THE STRUGGLE FOR RIGHTS WITHIN UGANDA’S LGBT COMMUNITY: AN AMERICAN DEBATE RELOCATED

by Andrew Muse-Fisher
Staff Writer

In late 2009, the Ugandan parliament introduced a bill that would allow life imprisonment of homosexuals, and in some instances, the death penalty. Though the bill expired after having been tabled for two years, the Ugandan parliament passed a similar bill in late 2013. [1] President Yoweri Museveni, after some hesitation, signed the bill into law in early 2014. [2] Though it may appear as if the president and parliament were just acting to meet the demands of the Ugandan majority, there is much more going on in the background. In the battle over LGBT rights in Uganda, those in favor of the bill have received support from American evangelical missionaries. On the other side of the debate, those against the bill have heard support from international groups and individuals, including U.S. President Barack Obama. Indeed, it appears that this is not simply Uganda’s fight, but also represents an international “spillover” effect from the ongoing debate over LGBT rights in the United States.

Prior to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill introduced in 2009, homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda. The point of the bill was to go one step further and make “aggravated homosexuality” punishable by death. [3] “Aggravated homosexuality” is defined as repeated homosexual behavior and/or homosexual behavior by people who are HIV positive. [4] To many, this came as an extreme addition to an already draconian set of laws. The law outlawing homosexuality had been in place for nearly a century, so the sudden necessity of a new law suggests it is politically motivated; the old law is still an effective discriminatory instrument. A window into those considerations might be found in the fact that Minister of Parliament David Bahati, before introducing the bill, attended a meeting with evangelicals from the United States who promote converting homosexuals to heterosexuality through prayer. [5] The timing was symbolic in that Bahati, when proposing the bill, chose to highlight a link between American evangelical influence and the bill, albeit indirectly.

American voices also spoke against the legislation. Both Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton were quick to warn the Ugandan parliament against passing the bill. Furthermore, Congress reacted by passing a resolution to advise Uganda and other countries against taking such extreme action against the homosexual community. [6] If stern words from the American government were not enough to cause hesitation within the Ugandan leadership, others have raised the issue that the legislation might conflict with the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows participating countries to receive preferential access to U.S. markets. [7] It then became a question of whether or not Uganda wanted to risk its preferential economic status in order to further suppress the rights of homosexuals. Ultimately, those speaking against the legislation succeeded in suppressing the bill long enough so that it expired. This, however, did not prevent increased homophobia in the country, nor did it prevent the resurgence of the bill in 2013.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill introduced in 2013 is very similar to the 2009 bill, though the punishment of execution was taken out, possibly in response to the outrage of international organizations. Despite the changes, the bill met similar opposition. [8] Secretary of State John Kerry compared the law to apartheid, while the World Bank withheld a $90 million loan that would have gone towards improving health in Uganda. [9] With these and other sanctions facing the nation, it would seem that the Ugandan parliament would have acted quickly to vote the bill down. This assumption seemed especially valid in light of a change of heart on the part of some of the American evangelicals. When the second version of the bill surfaced and gained traction, evangelical groups in the U.S. claimed they neither played a role in influencing the passing of the bill nor support its harsh punishments. [10] Not everyone abandoned their support for the old position: pastor Scott Lively for instance, who gained support for the bill in 2009 continued to openly support the bill. [11] At the same time, Bryan Fischer from the American Family Association mistakenly celebrated the passing of the bill in 2012 as a chance for the U.S. to do the same. [12] That is, Fischer saw Uganda’s progress against the LGBT community as an example of what the U.S. could achieve. With such contradicting opinions from evangelical groups, and international groups taking a strict stance against the bill, it is surprising that the bill passed in December of 2013. In the end, it was left to President Museveni to decide the fate of the bill. At first, he was hesitant because a quorum was not present when the vote on the bill occurred; eventually he agreed to sign the bill into law if he could be offered proof that homosexuality was not genetic. [13] After consulting a committee of scientists, Museveni signed the bill. He sent a letter to President Obama stating, “Their unanimous conclusion was that homosexuality, contrary to my earlier thinking, was behavioral and not genetic. It was learnt and could be unlearnt.” [14] The Anti-Homosexuality bill became law, yet neither parliament nor the Ugandan people offered any major opposition. Instead, the law seemed to reflect the will of the country’s Christian majority.

