December 18th, 2009
Debates on homosexuality have been dragging on for some while within Uganda, but politicians will vote today on the future of a bill that seeks to punish people on the basis of their sexuality. Legal threats to homosexuals includes life imprisonment, the death penalty, and up to three years imprisonment for those who know homosexuals but who don’t report them to the state.
It is likely any legal changes won’t come into force until the new year, and politicians from other countries (particularly the US) are urging Uganda to reconsider their draconian approach.
Within Uganda, those defending the bill argue that Uganda is different from other countries, and view countries that have more accepting approaches to homosexuality to be lax or immoral. Many opponents of homosexuality in Uganda (particularly faith leaders) have argued being gay is ‘unAfrican’. A powerful device that we’ve seen used in other African countries and by African leaders (including Mugabe) when justifying homophobic laws, state endorsed abuse of LBGT individuals or groups, or when restricting support for HIV/AIDS organisations that include gay or bi clients. This is a profoundly hurtful statement, and one designed to further alienate those who are lesbian, gay, bi or trans (you can read one heartfelt response to this from a GUG – gay Ugandan – here).
Alongside suggestions for imprisonment or death sentences, other suggestions have included forced ‘cures’ for homosexuality. Which, as we know, are popular among faith-based organisations, but for which there is no evidence that they ‘work’ (ie stop people being gay). These approaches seem to be being suggested by religious organisations (particularly those backed by US evangelical churches) as a more reasonable ‘solution’ to the homosexuality issue in Uganda.
But make no mistake, those endorsing forced cures within Uganda are still working alongside those who would see life imprisonment or the death sentence recommended as a solution for homosexuality.
And then there are those, like Pepsi, who think it’s fine to step into an already tense atmosphere and sponsor notoriously homophobic performer Beenie Man to perform in Kampala. Which he did last weekend, and included his famous Mi Nah Wallah song where he says how he’d like to cut the throats of gay men. Pepsi have since said they’re sorry. It’s not really enough though, is it?
Media coverage of this ongoing story and current political discussion has at least identified the core problems proposed by Ugandan politicians and religious leaders. However, the focus on the story hasn’t been anywhere near prominent enough, and weird attempts at ‘balance’ on this story have led to discussions like this one (courtesy of the BBC) discussing whether or not it’s okay for Uganda to consider the death sentence for homosexuality.
Unfortunately, rather than having more sensible discussions about why Uganda is promoting this idea, and why it’s acceptable to many of its citizens, the response from many has been to construct Uganda as a backward country. Indeed, there’s been some uncomfortably racist reports and comments on forums framing Uganda as ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’.
Racism as a response to homophobia. Hardly helpful when lives are at stake.
Those working within healthcare and education are fearful that any repressive legal changes in Uganda could well put the mental and physical health of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people at risk. There is good evidence that in countries that are particularly oppressive those who are LBGT are less likely to ask for help and support, but don’t stop having relationships. Increasing the risk for HIV transmission, physical violence, blackmail and other exploitation.
Uganda certainly needs to think carefully about its plans to tackle sexuality. While culturally homosexuality may be taboo, to call for life imprisonment or the death penalty is extreme – particularly when endorsed (and encouraged) by faith based groups. There are rumours that aid to Uganda will be withheld or withdrawn if these legal changes are enforced, although this threat seems to be doing little to dissuade those most keen to outlaw homosexuality.
Sadly we know if you live within a homophobic culture this influences many in positions of power and responsibility – so those who ought to be speaking out – particularly journalists, educators and healthcare staff – are unfortunately either saying nothing, or are supporting the proposed legal changes (often in quite vile ways – here’s an example of how one Ugandan media outlet has responded).
So what can you do about this issue? You can put pressure on your MP to oppose the legal changes in Uganda. You can support gay rights organisations within Uganda, and charities working with LBGT groups within the country. Talk to journalists in your country or within Uganda and try and persuade them to focus on the evidence here. In particular around the lack of evidence around ‘curing’ homosexuality, and how oppressive regimes increase the health risks around HIV and sexual abuse.
The gay press have been good at covering the story – as have many blogs addressing sexuality. Two very useful places you can get additional information about the Ugandan situation are Gay Rights Uganda and Box Turtle Bulletin.
I’ll update on any news as I hear it, and if you’re aware of any campaigns or activities to support LBGT individuals and groups within Uganda please let me know and I’ll share it on this blog.Tweet