I wish to argue in this short discourse why I think the signing into law of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act of 2013 by President Jonathan on 30th December, 2013 is very precipitate and ill-advised. Making this argument in itself is risky: it is nearly impossible in our environment to have a reasoned discourse on sensitive issues like this one, but I believe a dialogue is needed for the sake of those on the margins, the homosexuals of today and tomorrow.
Secondly, traditional cultural values autochthonous to Nigeria reject homosexuality in its entirety; there seems to be no place for a homosexual person in traditional Nigerian society; it is nearly impossible for people to shift their position on this especially when they see things in black and white. However, I will appeal to people not to draw quick conclusions on this piece without attending to the arguments which I shall put forward. I am calling for conversion on the part of all Nigerians in order to make some needed intellectual, spiritual, religious, psychological, moral and cultural transition needed in finding a way to address the reality of the presence of people with homosexual orientation in our country and in the world.
Cultural and religious systems being historical are constantly challenged not to use old answers to meet new questions, and to stretch themselves in the face of new questions which were not often clearly understood and interpreted in the past. Such a shift in the center of value is not something that happens overnight because social changes are gradual, dialectical, tension-filled, and crisis-generating and sometimes may lead to a death of aspects of a society in order for something new to arise. In order to make it possible for a civilized debate, I wish to summarize my arguments in three propositions:
1. Banning same-sex marriage in Nigeria is unnecessary, the customary, Canonical, and Sharia laws operating in Nigeria and our statutes are clear that marriage in Nigeria is between a man and a woman. No one has challenged this law. My argument is that we do not need another law. The question is: Who is breaking this law and who is posing a threat to this law? The people who are posing a threat to our family life in Nigeria are people who are cheating on their wives or husbands; people who are breeding children who they cannot take care of, people who are committing all kinds of child abuse and neglect; people who take their family members to cities as maids and treat them like slaves and sometimes send the female ones home when they get pregnant; absentee fathers and some mothers who know how to ‘beget’ children and not how ‘to bring up’ children. Homosexuals in Nigeria pose no threat to family life and values in Nigeria today, hence this law is of no use.
2. Being a homosexual from research available to me is not a choice ( I am open to being helped with research that argues for the contrary); there may be some people who may have chosen to ‘experiment’ with a gay life style, but being someone, and acting like you are someone are two different things. We must, therefore, separate being and acting in this discourse; who you are is a gift from God like St Francis of Assisi once said: Who I am before God that I am indeed! If I was born a homosexual, that is who I am; it is not my choice; how I act according to who I am is my choice which is open to moral evaluation; if you condemn me for being who God made me, you are condemning God who made me the way I am; so we must separate the reality that someone was born a homosexual from the fact that someone is committing a homosexual act. If a homosexual person is fornicating, his or her action of breaking the moral law is open to moral judgment because every human act is to be judged to the extent to which they conform to the ultimate moral demand.
Homosexuality is a human reality, so it is not simply a Western reality; there are some Nigerian brothers and sisters we know who are homosexuals, they deserve our love. Human realities are mysteries which we must embrace with openness, respect, sensitivity and love in order to understand what they reveal to us about God and human nature especially about the diversity and complexities of human nature which can never be understood through a single narrative. I marvel at the rich tapestry of human diversity, which reflects the diverse relations of the three-person God.
3. We need greater internal cultural, religious and spiritual conversation and discernment in Nigeria, Africa and the rest of the world as to how to appropriately integrate homosexual persons into society without violating their human dignity and their rights to live abundant life and without doing harm to the common good. Such a conversation I am proposing cannot be had if either in Nigeria or in the West people propose laws which ban or allow a reality which we have not fully understood. We need more evidence about why homosexuality has been with us since human history and why there is a changing attitude and changing understanding of homosexuality and acts associated with it across different cultural, religious, and spiritual settings. In a more concrete sense for example, why will Desmond Tutu, Mandela, Soyinka and a few others have a more tolerant attitude to this issue than some other African spiritual, political, and academic leaders?
