Uganda to Pass Anti-Gay Legislation

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday December 4, 2009

The African nation of Uganda is poised to pass a bill that will criminalize--and severely punish--being gay, under a new class of crime labeled "aggravated homosexuality." Infractions such as homosexual contact with a minor or a disabled individual would be punished with the death penalty under the bill; so would transmitting HIV to another person or having repeated sexual encounters with members of the same gender. Individuals knowing of gay relationships but not turning in the people involved would be criminally liable, even if they were not gay themselves. Sexually propositioning a person of the same gender would also be a criminal offense.

The bill's measures are so severe that the Anglican Church has denounced it--and so have some American evangelicals, reported a Dec. 3 Spero News article. Moreover, U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown voiced his concern over the bill to the Ugandan president--all without any evident effect. The country's politicians and clerics continue to voice support for the measure and to speak out against gays and gay relationships.

The author of the Spero News item, who is based in Uganda and Kenya, offered insight into the Ugandan psyche. "In Africa life and fertility are sacred; anything that stunts or blocks them, such as sterility or unnatural acts, like homosexuality, are considered a curse," wrote Martyn Drakard. "Most Ugandans are Christians, with a minority of Muslims. Both faiths support the value of life and family. End of the story. Ask any Ugandan in the street: university professor, lawyer, building-site worker or the woman sweeping the street. It is non-negotiable."

There is likely to be fallout internationally over the measure. A Dec. 3 article at the Daily Monitor said that the Swedish development assistance minister, Gunilla Carlsson, indicated that the $50 million in support that Sweden provides to Uganda each year might be imperiled by passage of the bill. Said Carlsson, "We've talked about it in Uganda, and I've also tried to speak to the kind of organizations in Uganda that are the target of the legislation."

Calling the bill "appalling," Carlsson added, "I'm doubly disappointed, partly because Uganda is a country with which we have had long-term relations and where I thought and hoped we had started to share common values and understanding. The law is wretched, but it's also offensive to see how Ugandans choose to look at how we see things, and the kind of reception we get when we bring up these issues."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also spoke out, though in more general terms, against institutionalized homophobia and anti-gay laws in nations that receive financial support from America in fighting AIDS and HIV. "Obviously, our efforts are hampered whenever discrimination or marginalization of certain populations results in less effective outreach and treatment," Clinton said, according to a Nov. 30 article. "So we will work not only to ensure access for all who need it but also to combat discrimination more broadly," Clinton continued. "We have to stand against any efforts to marginalize and criminalize and penalize members of the LGBT community worldwide."

Said Council for Global Equality's chairman, Mark Bromley, "The United States must make it absolutely clear to Uganda that the passage of the bill, which includes a death penalty provision and criminalizes those who fail to report suspected homosexuals to the authorities, would substantially impact our bilateral relationship and our health investments in that country."

But in the religious and private spheres, the price for passing such a law might be limited. Pastor Rick Warren, the American mega-church founder who has done considerable charitable work in Africa, including in Uganda, has declined to issue a denunciation of the law; Warren told Newsweek's Human Condition blog, "The fundamental dignity of every person, our right to be free, and the freedom to make moral choices are gifts endowed by God, our creator. However, it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations," reported Boing Boing on Dec. 2.

Warren reiterated those sentiments during an appearance on Meet the Press. "As a pastor, my job is to encourage, to support. I never take sides."

And while two American cities saw protests organized by GLBT equality activists, the law has, for the most part, gone unnoticed by mainstream media.

Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda, has a reputation for anti-gay persecution. A July 3, 2008 EDGE article reported that Museveni, who seized power in 1986 and was elected to the presidency in 2006, heads an administration that "scapegoats LGBT activists, and harasses, detains and arrests them. His officials ignore or outright condone anti-gay violence."

The article traces the nation's anti-gay roots to early Western influences, reporting that, "Anti-gay laws and cultural prejudices date back to Catholic and Protestant missionaries, who arrived shortly before the United Kingdom declared the area a protectorate in the late 1800s. Two-thirds of Ugandans are Catholics or Anglicans."

Although some U.S. evangelicals and the Church of England have spoken out against the pending law, the U.K.'s Peter Tatchell, who heads up the GLBT equality group OutRage!, said that those religious organizations had not curbed homophobia, but rather had stoked anti-gay sentiment through church-backed abstinence-only anti-AIDS programs. Tatchell also said that the Anglican denomination "has also been preaching strongly against same-sex relationships."

"The church hasn't dealt kindly with anyone who disagrees with its institutionalized homophobia," noted the EDGE article. "It excommunicated Bishop Christopher Senyonjo for speaking out against the church's homophobia."

"Most of the homophobia we face is perpetrated by religious leaders, who play a big role in the law processes," the leader of Sexual Minorities Uganda, Pepe J. Onziema, testified.

Metropolitan Community Churches Global Justice Ministry chairman Rev. Pat Baumgardner was one church official who denounced the nation's climate of homophobia. "It's horrendous," said Baumgardner. Even without the pending law having taken effect, "People who are out, and even people who are suspected, live with daily harassment and threats to their lives."

The leader of Gay Rights Uganda, who lives in exile and goes only by the name Kizza out of fear for his safety, said that gays are already subjected to extreme extrajudicial treatment, including "torture, arbitrary arrests and detention." Kizza said that gays and lesbians are beaten, raped, and even beheaded. Those who escape such abuses are often left to face another kind of violence: that of poverty. "A big number of LGBT people are illiterate, unemployed, and homeless," Kizza told EDGE.

Unmarried adults have to worry that they might be branded as gay, whether or not that might be true. "This has led many into living double lives and lack of true love expressions," said Kizza. "Lesbians end up as hetero-wives and gay-men as hetero-husbands." Anti-gay social pressure also results from a belief that gays bring suffering to the community as a whole, Kizza said: blame crop failures or other disasters are laid at the feet of gays. People known or suspected to be gay have been burned alive in an attempt at propitiation.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.