Category Archives: Anti-Homosexuality Bill

Latest Update on Anti-Gay Bill in Uganda

Before the holidays, I posted about the anti-gay bill that a Ugandan MP had introduced, and the American evangelical connections.  I was thrilled to get so many comments on the post, and to facilitate such a thoughtful discussion from people living in Uganda and the U.S. This bill was clearly huge — I saw the story (not always accurately!) everywhere, from the Guardian to the BBC, New York Times, various Ugandan publications, the Rachel Maddow Show, and many others.  I wanted to give you all the latest update on the bill, which proposed the death penalty for gay people living with HIV (a.k.a. “Aggravated homosexuality” ) and life in jail for gay people who are not HIV positive.  It looks like these parts of the bills may be scrapped, but we won’t know until Parliament begins debating the bill.

Gay activists demonstrating in Uganda. Uganda's anti-gay bill includes the death penalty for gay people living with HIV.

The international community. The reaction to this bill has been huge.  The international community has a lot of weight in Uganda– about a third of Uganda’s budget is donor-financed (European Union, individual European countries like Sweden, etc.) , and many Ugandans depend on the U.S. government for antiretroviral drugs through PEPFAR.  Museveni went to this year’s CHOGM and was criticized by Commonwealth leaders, a big deal if you remember all the money and time spent on promoting Uganda’s image at CHOGM in 2007, when the summit was held in Kampala.  Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, the U.N.’s top human rights official, and some prominent American senators coordinating support of the Ugandan military in fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army condemned Uganda.

Reaction to the bill within Uganda. Most Ugandans didn’t seem to realize that homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, and thought the bill would forbid the practice.  Some thought the bill was meant to protect children from pedophiles.  Very few seemed to realize the bill would execute gay people with HIV.  When the Swedish government said it would no longer finance Uganda’s budget if they began executing gay people living with HIV, most Ugandans thought the Swedes said they would withdraw support to Uganda if Ugandans did not support homosexuality.  Many Ugandans reacted as if the Western world were forcing Ugandans to be gay or support gay people, blackmailing them with foreign aid.  Many Ugandans reacted as if the western world was imposing a gay lifestyle on them, then threatening to withdraw support for the neediest Ugandans if they didn’t comply.  Pastor Martin Ssempa, a prominent anti-gay activist in Uganda who runs the Makerere Community Church, is planning a million-man march in Kampala to support the bill.  President Museveni has tried to assure donors quietly that the bill will not pass, but top Ugandan officials said Uganda can live without the foreign aid.  One American senator wanted to threaten Uganda’s AGOA trade status, a special status for Ugandan goods in the U.S that is supposed to make trader easier.

Pastor Ssempa said people attending the march could take a photo and send it as a postcard to Barack Obama.  He described the Western world as failed states for supporting homosexuality.  A few Ugandans have spoken out against the bill, such as prominent lawyer and academic Sylvia Tamale, who is writing a book on how homosexuality is conceptualized in African countries (Uganda? East Africa? other African countries as well? I’m not sure).  A muslim cleric called for special squads to hunt down gay people in Ugnda, adding his hateful voice to the mix.

And for the American evangelicals?

In the U.S., the American evangelicals who helped MP David Bahati draft the bill faced a considerable backlash, and were criticized for importing an American cultural war into East Africa.  Evangelicals like Scott Lively said they didn’t realize what was in the bill being drafted, and were just trying to protect Ugandan families.

Personally, I’m a bit exhausted of the story.  I hope the bill doesn’t pass, and wish Uganda was in the news for something other than anti-gay legislation.  The 2011 elections are next year, and I am concerned about the potential human rights abuse that could explode.  The underlying fear of course is that there could be violence a la Kenya, but Uganda has always been less ethnically divided in Kenya, despite the September riots (the Buganda kingdom’s clash with the central government).

There was a disturbing incident where opposition candidate Olara Otunnu’s car was run off the road by the presidential guard brigade, which has barely been covered in the local press, and not covered in the international press.  Hillary Clinton has said she will observe Uganda in the 2011 elections.  The opposition has largely united and plans to field a common candidate.  You can follow election coverage through Africa Connections here, which is updated daily with the latest bit of news about the elections.  50 female Ugandan political activists were arrested yesterday, for a demonstration calling for the Electoral Commission boss to step down.  You can read more about that here, on the Voice of America website.  The Daily Monitor and New Vision have also covered the story.

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.