The post you’ve all been waiting for: thoughts on gay bashing in Uganda

28 01 2010

As you may have heard, Uganda has made recent news for a piece of anti-gay legislation.  Just when the shadow of Idi Amin may have been beginning to fade, Uganda has managed to rebrand itself in the global community with a reputation for hatred and gay bashing.  Great job, guys.

There is much confusion about the actual details of the new law.  See in Uganda, homosexuality is already illegal.  And in a country where justice is at times served through vigilante mobs (unfortunate but true) it is not unheard of that homosexuality would be punished by death.  Though to be clear, that is not the penalty under the current law.  There was talk that the new law may ask for the death penalty for homosexuality though that is rather unclear (some interpretations are that it designates the death penalty for acts of pedophilia and purposefully infecting someone with HIV/AIDS though it equates such acts with general homosexuality – again rather unclear what the law itself actually says).

Perhaps the most interesting part of the new legislation is that it makes it a crime to not report someone you know is a homosexual.  This means that family members, friends, health professionals, etc. could be thrown in jail for up to three years for failure to report someone as being gay.  Keep in mind that if you did report someone as being gay you are essentially condemning that person to violence, stigma and time in prison.  If this were true in the U.S. I’d be serving a lot of time.

The human rights implications of this bill are obvious.  Clearly, the law is astounding, abysmal and whatever another word is that starts with an “a” for just plain bad (I guess “awful” works, huh).  In a country with so many other really serious issues to deal with, why would anyone choose to focus on this?

Part of the answer lies with the upcoming elections in 2011.  The National Resistance Movement (NRM) party is in power and has been since 1986.  The Member of Parliament, Bahati, who introduced the bill is part of the NRM.  It is thought that he did this as a way to make a name for himself in the party – particularly with the more conservative wing.  No one expects him to challenge Museveni, the current President in the 2011 elections but there is anticipation that as Museveni grows older, others are beginning to angle for position as a possible replacement.  It certainly worked from an increasing name ID perspective – he’s the only MP I can name.  I have serious doubts this will work for his long term aspirations but that remains to be seen.

Another theory is that Bahati introduced this bill as a distraction technique.  Think “Wag the Dog.”  They chose a controversial issue that they knew would galvanize support from the public.  As the international community inevitably reacts, the ruling party can be seen as the hero who is standing up for real Ugandan values.  All this so that Ugandans wholeheartedly show up to the polls and vote the NRM back into power – completely ignoring the problems yet to be addressed under their rule.

The unfortunate truth is that many Ugandans have extremely homophobic beliefs so the bill itself is not that farfetched in terms of representing popular opinion.  I’ve been surprised that even in the human rights community where an organization may oppose the bill, the individuals who work at the human rights organization still think homosexuality is wrong.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who is openly gay in Uganda.  There are certainly signs that we would use to stereotype gays in the U.S. (i.e., men hold hands on the street all the time, this weekend at the market I saw a man dressed in a dress for the sake of trying to sell more dresses, etc.), but according to many Ugandans, homosexuality does not exist in Africa.  If there are cases, it is because the Europeans brought it (thank goodness we escaped blame on that one) to Uganda.  Some proponents of the bill preach that the stipulation to penalize who don’t report homosexuals is that those individuals are denying gays from access to treatment to “cure” their gayness.  Riiight.

Crazy stuff I realize and in my opinion definitely deserving of strong reprimand from the international community.  Still, like everything here, the issue itself is complex.  Countries who threaten to stop aid if the bill passes are not hurting the proponents of the bill, rather they are just denying services and treatment to many innocent Ugandans whose thoughts on the bill are unknown and frankly irrelevant to their right to live.

As you can imagine, this bill has caused a ton of chatter in Uganda.  Aside from media coverage, there have been numerous conversations about the bill among the ex-pat crowd – all of whom are strongly against it and think it is ridiculous.  Most Ugandans who I hang out with also are opposed to the bill and think it will not pass but again they don’t personally claim to know or in general seem to be OK with gay people.

I feel pretty confident the bill will not pass for a number of reasons – for one, I just don’t think the Ugandan Parliament is that dumb to have it pass in its current version given the uproar it has caused.  I would not be surprised though if a different version made its way to law.  Then again, perhaps the introduction of the bill itself was all the Government needed (and the religious right from the U.S. who came to Uganda last year and are credited for giving the idea to local Ugandans) to make its point.

For more information and commentary from a recent meeting discussing the bill, please visit my friend’s blog: http://avnerabroad.blogspot.com/2010/01/anti-homosexuality-bill-of-2009.html (though don’t visit too much as we’re in a heated competition to see who can get more hits on their blog :))

Also, for those who are interested, here are a few recent news articles about the bill.  Can’t wait to hear your comments on this one :).

Minnesota coverage: MinnPost: Death penalty for gay sex is included in proposed Ugandan legislation

National coverage: NY Times: Americans’ Role Seen in Uganda Anti-Gay Push

International coverage: The Guardian: UN’s human rights chief urges Uganda to scrap anti-gay legislation

Ugandan coverage: The Independent: Opinion: An Open letter to the Ambassadors of Donor countries accredited to Uganda

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2 responses

28 01 2010
Cindy

Once again, here we sit on the other side of the world in our own day to day issues while real human rights and LIVES are at stake. We read about it, but we don’t get it and even more disturbing, we don’t respond. Perhaps we believe we are too insignificant to make a difference so why bother. Well, we do have a voice and we can use it. We can contact our representatives and senators and share our views. they can speak for us at a level that may make a message known. But you are also right that applying pressure through withholding of funds only hurts the wrong people and that certainly doesn’t serve anyone well. 1 + 1 + 1 + 1……

28 01 2010
Maria

You better get more hits. I just shared your link on Facebook. Thank you for the perspective!

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