If you’ve spent any time on social media over the last few days, chances are you’ll have been asked to sign a petition against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda. Today, the Ugandan Parliament will vote on a law which, if passed, will make "aggravated homosexuality" an offence punishable by death. The bill is currently being debated and if it goes to a vote, Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda says that it will almost certainly pass.
International organisations have been urgently collecting signatures in online petitions to present to the Ugandan President. US outfit Avaaz has collected almost 900,000 signatures on their petition at publication. All Out has been gathering names too and their petition will be presented to Parliament today by LGBT advocate and retired Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo.
In Uganda now, homosexuality is an offence which can land you in jail for up to 14 years and violence against gay and lesbian people is not uncommon. David Bahati, the member of the National Assembly who proposed the original bill in 2009 told The Guardian last year, "here in Uganda, homosexuality is not a human right. It is behaviour that is learned and it can be unlearned." Uganda isn’t isolated in this regard. Tough penalties for homosexuality abound across Africa. See this interactive map of laws around homosexuality published by the International LGBTI Association.
The Anti-Homosexuality Bill has been shunted around the Ugandan legislature since 2009. International pressure and threats to withhold aid prevented it going to a vote in 2010 and lobbyists are now exerting themselves to prevent it going to a vote this week. You can read the text of the bill here. It will ban homosexuality; offences may result in lifetime conviction. "Aggravated offences" — including being HIV positive, having a same sex relationship with a disabled person, and being a "repeat offender" — may incur the death penalty. (For more details, psychology professor Warren Throckmorton has been regularly updating this thread with an account of the debate, parliamentary procedure and politics. Gay rights blogger Jim Burroway has been filing regular reports of the discussion of the bill in Uganda’s parliament this week.)
Although international leaders and media outlets have been unanimous in their condemnation of the bill, it clearly has some support within Uganda. This was brought into the international media spotlight after the murder of David Kato, advocacy officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda. Kato was killed in January after winning a court victory to prevent the Ugandan newspaper Rolling Stone from publishing the names and addresses of homosexuals.
After Kato’s murder, the editor of Rolling Stone reportedly said that he did not want citizens to attack gay people, he wanted the government to hang them. (The editors of the other Rolling Stone were so repelled by the homophobic activities of their namesake that they published an editorial in condemnation.)
Rolling Stone has a small circulation but it’s not the only Ugandan publication that has been outing gay people. The tabloid Red Pepper has a much wider circulation and has been publishing homophobic material too. When Red Pepper started outing gays, it editorialised, "this is a killer dossier, a heat-pounding and sensational masterpiece that largely exposes Uganda’s shameless men and unabashed women that have deliberately exported the western evils to our dear and sacred society". Many outlets, like New Vision, the Daily Monitor and the Uganda Record just aren’t covering the issue.
The homophobia in the media is largely driven by influential conservative Christian groups in Uganda. There remain concerns about the role of American evangelicals in supporting and financing these groups, as this post from Sexual Minorities Uganda records. When Ugandan LGBTI activist Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera received a human rights award named after the founder of Amnesty International earlier this month, conservative Christian leaders in Uganda were highly critical. One Pentecostal pastor called the award a "public embarrassment".
But although the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is making headlines elsewhere, other matters are dominating domestic media. At least seven African heads of state will be in Kampala to witness Yoweni Museveni’s swearing in as President tomorrow after an election in February. Museveni has been Uganda’s president since 1986, making him one of the world’s longest serving heads of state. The loser in the most recent election disputes the results and NGOs have expressed serious concerns about Museveni’s record on human rights.
Furthermore, Museveni has much besides political opposition to deal with.
There have been street protests across Uganda since April about rising fuel and commodity prices. Human Rights Watch has been sharply critical of the use of lethal force by the security forces called in to quell the demonstrations. At least nine people were killed. Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at HRW said, "For far too long Uganda’s government has allowed a climate of impunity for serious abuses by the police and military."
The anonymous blogger at Gay Uganda argues that the legislature is cynically drumming up homophobia around the Anti-Homosexuality Bill as a diversion from rising commodity prices. He writes, "remember that this is time for the GAY MOVEMENT around the world to make COMMON CAUSE with the average citizen of Uganda to decry the abuse of human rights of ALL UGANDANS."
As riots about rising food prices continue there’s a real concern that objections to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill will be drowned out. Similar legislation was shelved last year after an international outcry so there’s reason to be hopeful. But even if the Bill is quashed again, it may not be enough to destroy the homophobia that flourishes in Uganda and causes gay and lesbian people to live in fear.
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