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.
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.