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Scientific evidence shows that human sexual behaviour is naturally varied, and should not form a basis for discrimination, says a highly anticipated report from the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf).
The report, launched at the Seventh South African AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, last night (10 June), examines scientific evidence on sexual practices.
Diversity in Human Sexuality: Implications for Policy in Africa was commissioned by ASSAf partly in response to a growing number of laws outlawing homosexuality on the continent, including in Burundi, Cameroon, Nigeria and Uganda. ASSAf initiated the study together with research institutes from Africa and abroad, including the Uganda National Academy of Sciences.
“There was concern in the scientific community about a rising trend in Africa against gay people,” says Glenda Gray, co-chair of the study and president of the South African Medical Research Council. “As medical professionals, we believed Africa needed a consensus study from a panel of experts in Africa who could present the most up-to-date data and recommend future areas of research.”
The report found no scientific evidence supporting views that there homosexuality is in any way ‘abnormal’ sexual behaviour.
“There is now a wide global consensus among scientists that homosexuality is a normal and natural variation of human sexuality without any inherently detrimental health consequences,” it says. “In this context governments have a duty to consider scientific perspectives and draw on the most current scientific knowledge when creating policy and enacting laws.”
It also did not find any evidence that sexual orientation could be altered through therapy, that parents can raise children to be gay, nor that same-sex orientations are contagious.
“Broadly speaking, there is a strong bias against LGBTI people in Africa, though it is difficult to draw a line between the mood of people in the country and those driving the legislation.”
Matthew Clayton, Triangle Project
Instead, the report presents substantial evidence that sexual diversity has always been a normal part of human society. In fact, it concludes that tolerance of same-sex orientation benefits communities and positively affects public health, civil society and long-term economic growth.
“We found that sexual diversity is normal,” says Gray. “And if you decrease discrimination, you improve access to healthcare and management of illnesses such as HIV, and you could minimise health-related economic impacts.”
Acceptance of diverse sexual practices can also improve the mental health of people with different sexual preferences and prevent divisions within families, she says.
Homosexuality is still illegal in thirty-eight countries in Africa, according to Amnesty International.
“Broadly speaking, there is a strong bias against LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex] people in Africa, though it is difficult to draw a line between the mood of people in the country and those driving the legislation,” says Matthew Clayton, research, advocacy and policy coordinator at Triangle Project, a Cape Town-based organisation supporting the LGBTI community.
The inconsistent enforcement of anti-homosexual laws creates legal and social instability for those communities, he says.
“There is also the pervasive and untrue idea that homosexuality is ‘un-African’, and an import of the West,” he says. The report, however, flags up that there is historic evidence of homosexuality in Africa from pre-colonial times.
Clayton says the report could encourage policymakers, faith leaders and communities to learn about LGBTI people that live in their countries and “rebuff notions that can be damaging” to tolerance.
Gray shares the hope that the report may be a first step towards change.
“These are respected scientists, and by presenting their findings, their voices are hopefully heard as accurate and trustworthy and add to the mainstreaming of gender and sexual diversity,” she says.