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African (And British) Gay Rights

7th January 2010

David Aaronovitch writes eloquently about what he sees as the hypocrisy of all sorts of people who deny gayness in Africa (and elsewhere):

...are there no gays in Malawi or Uganda and have there been none, in any significant sense, throughout African history? Is it just now, as a product of globalisation, that homosexual Malawians and Ugandans have been brought into existence?

It seems unlikely. As we reported yesterday, even some anti-gay Malawian sources are quoting figures of 10,000 gay fellow countrymen. And, as we know from our own recent history, the fact that the door was closed didn’t change what was in the closet.

It seems most likely that there are millions of gay Africans pretending to be something else, or else who are tolerated as shamans, or who themselves persecute overtly gay brothers and sisters the better to escape detection.

Let me share with you two episodes from my life, which prove nothing whatsover but perhaps are nonethless interesting.

One of my first ever posts here described the famous night when I alone crushed press freedom in the UK, with a bit of help from a Scottish duty judge. Check it out.

But that evening for me as FCO Resident Clerk was one of the most memorable in my life for another reason.

On duty at about 1930 hrs I heard the telephone ring.

"Is that the Resident Clerk? It's XXX here. I'm downstairs at the Front Desk. Can you lend me £20?"

As it happened XXX was another young FCO colleague whom I'd known for a few years. On a posting in Latin America he had 'come out' in an unusually noticeable way. I had not seen him since then.

At that point in the mid-Thatcher years it was absolutely not allowed to be homosexual and a member of HM Diplomatic Service (memories of British Cold War traitors and their decadence ran deep). So XXX was having a lot of problems, still on the FCO books - parked in Resources Management Department or somesuch, in those days about as obscure and irrelevant a slot as could be found to hide him away. He spent his time writing all sorts of letters to Mrs Thatcher and others in high places arguing in vain the case for tolerance.

"Hi there Robert," said I, "Come on up".

So XXX appeared in the Clerkery rooms at the top of the FCO overlooking St James's Park. He was accompanied by a Nigerian student whom he had met on the non-stop anti-apartheid demo outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square.

XXX had been a quirky, brilliant diplomat who talked non-stop in Oscar Wilde-like witticisms. Now he was in a really bad way, having fallen out with friends and family over his gayness, with almost no money and virtually living rough on the streets.

I gave him £20. We soon started arguing to and fro about the issue of homsexuality in Africa. The Nigerian student, having been transported in a matter of minutes from the well-merited obscurity of the pavement outside the South African Embassy to the upper regions of the FCO was in a bemused but jovial mood, slapping his leg and chuckling heartily:

"Hey man, no way there are gays in Africa, no way!"

Whereas XXX insisted at great length that the British colonialists had introduced anti-homosexual laws in Nigeria (where he had served with the FCO) and elsewhere to try to suppress the problem.

This surreal exchange dragged on for several hours, with XXX in his stress getting more and more animated to the point of almost babbling, and the Nigerian student insisting that the whole idea of African gays was ridiculous.

Then the phone rang, to tell me about the Glasgow Herald story of the leaked despatch about Arabs and its potential for Huge Embarrassment. I suggested that they had to leave, as I thought that I would get busy. As indeed I did.

They disappeared off into the gloomy FCO corridors ...

The second episode came rather earlier in my life, when I was an undergraduate at St John's College Oxford.

With a long-haired Tony Blair and other future politicians noisily to the fore, the JCR had passed a pro-Gay Rights resolution.

I was in my room. A small knock on the door. And in came my fellow SJC lawyer Olara Otunnu.

Olara was a refugee scholar (his costs funded by donations from the College and Undergraduates). He had arrived at Oxford in October 1973** on a chilly early autumn afternoon. I was one of the first students he met - he was almost green from cold. He had fled Uganda after being head of the Uganda Students Union and opposing Idi Amin.

Thereafter he had settled in well and was an eloquent and engaging figure, popular for his modest self-deprecating style which made his sharp arguments about Africa and Third World issues all the more telling.

Anyway, there was Olara in my room. He asked to come in, saying that he wanted to ask me something very personal.

Olara was uncomfortable, but forced himself to ask the question: had that JCR debate about homosexuality and gay rights been a joke, or not?

I said that it had not been a joke. The issues being discussed were real enough.

Olara said that he could not believe it. In Africa people joked about English people all having bowler hats and umbrellas, and men going to bed with other men was just another such stereotypical Ugandan joke about the crazy British. Did that really happen in England?

I said that I was no expert myself, but yes, it really did happen.

Olara shook his head, shocked. It was inconceivable in Uganda, he said.

We chatted about it for some time and he departed, all the wiser.

Olara went on to very great things, not least chairing the UN Security Council during the Falklands crisis as Uganda's Ambassador to the United Nations soon after leaving Oxford - he quickly returned to favour in Uganda after Amin fell.

He is now active again in senior Ugandan politics. But finding it hard going:

The recent return to Uganda of former senior UN official, Olaru Otunnu, who is said to also be eying a top position in the coming elections, was marred by allegations that he is alternately a homosexual, impotent and married to a white woman.

In a recent interview with AFP, Otunnu accused President Yoweri Museveni of masterminding a plot to discredit him by using spurious allegations. "What is being alleged, what is being put out there to discredit and intimidate me, is that Olara Otunnu is a homosexual and HIV positive"...

Plus of course Uganda itself latterly has soared to prominence by reason of proposals for severe new legislation aimed at suppressing homosexuality, including by the death penalty for certain offences. GayUganda has plenty to say on this subject.

What happened to my FCO colleague XXX?

I never saw him again after he left the Resident Clerkery. A few weeks later he committed suicide at (I think) Beachy Head.

** Update:  an unusually worn and haggard but nonethless helpful reader points out that I originally had Olara arriving in Oxford in 1993, not 1973. Corrected as above. Accuracy is All... Apologies.

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