Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill: I Actually Speak Up

LGBT Rights Activists

This is going to be a strange post from me, since I usually keep silent on LGBT issues in Uganda.  After reading about a 2002 campaign by Ugandan activists to deport American journalist Katherine Roubos during her internship with the Kampala-based Daily Monitor for her analytical coverage of a gay rights’ court case, I’ve never wanted to comment.  Although the articles were assigned to Roubos by her editor, who praised her “enterprising and reliable reporting,” and she did not take an editorial perspective, hundreds of Ugandans gathered that August in a rugby field to demand her deportation, calling her a “homo propagandist.”

Martin Ssempa, who I interviewed last summer for an unrelated story, spoke during the rally, and shared his google search of Roubos with the crowd.  Using the search engine, he saw that Roubos had been involved with Stanford University’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center, and accused her of being a lesbian involved in spreading not journalism, but “criminal propaganda.”  For my Ugandan readers, such centers and programs are not uncommon in the U.S., especially at colleges.  Many hold events that celebrate diversity and support the campus’ LGBT students.

Despite my silence on these issues in the past, I have to speak up.  I can’t even begin to describe how disturbing I find the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which is in a Ugandan parliamentary committee right now.  The bill is so severe it’s practically laughable; it would be satire if it wasn’t, well, real.

Homosexuality has always been illegal in Uganda, due to my favorite country’s (dated) colonial law, but this bill practically makes that draconian law look like a pride parade.  (The current law classifies homosexuality as a “crime against the order of nature.”)

Some low points:
-The bill would nullify any international treaties that don’t have an explicit anti-homosexuality sentiment.
-People engaging in homosexuality will face life imprisonment.  Those found spreading HIV through homosexual acts will be put to death, as will those who engage in homosexuality with minors and the disabled.
-Those with knowledge of homosexuals living in Uganda and don’t report the individual to the police within 24 hours can face three years in jail.
-Ugandans in the diaspora in gay relationships could be extradited back to Uganda and put in jail for life.

One big change in my life that happened as a result of living in Uganda was constantly interacting with people who misunderstand and hate gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.  At first, I felt puzzled.  How could my kind, sensitive, intelligent and empathetic friends and coworkers really feel that way about gay people? I tried to keep my own background in perspective– after all, I am a child of two progressive parents who met at San Francisco State, liberal California transplants who now live in the suburbs of New York City.  I went to Sarah Lawrence College, where you can get a degree in LGBT studies.

This was very different from the background of my treasured coworkers and friends, needless to say.  I remember a professor from Sarah Lawrence, Joshua Muldavin (my don!),  who said our lives are full of many, many contradictions– and we need to hold those contradictions in our hands, and somehow draw strength from them.  This always confused me.  Don’t these contradictions weaken us, rather than strengthen us? My life in Uganda was full of many contradictions, exposing constant complexities I had never fully considered.  The twenty-year-old me would never grasp that I could have a friendship with someone who genuinely believes that gay people have to wear “Pampers” because of their anal sex lives.  But, this is what an incredibly kind coworker and neighbor told us at an editorial meeting at New Vison, and she genuinely believed it.

There is a ton of misinformation floating around in Uganda about gay people.  For instance, some coworkers at New Vision couldn’t tell the difference between homosexuality and pedophilia, perceiving homosexuality as something synonymous with, let’s say, a Ugandan male headmaster forcing his boy students into sexual acts (what that says about the education system, I don’t know!).

Homosexuality (as presented in the Ugandan media) seems inextricably linked to defilement, the English term for molestation.  My supervisor, trying to explain how homosexuality works to editors and reporters at an editorial meeting, said sympathetically that homosexuals are traumatized, formerly defiled children who repeat the cycle by defiling other boy students.  To me, homosexuality seems as linked to molestation as heterosexuality does– after all, the New Vision newspaper was full of stories of female students being molested by men in their communities, from teachers to relatives.  But to many of my colleagues, they couldn’t explain the difference between the two.

