what is to be done to those who fail to multiply? And why would some people be “naturally” barren and so unable to fulfil this command?
Why would some take vows of celibacy in the name of doing God’s will, especially as we now know that many of them would appear to have fled to the monasteries and convents in order to indulge their natural same-sex desires in a cloistered environment (I hope that forumites are well aware of the sex scandals, mostly of a homosocial nature, that plague the Catholic church)?
How are we to regard persons born through artificial (unnatural) insemination? What about governments that enact laws or formulate policies to limit procreation in order to control population? To act as if the human race is about to become extinct when one of the greatest human problems of our time is population explosion—7 billion plus and counting—is rather precious, if you ask me.
Some ask me pointedly, Well, if everyone were to be gay, if indeed Mr and Mrs Ifowodo had been gay, would you have been born? I always have to stop myself from laughing, seeing that those who think this to be an argument are deadly earnest. How does the obvious fact that the overwhelming majority of humanity is heterosexual escape them? Or that homosexuals do not, quite as obviously, give birth to themselves—that they are born of heterosexual parents?
Do they not see how this destroys their argument of the corruption of morals, that born and raised by heterosexual parents, some children still somehow “turn” gay and that even twins can be gay and straight? But far more objectionable is the insidious reasoning behind this view: that it is okay to oppress people if they are in the minority.
Thus, some say without a qualm that 99% of Nigerians are straight, in justification of the anti-gay law, implying that a minority tendency is by that fact alone “unnatural” and so deserving of the severest sanction. Yet it is true that the extent of a society’s civilisation is best measured by how it treats its minorities—the weak and powerless, the poor and marginalised.
I will assume that no one here would think it just and fair that the majority groups in Nigeria, quarrelsome as they may be on everything else, are always unanimous in the desire and resolve to plunder and pollute the Niger Delta; a phenomenon that the late Bola Ige described as the rest of Nigeria stealing from the Niger Delta.
Again, I repeat, it was the majority that elected to free Barabbas, a murderer, while baying for the blood of Jesus. Which they did spill on the cross, scourging and mocking him all the way to his crucifixion! And it was it was the majority of Europe, explicitly or implicitly, that believed Africans to be sub-human and so deserving of being enslaved and colonised (as Jean Paul-Satre points out in his famous preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth); and that it was the majority that watched or connived in the near extermination of the Jews.
To my mind, the real question, when all is said and done, is whether those who think that the “sin” of same-sex intercourse must be criminalised do not only judge against scriptural injunction but also hold doggedly to the view because they do not trust God to punish that among other sins on judgement day. I made this argument in my article but it doesn’t seem to have registered with them. It is as if they have ranked the sins and decided that homosexuality is the greatest, and so deserving of any cruel and inhuman punishment or treatment.
They seem to also think that homosexuality is not merely a disease but a contagious one at that. A wonder, then, that the siblings of gay persons as well as their parents, not to mention their friends, colleagues and acquaintances, do not become infected and turn gay as well! It is one more reason why they fall so easily to the seduction of ranking sins, even when Jesus poignantly forbids it.
When the Pharisee ask Jesus which commandment was the greatest, he first replies that it was loving God “with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” then very quickly adds a second, which he likens to the first, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” And then he concludes, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22: 34-40).
But why would a good Christian seek to rank sins, knowing that mere desire, whether acted upon or not, or careless utterance, can be a sin that damns one to hell? “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart,” says Jesus at the same time that he urges his disciples to pluck out their right eye and hack off their right hand as it is better to enter heaven mutilated than to go to hell whole.
Just to underline further the sanctimonious folly of ranking sins, Jesus also says, on that same occasion—the Sermon on the Mount—that whoever calls his brother fool “shall be in danger of hellfire!” I suppose one cannot stop a good Christian or Muslim from ranking sins and punishing “sinners” them here on earth, simply because such righteous persons cannot abide God’s restraining order, “Vengeance is mine,” and wait for Judgement Day.
It must be pointed out, however, that God did not empower Lot, the only straight man in Sodom/Gomorrah, and ask him to go and utterly destroy those Sodomites. Instead, he destroyed them himself, through his avenging angels. Is there a lesson here for those who will judge and jail gays?
I have gone to these lengths to explicate my position out of the utter respect I have for this forum and those who interrogated me. I have no doubt that they are driven by the best intentions—that we align ourselves only with that which is moral and life-enhancing. It just happens to be the case, for the most part, that they are wrong nonetheless.
