Sponge Bob is my six-year-old niece’s favourite cartoon.
“Sponge Bob, Square Pants! Sponge Bob Square Pants!” she sings with glee each time the programme comes on, as my one-year-old daughter dances to the beat.
Sponge Bob is also one of the numerous supposedly gay characters that seem to be part and parcel of movies of all genres.
While series creator Stephen Hillenburg has himself said Sponge Bob is asexual, critics say they have put two and two together and concluded that Sponge Bob is gay. At the 2012 gay parade in New York, life-sized images of Sponge Bob were displayed with pride.
To the gay people with whom he is popular, Sponge Bob is a symbol of how far the media has come - from bashing and ridiculing homosexuals to loving and celebrating them. Glee, American Dad, Family Guy, Brothers and Sisters, Desperate Housewives, Modern Family … even without Sponge Bob, the list of works of fiction with gay characters is endless. Chances are, your son or daughter has seen a gay couple kiss and has unresolved questions.
“Is that a man or a woman?” my niece once asked when she saw two male characters caressing on the screen. That was the week before she came home and told me a boy at their school is gay.
Like many parents with no answers, her mum had grabbed the remote and changed channels. But is it possible to simply shut out the almighty Hollywood? Or should you face homosexuality square and put it on the discussion board with your children?
Most parents in Uganda prefer to keep silent – they simply pretend that gay people do not exist.
“A lot of young (gay) people and parents come to me. Sometimes they are contemplating suicide. Many times they are very depressed. I do not know what to tell them because I do not know much about homosexuality,” says a renowned counsellor in the country.
He adds that like him, most parents do not understand homosexuality and need knowledge before they can begin to talk about it. When it comes to homosexuality in Uganda, the entire nation gropes on in darkness and fear. The notion that all homosexuals are predators, the calibre of shamed Cranes manager Chris Mubiru, ready to pounce on minors at every opportunity, further perpetrates this idea.
“But not all gay people are recruiting or were recruited. We are not sex offenders. It is not all about sex,” says gay rights activist Frank Mugisha.
Yet to many parents, tales of homosexuality are just that - tales.
“How can someone be gay?” asks a father of five in his fifties. “If my child is gay, I take him for prayer.”
Taking gay children for prayers or counselling so that they can change is known as reparative or conversion therapy and is the solution most favoured by Ugandan parents who believe their children cannot be gay. And if they are, they can be cured.
“I would love my child but take them for prayers so that the demon can be removed,” says a young mother in her 20s.
However, reparative therapy has been discredited by major psychologist organisations as ineffective and even harmful.
A man in his 30s says: “My mother knows I am gay, but she would rather not talk about it. I know she loves me but I think she does not know what to do with me.”
Much as it is hard for gay children, their parents face challenges that are hard to surmount. It is hard for them to deal with the fact that their child has departed from what culture and religion has taught them to expect.
“It was hard for my wife and I to let go of all the dreams we had for our son. It is hard to come to terms with the fact that you may never have grandchildren,” says David Otoo, a member of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), an American support group that helps gays’ loved ones come to terms with their sexuality.
In Uganda, there is no such organisation, but there is consensus that such an organisation would go a long way in addressing homosexuality issues among young people.
“We have never thought about it, but that would be a good idea. The only question is if the parents would be willing to come on board,” says Clare Byarugaba, advocacy officer at the Constitutional Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law.
“There is still a lot of stigma even against them.”
Photo link: Guillaume Paumier