Down to the Wire: Actual Science vs. Uganda's 'Scientists'

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com February 21 2014 8:36 PM ET

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has gone back and forth in recent weeks on whether or not he will sign the country's so-called Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which would impose lifetime prison sentences for certain instances of homosexuality. 

Now he's asking for U.S. support in determining whether or not people choose to be gay. Once that issue is resolved, he says he'll sign the bill.  

In an article published in Uganda's daily paper The Observer, Museveni chastised President Obama for criticizing Museveni's announcement that he intended to sign the bill into law. Last week, Obama urged Museveni not to sign the bill, saying that it would "complicate our valued relationship with Uganda."

Museveni responded to Obama's comments in his editorial Friday, discouraging the president from "taking the line that passing this law will 'complicate our valued relationship' with the USA. …'Valued relationship' cannot be sustainably maintained by one Society being subservient to another society. There are a myriad acts the societies in the West do that we frown on or even detest. We, however, never comment on those acts or make them preconditions for working with the West."

However, Museveni did acknowledge that even the so-called scientists who prepared a report at the president's request, which declared that homosexuality was "socially acquired" and curable, were unable to say with certainty that same-sex attraction was a learned behavior. Nevertheless, Museveni's article mentions several times that he wants to sign the bill and claims that the current debate was sparked by "Western groups who come to our schools and try to recruit children into homosexuality." 

Stil, Museveni asked the U.S. for help determining, once and for all, if LGBT people really are born that way. 

"I, therefore, encourage the US government to help us by working with our Scientists to study whether, indeed, there are people who are born homosexual," wrote Museveni. "When that is proved, we can review this legislation. I would be among those who will spearhead that effort. That is why I had refused to sign the Bill until my premise was knocked down by the position of our Scientists."

Those scientists were primarily current lawmakers in Uganda, and all of them are members of Museveni's ruling National Resistance Movement party. Some of the lawmakers reportedly had "medical backgrounds," but the report they produced, published as a two-page press release free of scientific citations or empirical evidence, was still unable to declare with certainty that same-sex attraction is not innate. 

American geneticist Dean Hamer, who is best known for his efforts to catalogue the genetic roots of sexual orientation and his biotechnological contributions to the fight against HIV and AIDS, published an open letter to those Ugandan scientists on Nicholas Kristof's blog for The New York Times Thursday

Inviting his Ugandan colleagues to reconsider their conclusions and issue a revised report, Hamer systematically debunked each of the report's six claims about homosexuality. 

First, Hamer took on the report's claim that "There is no definitive gene responsible for homosexuality."

"The presence or lack of a single gene says nothing about the overall extent to which a trait is influenced by heredity," Hamer wrote. "There is also 'no definitive gene responsible for' skin color, height, handedness or many other innate human characteristics because these traits, like sexual orientation, are influenced by multiple genes acting in concert with one another. That doesn’t make the traits non-genetic, it just makes them complex."

Hamer's subsequent takedowns of the unscientific claims were short and sweet. Regarding the conclusion that homosexuality is not a disease, but "merely an abnormal behavior which may be learned through experiences in life," Hamer cited his own genetic studies of gay twins.

"There is no scientific evidence that homosexual orientation is a learned behavior any more than is heterosexual orientation," Hamer said. "Indeed the absence of a significant shared environmental component in twin studies provided statistical evidence that this is not the case."

Hamer devoted just two sentences to debunking Ugandan scientists' claims that same-sex attraction "can be influenced by environmental factors, such as culture, religion and peer pressure," and that it "needs regulation like any other human behavior especially to protect the vulnerable."

"Although sexual activity can clearly be influenced by environmental factors, including laws, the underlying orientation is immutable," Hamer stated definitively. "The most vulnerable are those who would be put into prison for the rest of their life for expressing their natural love for another person."

Hamer concluded by reminding Ugandan lawmakers that the virulent anti-LGBT environment was fostered by right-wing, antigay, American evangelicals — like Scott Lively, who is currently facing charges of crimes against humanity for promoting LGBT persecution to Ugandan lawmakers. 

"It is an important time for African scientists, and indeed scientists around the world, to stand up for a more rational and less biased view of human sexuality," Hamer said.

Indeed, even President Museveni's letter asked for additional scientific evidence. Acknowledging that the Ugandan report revealed no specific gene responsible for sexual orientation, Museveni asked the scientists to clarify "whether a combination of genes can cause anybody to be homosexual. Then my task will be finished and I will sign the Bill."

Human rights advocate and founding director of Freedom and Roam Uganda, one of the nation's oldest LGBT organizations, Kasha Jacqueline reported on Twitter that Museveni is expected to sign the bill into law Saturday. "We did our best and will not stop now," she tweeted.

That will be "my second worst day in my life," she wrote Thursday. "But also it will rejuvenate my energies. Still strong and fighting until the end."

Ultimately, however, Museveni's signature may not even be required to make the bill becp,e law. LGBT activists in Uganda note that if the President takes no action on the bill by Sunday, it will automatically return to parliament, where it only needs to be brought up again to formally enshrine it into law. Those activists have released a list of ways the international community can support and advocate for LGBT Ugandans — find out how you can help here.