Vicious Anti-Gay Bill May Be Headed for Law in Uganda

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday October 28, 2010

A bill that not only stiffens the penalty for gay sex by imposing the death sentence in some instances but also criminalizes the discretion of people who know about a gay relationship but do not report it may be headed for law in Uganda after languishing for a year.

The anti-gay bill, authored by David Bahati in the wake of anti-gay rallies last year that featured American evangelicals, has remained suspended in limbo following a global outcry against its viciously punitive provisions. Among other stipulations, the bill prescribes death for gay men who have repeated sexual encounters with other men--or for HIV+ gays who have even one same-sex encounter.

Since the bill's introduction, homophobia in Uganda has become markedly sharper, according to a Ugandan GLBT rights activist who blogs under the name Nsubuga. "The words and actions of our religious leaders are full of hate," Nsubuga wrote in a recent essay that was published in the British nerwspaper The Guardian. "Mufti Mubajje, titular head of Muslims in Uganda, believes that all gay Ugandans should be marooned on an island in Lake Victoria. We would then die out and solve the country's gay problem."

Referencing Bahati's bill, Nsubuga wrote, "We found ourselves targeted by a truly horrible piece of legislation, seeking to kill and imprison us for life, all in the name of 'family and cultural values.' " Added Nsubuga, "Death and life imprisonment. No access to information or help. The danger of being reported to 'relevant authorities' by pastors, doctors, parents. Mandatory HIV tests. All these are provisions of the Bahati bill."

Nsubuga and others have protested the bill, joining their voices to those raised across the world. "But, though the international outcry enabled the government to go slow on the bill, our exposure was not reversible," wrote the rights activist. "Now a tabloid has published the photographs of alleged gay Ugandans, under the headline 'Hang Them'."

That article was published in Ugandan newspaper Rolling Stone, which has no connection to the American music magazine of the same name. The article puhslished the names and photographs of one hundred Ugandans the paper claimed were the country's "top homosexuals," and urged violence against them.

One lesbian, Stosh Mugisha, was among those named. The same day, a chanting crowd formed near her house, CNN reported in an Oct. 28 article. Mugisha and her partner were in danger of being stoned. They managed to escape, and now are in hiding. "They start bringing in these issues like, 'How can you be born gay? How can you be born lesbian?' " Mugisha told CNN. "They really don't know that we have battled to stand and be who we are."

The newspaper's editor characterized homosexuality as a contagious disease and claimed that gays were after the nation's young, seeking to make "converts in schools." Such claims are virtual carbon copies of the rhetoric employed by anti-gay groups in the United States.

Uganda's anti-gay social strife is bound to increase if the bill passes into law, but Bahati has not been willing to withdraw it, even when the president of Uganda, feeling international pressure, asked him to. Now Bahati has told the international press that the bill is headed toward becoming law.

"We are very confident," Bahati said, "because this is a piece of legislation that is needed in this country to protect the traditional family here in Africa, and also protect the future of our children." The lawmaker went on to say, "Every single day of my life now I am still pushing that it passes."

Bahati went on to assert, "God has given us different freedoms, our democracy is giving us different freedoms, but I don't think anyone has the freedom to commit a crime and homosexuality in our country is a crime, it's criminal."

What is seen as criminal in Uganda may in part be the doing of American zealots. There is some evidence that the bill was prompted in part by claims made by American anti-gay evangelicals who visited Uganda March of 2009, and presented what they called the "Seminar on Exposing the Homosexuals' Agenda." Their talks contained assorted claims about gays and the "dangers" that gays pose to society, reported the New York Times in a Jan. 3 article.

The conference was put together by the Ugandan group the Family Life Network, which purports to uphold "traditional family values." The speakers included anti-gay writer and missionary Scott Lively--author of a book that purports to tell parents how to "gay-proof" their offspring--and Don Schmierer, a board member of Exodus international, an organization dedicated to the idea that gays can be "cured" through prayer and counseling.

A third speaker was also in attendance: Caleb Lee Brundidge, who claims once to have been gay, but now to be heterosexual. Mr. Brundage heads seminars focused on "healing" gays (that is, attempting to turn them straight).

The views set out by the Americans ranged from highly dubious claims that gays can be "converted" to heterosexuality to wild, undefined assertions that a "gay agenda" was at work "to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity," as well as stereotype-based pronouncements that gay men prey on teenaged boys. Some worry that the presence of anti-gay "missionaries" in Uganda is evidence that Africans are in danger of becoming "collateral damage" in the struggle by U.S. religious conservatives to deny gay individuals and families equal legal recognition and protections at home, with those denials based on the claim that homosexuality is a "choice."

The American evangelicals gave their addresses in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, over a three-day period. Bahati has said that he counts as friends American evangelicals in U.S. government positions; an EDGE article from Feb. 2 noted that Bahati has ties to organizers of the so-called "Prayer Breakfast," an annual event designed to gather and influence U.S. policymakers. In the wake of the three evangelicals' visit last year, a Ugandan minister stated plainly that, "Homosexuals can forget about human rights."

The Prayer Breakfast is sponsored by the Fellowship foundation, a group that is also known as The Family. The organization includes both Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni,and David Bahati in its membership. Investigative journalist Jeff Sharlet authored an explosive expose of The Family, which he followed up with the just-published book C Street--a glimpse into a network of powerful and dedicated evangelical military officers whose manipulations in the name of promoting Christianity the wrold over have resulted, Sharlet charges, in tens of thousands of deaths in third-world nations around the globe.

In the case of Uganda, some charge that a deeply held religious belief has almost entirely supplanted ratioanl discourse--and deliberate action to address the country's ills, according to an Oct. 27 TIME article.

Believers see such faith not as a liability, but as a way of getting though the day. "Uganda has seen war, community trauma and civil strife," Susan Muyama, who edits a religious publication called Rock, told TIME. "Religion offers the peace and reassurance that everything is O.K.--that an all-loving God is going to have your back."

The international political community has threatened Uganda with a loss of foreign aid money if the bill should pass. Religious groups are now also ramping up pressure. Box Turtle Bulletin reported on Oct. 26 that one American church, Canyon Ridge, had announced that it would no longer support anti-gay Ugandan religious leader Martin Ssempa. Even among conservative religious leaders, the Ugandan measure is repugnant; Box Turtle Bulletin noted that Warren Throckmorten, a conservative evangelical theologian and professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, is against the bill.

As in Uganda, anti-gay religious leaders in the United States insist that gays are "immoral" and say that sexual intimacy between individuals of the same gender, regardless of their their level of commitment, is "sinful." Anti-gay laws are supported by some religious groups on the basis that they believe gays "choose" their sexuality and could, if they wished, "convert" to heterosexuality.

"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 in a Dec. 3, 2009, Spero News. "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."

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.