Why homosexuality is not a threat to the family

Friday November 6 2009

 

By MAKAU MUTUA

A pathetic – but dangerous – lie being peddled to deny gay rights is that homosexuality poses a fatal threat to the traditional institution of the family. Those who make this odious assertion have no idea what they are talking about. There is neither empirical evidence nor sound reasoning to support the bizarre and hateful statement.

Homophobes should cease and desist from making gays the whipping boys of social problems, including the breakdown of the family. Marriages and families are imperiled by cruelty, impoverishment, domestic violence, and inadequate affection. There is not a single study that even suggests that homosexuality is the cause of family dysfunction.

But there is evidence that gay marriages may in fact contribute to social stability. Forbidding individuals of the same sex who are attracted to each other from being together only heightens their social alienation and may lead to depression.

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that such alienation can often lead to less productive citizens. That is why more states are recognising gay marriages and civil unions to create strong communities. They understand that social cohesion is the condition sine qua non for human progress.

It is also clear to me that homophobes have a twisted understanding of the family. Their definition of marriage is equally lacking in complexity. Homophobes insist, for example, that marriage must be defined as the union of a man and a woman. What they conveniently forget is that in human history, marriage has had a multiplicity of definitions.

Some marriages are heterosexual and monogamous – between a man and a woman. But others are polygamous – between one man and several women. Yet others are polyandrous – between one woman and many men. However, homophobes only seem to recognise heterosexual monogamy and polygamy. It is no wonder that both forms of marriage are patriarchal and socially oppressive to women!

It is not possible to decouple heterosexuality from patriarchy, or rule by men. The two phenomena define the family so rigidly that men are the inherent overlords. In heterosexual monogamy, the husband is usually the head of the family. He presides over his wife and children, if any.

Even the Holy Bible and the Holy Koran dictate this hierarchy. In Islam, the same hierarchy is recognised in polygamous marriages where the husband is the overlord of the harem. That is why the traditional family must be demystified because it is the fundamental unit in society that nurtures the patriarchy and buttresses social conservatism. Those opposed to gay rights are really afraid that the oppressive patriarchy will be exposed.

We need to imagine the family in its complexity, and not in a one-dimensional prism. Family can be nuclear – mother, father, two children, and a dog. Family can be extended – immediate married couple and their close relatives. But we should also imagine the family as a gay union or the yoking of two homosexuals.

Consenting adults

What two gay consenting adults decide to do with their lives should be their business. Society must be humane enough to permit two loving beings – of the same sex – to realise their romantic potential. This means that the concept of the family must include those who are gay. I have argued before that the majority is not being asked to be gay. But it is being asked to let gays express their sexuality with dignity and out of the closet.

I knew at least one gay couple when I was growing up in Kitui. I know that virtually every Kenyan has known a gay person whether they admit it or not. The gay folks I knew in Kitui were the farthest thing from a threat to the traditional family. They lived in my neighbourhood and never bothered anyone. I do not remember anyone ever saying a bad word about them.

In a remarkably tolerant environment, the two elderly men lived together without raising anyone’s eyebrows. I remember wondering out loud why they had no children. My mother looked at me and said: “they have no children because they have no children’’. I discovered much later that the double negative was the hint that they were a gay couple.

I do not ever recall hearing or witnessing acts of violence in the gay couple’s home. But there was domestic violence and child abuse in many heterosexual homes in the neighbourhood. Several men were often drunk and came home to beat their wives and children.

You get my point – this demonic violence is not perpetrated by gays. Gays are not the cause of heterosexual divorces. The religious leaders and lay conservatives are wrong to blame gays for the collapse of the family. The family is under attack by oppressive patriarchy and “macho” male domination. Let’s protect gays instead of vilifying them.

Makau Mutua is Dean and SUNY Distinguished Professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo Law School and Chair of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.