Science Misused to Justify Ugandan Antigay Law

Published: February 25, 2014

 On 24 February, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, signed a draconian Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law, after 2 months of declining to do so. Science, he says, changed his mind—in particular, the findings of a special scientific committee his Health Ministry had appointed earlier in the month. “Their unanimous conclusion was that homosexuality, contrary to my earlier thinking, was behavioural and not genetic,” Museveni wrote to President Barack Obama on 18 February, in response to Obama’s pleas that he not sign the bill. “It was learnt and could be unlearnt.”

But some scientists on the committee are crying foul, saying that Museveni and his ruling party—Uganda’s National Resistance Movement (NRM)—misrepresented their findings. “They misquoted our report,” says Paul Bangirana, a clinical psychologist at Makerere University in Kampala. “The report does not state anywhere that homosexuality is not genetic, and we did not say that it could be unlearnt.” Two other committee members have now resigned to protest the use of their report to justify the harsh legislation, which mandates life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality,” such as sexual acts with a minor, and prison terms of 7 to 14 years for attempted and actual homosexual acts, respectively.
The law was first introduced into Uganda’s Parliament in 2009, but withdrawn after widespread objections to provisions that could have included the death penalty. As he signed the new version, passed by Parliament last 20 December, Museveni claimed that “mercenaries” were recruiting young people into gay activities.
The 11-member committee, including officials from the Ministry of Health, scientists at Makerere University, and other medical researchers, was charged with reviewing scientific evidence about the causes of homosexuality. The first draft of the report concluded that “there is no definitive gene responsible for homosexuality”; that homosexuality is not a disease nor abnormal; that being gay can be influenced by environmental factors such as culture and peer pressure; and that both homosexual and heterosexual behavior need “regulation” to “protect the vulnerable.”
Dean Hamer, a geneticist emeritus at the National Institutes of Health who discovered the first evidence that homosexuality probably has some genetic basis, says “what’s fascinating about the Ugandan report is that it gets so much right about the science of sexual orientation.” The committee’s report even referred to a recent, genome-wide study confirming Hamer’s original findings.
But things began to go wrong for the Ugandan scientists when they presented their findings to Museveni, Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, and more than 200 NRM members of Parliament at a 14 February NRM meeting. Shortly afterward, NRM put out a press release, signed by NRM spokeswoman Evelyn Anite, summarizing the scientific committee’s findings and declaring that Museveni would now sign the bill “since the question of whether one can be born a homosexual or not had been answered”—supposedly in the negative. Anite denies charges that the press release distorted the panel’s findings: “I did not change anything. What I put there is what the scientists said,” Anite told Science. (Anite also asked the reporter on this story if he was a “homo” when he sought further clarification.)
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