And because it is a very sensitive subject, one that is difficult to discuss soberly, intellectually, due to its imbrication with religious beliefs and cultural taboo, I thought it necessary to exert myself a little further—if only for the purpose of my own further edification. I have written a bit on this subject but many here might not even know that I was not always a defender of gay rights.
My view as it is now evolved over time, partly because I believe that consensual intimate relations among adults are not the province of public interest, and certainly not to be criminalised by government when there is no harm to the public. Indeed, majority of those who are staunch advocates of gay rights today have had to slowly change their prejudiced view of homosexuality.
Take for instance Archbishop Justin Welby, head of the second largest Christian denomination in the world, the Anglican Communion. As recently as August last year, Welby urged Christians to “repent” over what he called their “wicked” attitude to homosexuality. Addressing an audience of traditional born-again Christians, Welby noted that the vast majority of persons under 35 years of age consider the Christian—not only Christian, of course—attitude to gay and lesbian people “wicked.” And in a view that comes close to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s, informs them that to this group of people the way gay and lesbian people are treated is no better than the racists’ in matters of racial discrimination.
What is remarkable about Archbishop Welby’s gradually softening stance is that he is a religious conservative. He voted against gay marriage in the House of Lords and even though he does not regret that vote, because “he did not believe that ‘rewriting the nature of marriage’ was the best way to end discrimination against gay people,” he is nevertheless firm in the belief that Christians must change their attitude. “[W]e have to be really, really repentant about that because it is utterly and totally wrong,” he says. He acknowledges that the “discussion [about gay marriage] is continuing and the Church is deeply and profoundly divided over the way forward on it,” but says that he is “absolutely committed” to not “excluding people who have a different view from me” and to “listening very carefully to them.”
Welby concluded his summons to reason, as I see it, on a truly humble and touching note: “I’m continuing to think and listen very carefully,” he says, “as to how in our society today we respond to what is the most rapid cultural change” in recent memory (See John Bingham, “Archbishop urges Christians to ‘repent’ over ‘wicked’ attitude to homosexuality,” The Telegraph, 28 August 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10271438/Archbishop-urges-Christians-to-repent-over-wicked-attitude-to-homosexuality.html).
Every period of momentous change comes with anxieties and fears. Nothing strange as great uncertainty tends to awaken atavistic fears in us.
The truth, however, is that those who take the risk of publicly advocating for the equal humanity and treatment of gay people are hoping, at bottom, for no more than what Archbishop Welby articulates here: a reassessment of the age-old taboo-and-sin-burdened-attitude to homosexuality. Have the humility to undergo some self-scrutiny, to yield to the superior knowledge we have today of social and biological differences and to accept that no person is perfect, none righteous: “for we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God,” “All our righteousness is like filthy rags.” And also because, love, in the end, is the greatest commandment.
After Christ’s injunction to love our neighbour as ourselves, Paul said it best: if you offer yourself as a burnt offering on the altar, and yet have no love, it is in vain. Can one really love another as oneself and wish that other to be jailed for the private expression or consummation of a sexual desire? In any case, why isn’t hellfire, which is assured all unrepentant sinners, a far more deserving punishment?
I would add this: if you know a gay person—though in Nigeria, coming out, especially now, is a dangerous thing, and the general absence of open expression of intimacy, make it harder to know any—have a meaningful, by which I mean respectful, conversation with him or her. If you won’t know any, embrace the chance to do so whenever it presents itself. Ask yourself, What would I do if my son, daughter, brother, any relative, friend or colleague, came out as gay? Would I think that he or she had become evil that very instance, when I had known him or her to be no different from me or other “normal” human beings? I say this because bigotry and chauvinism thrives best when the Other is anonymous, when we can only see him or her through the distorting lenses of stereotypes.
I thank you all for putting me to the task of re-presenting my views and in the process clarifying the issue to myself even more. Now I wish that one or two of my interlocutors would pick up the gauntlet and answer me in similar fashion from the opposite side of the argument. If you read this far, I thank you for your curiosity and patience. You will find some of what I have said repetitive, but so are the arguments in favour of maltreating fellow human beings who happen to be gay.
Professor Ifowodo, a lawyer, human rights advocate, and award-winning poet, teaches literature at the Texas Central University in the United States.
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