Tuesday, December 13, 2011

It's Complicated: What Does Good Governance Mean When It Comes To Sexuality?

Apparently, Tanzania recently rejected the UN's suggestion that polygamy should be banned within her borders. For all that we pretend we want to conform to similar standards of behavior, when it comes to sexuality that pretense falls apart completely. Tanzania is a consummate don't-ask-don't-tell society for many reasons. This is both a blessing and a curse, depending on the issue. One reaction I found interesting when giving David Cameron a little push-back on the idiotic notion that the legalization of same-sex marriages should be an aid conditionality was that this means I am Against The Gays. Time to revisit the topic of governance and sexuality, seeing as The American People are considering similar tactics.

First of all, I would like to state openly that using aid conditionality as a direct mechanism for influencing cultural/social change isn't something I support. It is a coercive tactic, and the attitude of cultural superiority that underpins such behavior is distasteful.

Sexual rights lobbying is an issue that requires information, cultural sensitivity, diplomacy and savoir-faire. Frankly it's quite enough to endure Traditional/Religious prescriptions of reproduction without adding the public sector into the mix. The Government of Tanzania cannot be left to its own devices in defining sexual deviance- the temptation to exceed it's authority would be irresistible. As it is, the incline on the uphill battle to decriminalize same-sex unions has probably increased due to the amount of attention this issue is getting. Given any more room to do so, the afrochauvinists will unite with the christianists and tip over the entire mango cart.

Here is one thing that The American People got completely right: the Fataki Campaign. Sexual rights lobbyists might want to pay attention. It has been at least two years now that we've been listening to the various skits and radio ads warning minors against sexual predation. "Sidanganyiki" has become a catchphrase and I heartily congratulate them on this achievement. Not only has it brought to light a real and very widespread sexual behavior that Tanzanian society suffers from- pedophilia- it has given minors some small glimmer of hope while shaming those adults who engage in it. Somewhat.

I work and live with people who state publicly that they find homosexuality disgusting. This is not an uncommon attitude, especially amongst christianists. However, because we take a rather liberal attitude towards these matters, it is also uncommon for this disgust to be translated into direct violence or even shunning. I am not saying that violence doesn't happen so much as we've found a way to "accommodate" the sexual continuum without stepping too hard on each others' toes. Don't ask, don't tell- it isn't ideal but it is further along the path to freedom and respect than one might think.

Cultural sensitivity is a hard principle to live, sometimes. I have had occasion to wonder at people who get very intense about their notions of sexual politics, like one lady who refused to Salsa because she felt that the male-leading-woman-following model was oppressive to the woman. Goes to show how much she knows about dancing, but I get that call-and-response is a cultural physical language that not everyone grows up with... so whatever warms her Northern European heart is fine by me. I think that the trick for everyone involved in these conversations is to remember that not everyone was weaned on Hans Christian Andersen bedtime stories.

There are only about three-ish ways in which I would support government regulation viz sexuality: the protection of legal minors and extreme punishment of those adults who prey on them, punishing non-consensual sex and sexual violence, and possibly controlling extreme behaviors that could result in public health threats*. Otherwise, frankly, the public sector should simply find a way to accommodate us. Which the GoT does: polygamous unions, de facto and de jure unions, dowry or bride-price, religious, civil or traditional...our practices are many and the mechanisms to regulate them exist. Using them well is up to us, and I think that with time we may work our way up to effective decriminalization...

Talking about perspectives, it tickles me that currently North America is growing a polyamorist lobby that is working its way up to pushing for the legalization of polygamy. I believe they might have to unite with the Mormons on this issue. Politics makes for the most wonderfully strange bed fellows. I would be most gratified to hear what Cameron and Clinton have to say about that particular sexual right. If they do not know where to begin, perhaps they can ask the offices of Jacob Zuma or King Mswati to advise their governments. What's that? Totally inappropriate? Oh, well. The offer stands.

*If you believe that same-sex sex is the worst thing out there, may I suggest you start with this here link and keep on trucking until you reach the limits of your tolerance. Ignorance is no defense. Happy trails.


  1. I think there is actually more nuance to this story than you have included. First, I believe the British have only threatened to remove aid where gay and lesbians are actively discriminate against, not where gay marriage is illegal. My understanding is that the British already actively enforce an anti-discrimination policy for aid recipients, so this is not actually a change of policy except to make gay rights explict.

    Second, the US has not threatened to remove aid, but rather to establish programs that promote gay rights as human rights. As the Americans say, it's the carot or the stick (in this case, the stick is the British and the American is the carrot). Also, I encourage you to do some research before you write: same sex marriage is only legal in a few locations in the United States. there is no way that same-sex marriages are the condition being set.

    I find all of the discussion about this these days, including your post, unfortunate. When will we stop arguing that it is ok to discriminate some people? You don't have to like someone or agree with the way they live their life to recognize that they don't need to be discriminated against. No one is saying that Tanzania has to like gay marriage, just don't tolerate discriminate against gays and lesbians!

    I agree with you that the west simply engages in another form of discrimination by outlawing polygamy. However, while multiple legal marriages are not permitted in the US, people continue to informally engage in it - including Tanzanians living in the US. While Americans may not generally like it, they are tolerant of it and there are no repercussions for it. Recently there have even been a number of tv shows featuring polygamist families. I think this is no different than what the UK and US are asking for us to do with gay couples here. You don't have to like someone, but you don't have the right to be physically or socially violent against them based on who they are.

    Finally, an idea for a future post: is aid a right? We talk as if aid is owed to us - but by whom, for how long, and at what cost? Do we ever stop and think about the unintended consequences of aid on our country and the other forms of political, economic, social baggage it comes with?
    As you said, "[Aid conditionality] is a coercive tactic, and the attitude of cultural superiority that underpins such behavior is distasteful." I think we are fooling ourselves if we believe any aid relationships are egalitarian, non-coercive, and culturally sensitive. China, US, UK, North Korea, Iran...it doesn't matter the donor - they get something out of it, too. Maybe this should be a wake up call to us think about aid relationships.

  2. Heh. Easy there Zakia, we're trying to be on the same rainbow team although I have radically different views on how to open up the sexuality space than you do. But mad respect for the response, let's see if this debate has some legs on it. Is aid a right? Well, let's see now...

  3. Elsie - Wow. Thanks for the response. Sorry if I miss read your post. One of the problems I've faced coming back right now is that everyone wants to know my opinion on this. Apparently since I have lived in the US, I am now the speaker on this for all of my friends and family. I think this is a sore subject for me right now. Great blog. Keep up the good discussions.


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