It means that this issue has no straight forward answers and no law will put paid to the issue whether in Nigeria or Canada or USA. However, the answer to this human reality of homosexuality is not through any juridical positivism or legislative activism for or against same sex marriage. These polarized positions are often ideological driven or couched as in Nigeria’s case in appeals to one or more aspect of a misleading claim of a pristine common and unchanging cultural traditions against homosexuality.
Many Nigerians will like our country to play a leading role as the moral beacon of Africa and the world. Many of us agonize that the promise of this great land has not been realized and that our land has been taken over time and again by those who abuse the high privilege of political office, and manipulate our rich cultural, economic and spiritual values for cheap political gains. The idea that signing the prohibition of same sex law sends a clear message to Western nations that Nigeria cannot be dictated to by them and that Nigeria will not kowtow to the social experimentations in the West with regard to marriage seems to me a less than ideal justification for a law that is not well thought out.
Furthermore, if the prohibition of same-sex marriage is the express goal of this law, some of us will not be worried. But to go ahead and legislate and criminalize against free association by people of same-sex orientation (section 7, a-i) and deny them the freedom to live together seems to me to be an invasion of people’s privacy and an affront against their rights. Why should the Nigerian state arrogate to herself the right to determine what goes on in people’s private homes? How can this law presuppose that two same sex people living together must be involved in an ‘amorous relation’ as if to say two people who love each other deeply whether homosexual or heterosexual cannot live together without being intimate? In making same-sex association a crime, and asserting or implying prima facie that same-sex persons when they gather may be doing so for ‘amorous reasons’, this law goes beyond the dictates of natural law and leaves a big hole for all kinds of discrimination and prejudice against same-sex people.
I have attended gatherings of same-sex Christians who come together to pray and seek for divine illumination in their search for identity and for a place in a very hostile and judgmental world. I have an ongoing pastoral relation with a Lutheran pastor who has a ministry to LBGTs here in Toronto and I have attended some of their social functions and did not see any ‘amorous acts’, but a feeling of joy, friendship and peace and a search on how they can experience God’s love through association with the church and society at large. The greatest threat to our moral health in Nigeria is not homosexuality or acts associated with homosexuality. Even in Jerusalem and Rome—the holy lands of Christianity and Judaism—while same-sex marriages are not allowed, people with same-sex attraction are not criminalized for being who they are, hence they are allowed to self-identity their sexual orientation and to freely seek political position, to join the Israeli military, to attend religious rites, go to clubs, and to freely choose who they want to be with.
I am afraid that this law is only a political distraction and a populist act by President Jonathan. It is very troubling to use homosexuality—something which concerns the wellbeing of some Nigerians—as a tool in an increasingly confused moral platform of our stinking and sinking political leadership.
In coming out with this poor and unjust legislation without much deliberation and conversation, Nigeria has lost yet another golden opportunity as it has lost in many instances in the past of helping Africans and the rest of the world to come to a fuller and better understanding of the issues and dimensions of the debate on the rights of same sex persons. My argument here is the same which I have advanced in conversation with Westerners: the rush to legalize same-sex marriage as in the West or to criminalize same-sex marriage as in Nigeria is a waste of time.
Homosexuality or acts associated with it will not go away simply because you have a law against it, because it is has remained as a part of human nature and human reality since our human evolution. People with homosexual orientation will not be fully accepted in society because you have a law which allows same-sex marriage nor will same-sex persons and acts associated with such alternate sexuality disappear in Nigeria because we now have a law that takes care of the people whom we consider as abnormal in our limited world of reality and perception.
I am looking forward to a day when one nation or religion can set up a commission of moralists, psychologists, geneticists, spiritual masters and socio-cultural anthropologists to look at the evidence on homosexuality and come out with a conclusion on what is going on within the biological, spiritual, genetic, and psychological set up of the homosexual person so that we can make our laws and judgments based on evidence not from our uncritical and biased locus of enunciation. This was how people in the past were able to understand the issues associated with Ogbanje, abiku, sickle cell, stroke, high bp, the killing of twins etc. Without scientific evidence, it is hard to draw any conclusion that homosexuality is a choice; my own reading of research available to me tells me that it is genetic in most cases.