My SIT urban host mom also did not know what the term gay meant.  One time, in Kanyanya, she asked me if Michael Jackson was a “lesbian,” and did he really defile boy children in America? This made me laugh in surprise, and I told her that lesbians were women who had relationships with other women, and that adults who molest children in the U.S. are called “pedophiles.”
What we do know is that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill under review in a Ugandan Parliament committee is, well, insane.  Just the nullifying international treaties part alone is rather crazy.

At the CHOGM meeting last Friday in Trinidad and Tobago, Canada was openly hostile to Uganda, and the UK prime minister Gordon Brown tried to bring the issue up with President Museveni.  Activists there called for Uganda to be expelled from the Commonwealth if the bill passes.

What is even more fascinating is how American evangelicals have been involved in this bill.  Last March, three American evangelicals traveled to Uganda for a conference, hoping to “expose the truth behind homosexuality and the homosexuality agenda.”  The first is Scott Lively, president of Defend the Family International, and the second is Don Schmierer, an American author who works with, yes, homosexuality recovery groups.  The third is Caleb Lee Brundidge, who has made a career as a “sexuality reorientation coach.”  This would all be laughable in the sentiment of the film “But I’m a Cheerleader” (I love Natasha Lyonne in that film!), if it wasn’t all so dangerous.

Scott Lively is one of three American evangelists linked to lethal anti-gay bill in Uganda's Parliament

These American leaders have been working with Uganda’s Stephen Langa, an evangelist who runs the Kampala-based Family Life Network.  ‘As one parent told me,” said Langa, who accuses Uganda’s gay population of recruiting schoolchildren into homosexality.  “We would rather live in grass huts with our morality than in skyscrapers among homosexuals.”  Pastor Martin Ssempa, who I had great conversations with over the summer, has said Uganda no longer cares about Western donors, now that they have “oil money.”

Contradictions, contradictions.  Uganda has sold its oil fields to Canadian and now Italian investors, and a huge chunk of the country’s budget is also financed by Western governments.  But I guess on the issue of homosexuality (rather than on the issue of, I don’t know, national sovereignty?), Uganda is happy to break with the Western world.  Unless, of course, you are breaking bread with the sexual reorientation coaches of the world, but we’ll leave that to Langa to explain.

12 responses to “Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill: I Actually Speak Up

  1. Great post, Becky. I had no idea so many American evangelists were linked to this bill. I’m interested in learning more about who funds Defend the Family International and what sorts of initiatives they are sponsoring in other African countries.

    • Thanks Lakshmi, that was speedy! I agree completely with you. It’s like they are giving up a little bit on the U.S., and using their money and energy to
      fight homosexuality in Africa instead. Rick Warren used to be a good example of this, but he recently broke with his good friend Martin Ssempa after this bill was tabled in Parliament.

  2. I am constantly amazed at how much knowledge Man thinks he has regarding ‘Natural Law’ and at how disgustingly false ‘common knowledge’ can be and at how easily and how often any group of people anywhere can come so close to such horrible evil.

    • Thanks for commenting Bryan! Great observation.

    • Yes, the talk about the natural law annoys me most especially since even as late as 10 years ago I saw women in trousers undressed on the streets of Kampala because that was “unnatural.” People would justify such acts by saying tell you that God created man and woman distinct and the woman in a trouser was trying to blur that natural distinction. Never mind that said God created us naked.
      Now we have decided that trousers are natural afterall but sex is not unless it is done the way we do it.

  3. On drawing strength from contradiction:

    If there were no contradiction, there would be no freedom. There would be no choices to be made, because, after all, everything would be obvious and easy. We would all be the same.

    Chances are, we would all be straight.

    Contradiction, in other words, is the enemy to injustice. Injustice wants everyone to be the same. Knowing this is how you draw strength to stand up against those who know you to be wrong, but this is how those who disagree with you keep you, in turn, from becoming a tyrant.

