Crazy little thing called science: diversity in human sexuality

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“Thirty-eight of fifty-three African nations criminalise homosexuality, thereby imposing varying degrees of legislative restrictions on sexual desires and practices, and on the fulfillment of human rights of individuals. Furthermore, the stigmatization and criminalization of homosexuality has made public health interventions, particularly with respect to HIV prevention and treatment, difficult to implement effectively.”

From Diversity in Human Sexuality: Implications for policy in Africa 

I recently found myself skipping dessert (a rare occurrence) as my African dinner companions turned to religion, culture and biology to convince me that homosexuality is, in fact, the scourge of our time. Immoral, ‘un-African’ and unnatural, they saw only one sensible strategy for dealing with this ‘despicable’ Western import: the full and immediate criminalization of all homosexual behaviour.
What threw me was not the validity of their arguments (thank you, science) or their well-rehearsed rhetoric (thank you, Cicero).  I quite simply felt uncomfortable challenging their assumptions. How do you argue with religious convictions, or with cultural traits and traditions? How do you go about debunking myths that have become so strongly entrenched, and that are seemingly so central to these views on sexuality? 
Most importantly: how do you do any of this with enough tact to chip away at these attitudes and build some understanding?


(Image: European Pressphoto Agency b.v./Alamy)

A groundbreaking report by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAF) has just made that task a little bit easier. To support informed discussions and debate, it tackles questions that go to the heart of the prevailing myths surrounding homosexuality.  What explains the diversity in human sexuality? Can same-sex orientation be ‘acquired’ through social contagion? Is there any evidence that it poses a threat to children, or that it can be changed through therapy or treatment? 

The report unpacks these and other questions and provides thoughtful, scientifically sound answers. Drawing on biology, genetics, anthropology and history, it presents powerful arguments that should help policy-makers decriminalize homosexuality:

“Examining the biological factors, including genetic, neurohormonal and other factors, the report concludes that contemporary science does not support thinking about sexuality in a simple binary opposition of hetero/homosexual and normal/abnormal.  Rather, it favours thinking in terms of a range of human variation, very little of which can justifiably be termed abnormal. 

As variation in sexual identities and orientations has always been a part of a normal society, there can be no justification for attempts to ‘eliminate’ LGBTI from society.  Efforts should rather be focused on countering the belief systems that create hostile and even violent environments for those who are made to feel alienated within societies that privilege male power across political, social and family domains."

Let’s be clear: no report is going to cause the kind of change that is needed.  Until that day comes, some of us will continue to question, challenge and offend the views of those around us in the hopes of dismantling hurtful stereotypes. Others will opt for quiet resistance, choosing not to offend but ready to stand with the group of gender equality supporters as it grows. And it is growing, at rates we perhaps didn’t quite expect yet – with thanks, finally, to Ireland and the US.

Parliamentarians have a different option. They can – and should - voice the opinions of those who have been left on the sidelines, and lend some much-needed legitimacy to the LGBTI movement. Grand gestures might not be politically feasible, but small steps can go a long way.  Speaking to activists, inviting them to hearings or simply raising the issue can help take homosexuality out of the penal code and into parliament.

My African companions argued that politicians have ‘a responsibility to protect their country, their culture and their people’.  I couldn’t agree more - so let’s start by getting our facts straight.

To read the 'Diversity in Human Sexuality: Implications for Policy in Africa' report, please click here.  

Photo credits: Dai Kurokawa/EPA

This is a blog post by Lotte Geunis, Parliamentary Development Officer at the United Nations Development Programme.