We cannot make judgment in charity about homosexuality if we have not fully and deeply entered into the world of the person, walked in the person’s shoes so as to journey with the person in finding answers to how he or she can live fully the life God has given. When in doubt do not act is an ancient axiom and that was why Pope Francis asked the world when it comes to the question of homosexuality that we should not rush to judgment; we should get sufficient facts and evidence before making our judgment.
What is my own conclusion? At the personal level, I am calling for more dialogue on this issue. My tentative conclusion after many years of ongoing research, ministering to and associating with homosexual persons, and after prayerful reflection is that there are some homosexuals who have not chosen to be homosexuals; they deserve our love, understanding, support, and compassion. Let me also add that this was not something I embraced simply because I moved to Europe or North America. When one of my friends was dismissed from the seminary in Owerri because he admitted that he had homosexual orientation in 1994, I was very sad and confused. I felt then as I feel today that we (Nigerian society) have not understood homosexuality hence the quick judgment that they are ‘abnormal’ and do ‘unnatural acts.’ In many cases we suspect them of being evil and judge them even before they act as we have done in the law signed by President Jonathan.
Have we stopped for a moment to put ourselves in the shoes of someone struggling with his or her sexuality and how we can embrace this person in his or her journey? I believe that we can do better for homosexuals and the marginalized of our world by first immersing ourselves in their world, understanding that world and being with them in the places of pain, emptiness and confusion. This is the only way we can accompany them in making the moral choices which will fulfill their deepest desire for God, for healthy relationships with people so as to ‘make heaven.’
I try to separate the homosexual person who like any of us is genuinely searching for a relationship with God, a desire for self-acceptance, and a true and respectful relationship and friendship with people, from a gay activist. If we examined what goes on in some of our high schools and universities and among some highly placed men and women in Nigeria, there is a burgeoning homosexual culture which should be condemned in unmistakable terms. The reprehensible immoral exploitation of little girls and boys by ‘senior’ boys and girls in high schools and universities and colleges; and the abuse of our young people either heterosexually or by aberrant homosexual ‘ogas’, ‘madams’, and men and women of God should be seen for what they are: unmitigated evils which cry to heaven for vengeance.
There are many sexual aberrations and misdemeanors in our country today, but whether they are homosexual or not, we need to elevate our sexual morality to a higher tenor to clean our society of the scourge of adultery, sexual exploitation of our women by powerful men in high places; sexual exploitation and harassment of our young girls by our politicians and the ‘ogas on the top’ and sexual abuse of vulnerable people by the powerful in our families, religious institutions, and public places.
Thus the affront on marriage by gay activists which promotes any and all kinds of sexual behavior in the name of procuring rights for the homosexual persons as we see in the gay pride parades in Western cities may not be the answer we can give in Nigeria to meeting the cries of our homosexual brothers and sisters for recognition and a healthy space to live fully the lives God has given them. Every society must seek from within its religious and cultural resources the transformation and transition needed in order to meet the inevitable complexity which comes with social changes and the diversity of modern life. Religious and cultural traditions are never frozen in time, but constantly make fundamental shifts to meet the demands of progress and change.
In addressing the perceived inadequacies of this Nigerian law, the international community must understand that one cannot push away people’s cultures and traditions in order to support and advance their cultural and human development and the modernization of their societies. The challenge today for Nigerians is for us to engage in a critical and open dialogue on how the common good of all people especially gays and other marginalized minorities could be protected and promoted. We need a national dialogue on how to develop more openness and honesty in addressing issues of sexual morality and sexual identity in our country, and how to develop a healthier sexual morality across the board from the top to bottom. The gay marriage right discourse tends often to paper over the needed dialogue within communities on the dignity, nobility, and inestimable value of every human person irrespective of his or her sexual orientation, color, sex or creed. Enforced rights do not often change entrenched attitudes.
