/ 4 December 2009

Homophobia on the Bill

As a gay Ugandan, Frank Mugisha has endured insults from strangers, hate messages on his phone, police harassment and being outed in a tabloid as one of the country’s ‘top homos”.

That may soon seem like the good old days. Life imprisonment is the minimum punishment for anyone convicted of having gay sex, under an anti-homosexuality Bill currently being considered by Uganda’s Parliament. If the accused person is HIV positive or a serial offender, or a ‘person of authority” over the other partner, or if the ‘victim” is under 18, a conviction will result in the death penalty.

Members of the public are obliged to report any homosexual activity to police within 24 hours or risk up to three years in jail — a scenario that human rights campaigners say will result in a witch-hunt. Ugandans breaking the new law abroad will be subject to extradition requests.

‘The Bill is haunting us,” said Mugisha (25), chairperson of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a coalition of local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex groups that will all be banned under the law. ‘If this passes we will have to leave the country.”

Human rights groups within and outside Uganda have condemned the proposed legislation, which is designed to strengthen colonial-era laws that already criminalise gay sex.

The issue threatened to overshadow the
Commonwealth heads of government meeting that ended in Trinidad and Tobago recently with the United Kingdom and Canada both expressing strong concerns. Ahead of the meeting Stephen Lewis, a former United Nations envoy on Aids in Africa, said the law has ‘a taste of fascism” about it.

But within Uganda deeply-rooted homophobia, aided by a United States-linked evangelical campaign alleging that gay men are trying to ‘recruit” school children, and that homosexuality is a habit that can be ‘cured”, has ensured widespread public support for the Bill.

Last month President Yoweri Museveni warned youths in Kampala he had heard that ‘European homosexuals are recruiting in Africa” and he said gay relationships were against God’s will. ‘We used to say Mr and Mrs, but now it is Mr and Mr. What is that now?” he said.

In a interview James Nsaba Buturo, the minister of state for ethics and integrity, said the government was determined to pass the legislation, ideally before the end of 2009, even if it meant withdrawing from international treaties and conventions, such as the UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and foregoing donor funding.

‘We are talking about anal sex. Not even animals do that,” Butoro said, adding that he was personally caring for six ‘former homosexuals” who had been traumatised by the experience. ‘We believe there are limits to human rights.”

Homosexuality has always been a taboo subject in Uganda and is considered by many to be an affront to both local culture and religion, which plays a strong role in family life. This and the real threat of job loss means no public personality has ever ‘come out”.

Even local HIV campaigns — which have been heavily influenced by the evangelical church with a bias towards abstinence over condom use — have deliberately avoided targeting gay men.

Both opponents and supporters agree that the impetus for the Bill came in March during a seminar in Kampala to ‘expose the truth behind homosexuality”. The main speakers were three US evangelists: Scott Lively, Don Schmierer and Caleb Lee Brundidge. Lively is a noted anti-gay activist and president of Defend the Family International, a conservative Christian association, and Schmierer is an author who works with ‘homosexual recovery groups”. Brundidge is a ‘sexual reorientation coach” at the International Healing Foundation.

The seminar was organised by Stephen Langa, a Ugandan electrician turned pastor who runs the Family Life Network in Kampala and has been spreading the message that gays are targeting schoolchildren for ‘conversion”. ‘They give money to children to recruit schoolmates — once you have two children, the whole school is gone,” he said in an interview.

Asked if there had been any court case to prove this was happening, he replied: ‘No, that’s why this law is needed.”

After the conference, Langa arranged for a petition by thousands of parents to be delivered to Parliament in April. Within months the Bill had been drawn up. —