Dmytro Vovk is a visiting professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
The concept of “traditional values” is often used to justify limiting women’s and LGBTQ+ rights around the globe. Supporters of traditional values argue that certain types of marriage, family, and sexual intimacy are not acceptable because they violate the dominant values, moral foundations, and patterns of behavior that have been entrenched in their societies for many years or even centuries. Therefore, they argue, the state should ban or restrict these “other” relations as harmful and should support traditional sexual and family relations as desirable and important for social well-being. People engaging in sexual and family practices that deviate from these norms are often labeled as marginals, perverts, or even aliens of the society and the state.
As the UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity underscores in his June 2023 report,
Notions of “traditional values,” “public morals” and “national values” are commonly used in discourses that are hostile to the human rights of women, LGBT persons and religious and belief minorities, and often rely implicitly or explicitly on religious and belief norms and values, also linked with patriotism and patriarchal gender and family norms (para. 9(c), citation omitted).
How Traditional Are Traditional Values?
A usual counter to traditional values argumentation is that the line between traditional and non-traditional is often very blurred, if it even exists. Traditions can be the product of recent times, even if their supporters believe they have existed forever. Eric Hobsbawm called these traditions “invented.”
In Kyrgyzstan, Article 63.2 of the 2003 Family Code stipulates that a child has the right to a first name, patronymic, and surname. The patronymic is based on the child’s father’s given name. In June 2023, the Kyrgyz Constitutional Court declared Article 63.2 constitutional but required the government to provide adult individuals with the right to choose a matronymic instead of patronymic, for example, when a person prefers not to use a patronymic as a part of their full name because of psychological or physical trauma inflicted by their father.
The decision provoked a huge wave of public criticism as incompatible with Kyrgyz moral values. Critics, the Kyrgyz president among them, emphasized that matronymics are not traditional in Kyrgyz society and should not be used. Under pressure from such criticism, the constitutional court revoked its decision requiring a matronymic option in family legislation.
However, patronymics in the form of the middle name are not traditional in Kyrgyz society. They were implemented through legislation and social practices during the Soviet era in the twentieth century as a way to standardize Kyrgyz names with Russian names. Before that time, the Kyrgyz people had different naming traditions. For example, it was common for names to be composed of a first name and a surname, with the surname based on the father’s given name followed by a gender-specific suffix (-uulu for males and -kyzy for females).
Therefore, Kyrgyz supporters of traditional child-naming practices vocally supported practices that are not traditional for Kyrgyz society. In fact, they are quite the opposite: Kyrgyz “traditional” naming practices are an example of an invented tradition, imposed on the Kyrgyz by Soviet colonizers relatively recently.
In its decision, the constitutional court mentioned that Russian-style patronymics are not traditional for the Kyrgyz and that the decision did not affect the genuinely traditional style of Kyrgyz child-naming (for example, a female person still can’t use a male suffix). However, critics of the decision seem to regard the implementation of matronymics as a threat to the moral foundations of Kyrgyz society, notwithstanding the colonial imposition of patronymics. The court’s distinction between genuine and imposed traditions of child-naming does not persuade them and does not prevent them from criticizing the court for undermining “traditional” (and obviously patriarchal) Kyrgyz values.
The Homocolonialism Argument
To counter the traditional values narrative as a ground for LGBTQ+ discrimination and hatred, the UN Independent Expert invokes the concept of homocolonialism. This concept, in line with the Kyrgyz Constitutional Court’s argumentation, reflects the view that strict heteronormativity is not traditional for many non-Western societies, was imposed on them by Western colonizers, and now must be denied as a part of decolonization process. The UN Independent Expert underscores that
[t]he extent to which same-sex intimacy is condemned by different religious traditions is a matter for theological debate; for example, some scholars question the interpretation of passages in the Hebrew Bible and Quran used to condemn modern LGBT sexualities and identities, and it has been argued that the apparent monolithic religious censure of LGBT persons is a recent phenomenon, informed in part by “homocolonialism” and as a response to the perceived threats surrounding heterosexual family structures dominant in most faiths (para. 55).
Their colonial past certainly influences the life and development of previously colonized societies and imposes certain cultural norms on them, in particular in marriage and family. Thus, certain sexual or marriage practices can be invented tradition brought and grown by colonial authorities. But for purposes of legal regulation, it is difficult not to ask who can decide what is traditional and nontraditional for these societies except themselves, and how accusations of imposing new Western sexual norms can be avoided when promoting LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination as a part of de-homocolonization.
Decolonization versus Neo-colonization
In July 2023, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, a Kenyan American poet, author, and associate professor of literatures in English at Cornell University, declined the invitation to give a lecture at Makerere University, the oldest and largest university in Uganda. On the Brittle Paper website, he explained that he declined because of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation passed earlier this year in Uganda, which has been widely criticized as violating human rights guarantees under Uganda’s constitution as well as international human rights agreements to which Uganda is a signatory. In response to Ngũgĩ’s post, one commentator (“Dr. Fredrick Wanjala”) replied,
Thank you [for] not honouring the invitation. It will be quite embarrassing for you to come. Africa is not a dumping ground of LGBTQ ideology or consumers of what other peoples moral convictions in particular, issues to do with morality. Uganda’s government decision on LGBTQ should be respected. As a matter of fact it should be honoured. The threats by some nations and criticism by some people like you are uncalled for. Decolonization is about undoing the traumatic experience Africans and Africa as continent have been subjected too, decolonisation cannot be achieved with continued neo-colonising including ‘moral neo-colonialism’. I think you need a serious epistemological decolonisation. (Grammar and punctuation preserved.)
Another commentator (“Levi’s”) added,
Why is it people from the west who think we should follow the LGBT+ new cultural order. We have copied so much from the west and forgotten our culture and origin to the point now they feel morally superior to us. I feel proud of Uganda. We have to protect African culture and protect our sexism as we inherited it in our own African traditional aspects. (Grammar and punctuation preserved.)
These comments might be historically wrong. But what their authors claim is not historical accuracy but their right to determine what is traditional and non-traditional for their society, even if a certain tradition is invented, failing to reflect history or reality. Once a constitutional court or a UN body intervenes in the debate over the traditional nature of certain practices, they shift the focus of the discussion from the harmfulness of these practices to their nativeness and right away find themselves in the morally weak position of opposing “traditional values.”
Of course, this is not to say that international organizations and human rights defenders should not fight with all available recourses and tools against state-sanctioned violence or discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, especially in egregious cases such as Uganda’s anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. However, it seems that the homocolonialism argument conceptually fails to support this fight as it provokes neo-colonisation accusations and concerns and distracts from the fact that state-sanctioned violence against LGBTQ+ people violatesfundamental human rights and must be prohibited as such.