Rights are not tokens from one person to another but are claims which arise from who we are as equal persons before God. These rights also come with duties and obligations. Rights emerge from natural law discoverable through reason and from a community’s identity and appropriation of the ultimate good through the ordination of the acts of members to laws which promote, preserve and protect the common good. Time has come for African societies to mine the inner and dynamic resources of their cultural and religious traditions in order to find a new openness to dialogue about how to love, respect, and tolerate our brothers and sisters whose sexuality being an intrinsic part of their personality is the gift which they offer to our world. There should be a place in our society for those who do not think like we do, who do not act like we do and who do not look like us; this is the path to a better and more tolerant society.
The mentality in Nigeria that because I am Igbo I have to prefer only Igbo people or because I am Catholic I should consider Pentecostals inferior or because I am heterosexual I am better than a homosexual person should be changed if we can move forward as a nation otherwise we will be enjoying the false bliss of those who live in the innocent and commonsensical cave world of undifferentiated consciousness, enslaved in our own national bias and presumed superior cultural hubris which will only blight our perception of higher consciousness against insight and against progress.
I wish to conclude this discourse with a short reference to what Aquinas who is often cited in this argument thought of about natural law.
For Aquinas (Summa Theologie, 1a-11ab, q. 94, a. 2) natural law is an inclination towards the good which is discerned through reason and which conduces towards the common good. These inclinations are common to all human beings and include the inclination to preserve and develop one’s existence; the inclination to procreate in order to survive and sustain the species through reproduction; and the inclination which is specific to human beings as rational and spiritual beings to desire the truth, to embrace the truth and to enter into relationships with God, fellow human beings and the world of nature. Linked to this is the inclination to live in a healthy and well functioning society where everyone has equal opportunity and where everyone is accepted as a person no matter the person’s race, sex, sexuality, religion etc. It is because of this precept of the natural law which is written into the very fabric of our soul that we feel a sense of anger when we see or hear of injustice in our world, or when we see human sufferings or experience betrayal or injustice.
The duty of working for justice and making the necessary sacrifices to make this world with all its ambiguities and complexities to conform to God’s will of the coming of God’s kingdom is one which all human beings embrace each in his or her own way. This is because there is an inclination in us towards promoting the good of order because we all wish to live in a well ordered and functioning society where we can flourish with others. Is the homosexual inclination against this order?
What Aquinas calls an inclination is what Augustine referred to as desire when he said for instance that the desire I have for God is deeper and closer to me than I am to myself. The paradox of our human existence is our desire; it is the root of all good or evil in the world because most human acts begin with desire. But Augustine and Thomas after him argue that the true human desire is the one that leads to God and the realization of these four inclinations which I have indicated above. This is where the matter lies: we all desire to procreate, to love God, to love one another, to preserve and protect our lives and that of our communities and our world. Not all of us will fulfill that desire through our acts either because we are incapable of doing so or because we have chosen to fulfill that desire through other means (Matthew 19:12).
There are many women and men who desire to have children but they cannot, I am sure that they are contributing to the good of our human species through other means. There are people like me who can make babies but have chosen to live a celibate life so that we can freely give of ourselves in total and unrestricted service to our brothers and sisters, I am sure no one will accuse me and other Catholic priests of warring against procreation.
Understanding the deeper meaning of Aquinas’ natural inclination and nature as that which is essential to who I am helped me to see homosexuality in a different light. I see homosexual persons as a gift not because of what they cannot do or what gay activist want them to embrace as rights, but rather because of what they can do and who they can become if we supported them to channel their desires to the greater good of society which begins for me by falling in Love with God who is that Absolute Unconditioned Love in whom all our differences melt away.
Stan Chu Ilo, is a Catholic priest from Adu Achi, Enugu State, Nigeria.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SaharaReporters