    • Thanks for commenting Alexis! There are so many contradictions in my life. The coltan in my phone fuels war in the region I love. Some of my closest friends are homophobic. Everything and nothing makes sense.

  4. Becky, thanks for posting this – making a statement – which is true, despite the known difficulties of commenting on this subject in Uganda.
    I remember very clearly, when visiting family and friends in uganda in 1999, wanting to go to the cinema and being told we couldn’t go there ‘because it was run by homosexuals’… I couldn’t understand it then… as I had some great gay/lesbian friends at the time and couldn’t understand how strongly people felt (I too was at a university where you could get a degree in LGBT studies, living in a city with a strong gay community) ….
    It has been one of the things I too have found most contradictory in Ug – with my friends and family… something so misunderstood to the point it is almost impossible to have intelligent debate on the issue. I think this bill is appalling – as I always say ‘thanks for keeping me uptodate with the issues -good, bad and ugly’. This is truely ugly.
    I think over the years (sadly) I have come to accept (note – not agree) the views of people, rarely choosing to challenge opinion or comment that I hear – but there comes a time when one has to speak up. Thank you for doing so. I hope I can also – even if it’s just to go back to quietly challenging my friends/family again.

  5. I keep telling myself, at least we are talking about homosexuality. The more hate the like of Bahati, Sempa and Langa try to spread, the more they stir up sympathy for gay people among those who don’t understand that hatred. When the New Vision first led with that story about a gay catholic priest, I felt I was one of very few Ugandans who found that improper. Now with the gay bill, the Independent magazine has done a special report criticising our homosexuality policy, Andrew Mwenda has written a very heart warming column against the bill and I have seen a couple of gay favourable op-eds in the Observer. The monitor is standing on the fence while the New Vision remains completely anti gay. As the debate rages, people, media houses and other organisations are choosing and stating their stands. The anti gay podium is looking a little less populated than it earlier did. It is becoming more and more clear that not every Ugandan is homophobic and some are even brave enough to speak out against homophobia. Of course the bill is insane but I think there is something to be gained from the debate. The bill may pass today but it will only be a first leg win. The debate will continue, gay rights advocates will have an even stronger ground to call for a change and who knows?

  6. I agree Lydia – I did some further research and found that opinions are changing and that there is a voice that is getting stronger and stronger. A debate is strong, useful device that enables people to critically consider the world around them – a sincerely hope the debate continues … that questions are asked… that an outcome is reached through considered thought.

  7. Hey Becky, insightful piece from you there. Sure, I am one of your Ugandan friends who does not condone gay issues because it is against my moral principles and deeply Christian values. I read your entry immediately after you have published it. But I needed a whole night to think clearly through it all. Truth be told, gay acceptance in my deeply cultural country, let alone Africa will not change overnight. In my country, we look as gays as deviants. The practice is not a human right. But it is a human ‘wrong.’ But this happens under so many contexts. Living in Uganda, I have known some fellow countrymen who have feigned being gays, yet they are straight, in order to attract sympathy and get the most sought US or European visa to escape African poverty. Others feign political persecution since it is easier to access a US visa than wait for the Green Card Lottery. But reading your piece, I did some soul searching: Should Ugandan MPs consider enacting tough laws to punish officials who embezzle funds, depriving AIDS victims of life saving treatment? High levels of illiteracy, poor health. Our governments have so many mundane challenges to contend with, political reforms than attempting to enforce morality. We are really badly off with poor indicators in health, education, and our policy makers ought to do more. Maybe people would not seek for foreign visas under disguise. But amidst all this, some Ugandans are not ready to quit and would prefer to continue living in our grass huts. There are many facets to this debate. If I was the President, the tough laws would be enacted for the corrupt; to the gays I would quote Luke 13:5 “I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”

  8. Pingback: Latest Update on Anti-Gay Bill in Uganda « From Kampala to New York

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