Uganda’s population is 85% Christian, which gives power to religious officials in shaping public opinion, especially on an issue concerning sexuality. [15] It is not surprising that religious beliefs openly overlap with politics and that a majority then is in favor of limiting the rights of homosexuals. It is quite possible the evangelicals used this to their advantage in supporting the bill. Evangelicals spread their message largely through broadcasting networks that air mostly religious programming. This programming is a mixture of moderate and more conservative belief structures that, to the audience, are nearly indistinguishable. Evangelicals use these and other networks to gain funds, which then go into social and religious programs as well as toward reinforcing the viewpoints of these groups. [16] This task is made easy by the fact that the majority is already Christian. Why would parliament or the president refuse passage of the bill when the Christian majority wants it? Lydia Boyd makes the argument that the people are not only in favor of the bill because of religious beliefs. Boyd states that it is also because of a Ugandan mentality that promotes respectability and limits freedom based on the idea that too much independence causes problems within society. [17] Though it is not clear whether it is religious beliefs or Ugandan mentality that is more prominent in shaping opinion against homosexuals, the two have enough overlap to help explain this common opinion. This opinion, regardless of the law, is a major factor in reducing the social acceptance of the homosexual community. When the law passed, a Ugandan tabloid responded by listing the names of 200 people it believed were homosexual. This caused Ugandans to act out violently against those listed, as well as other members of the Ugandan LGBT community. [18] Even when the 2009 version was tabled, some Ugandans denounced the homosexual community, declaring them sub-human, threats to children, and “un-African.” [19] These declarations testify to the fear and hate Ugandans directed towards homosexuals, the sentiment providing a reason for the bill itself, and its passage providing reassurance for the outraged. In passing the bill into law, parliament was only working to mitigate the fears of the majority of the people.

With the wants of the Ugandan people met, the question remains of the role of the United States in the debate over homosexuals in Uganda. Evangelical missionaries used religious and social values of the Ugandan people to promote and influence the passing of the bill, while the U.S. government appealed to Uganda’s existing trade agreements and need for aid. The fact that either of these groups played such a large role in Uganda’s debate is reminiscent of the debate over gay marriage in the U.S. The opposing sides are the same, but there are two main differences: the setting and the stakes. In the U.S., homosexuals were and are fighting for marriage equality. In Uganda, homosexuals were fighting to avoid life in prison. The outcomes, however, differ greatly. Before Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality bill, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA, moving in the exact opposite direction. Because of this, the U.S. has established a stronger platform to make similar advances on an international scale.

It is not unheard of that the United States has used the conflicts of other nations to promote its values, but it is still uncommon for the U.S. to take such a solid stance when LGBT rights are concerned. It was only relatively recently that Obama came out in favor of gay marriage and what’s more, Americans, regardless of political party, are increasingly likely to support marriage equality. The country is making steady progress to the extent that its message of equality is spilling beyond its borders. If the U.S. government keeps up its support for the LGBT community, its efforts, though against the will of the Ugandan people, may yet stand as a precedent to continue speaking out against countries that discriminate against and diminish the rights of LGBT communities.

Photo by Kaytee Riek

Notes

[1] Englander, Daniel. “Protecting the Human Rights of LGBT People in the Wake of Uganda’s Anti Homosexuality Bill, 2009.” Emory International Law Review. 25.3 (2011): 1263-1316.
[2] “New Anti-Homosexuality Laws Raise International Concerns.” Vax 12.2 (2014): 3.
[3] Ewins, Lucy Heenan. “Gross Violation: Why Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act Threatens Its Trade Benefits with the United States.” Boston College International & Comparative Law Review 34.1 (2011): 147-171.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] “New Anti-Homosexuality Laws Raise International Concerns.” Vax 12.2 (2014): 3.
[9] Pulliam Bailey, Sarah. “Evangelical Leaders Decry Uganda’s Antigay Law.” Christian Century. 131.7 (2014): 16-17
[10] Ibid.
[11] “U.S. Evangelicals Played a Key Role in Uganda’s Notorious Anti-Gay Bill.” Church and State 67.4 (2014): 21
[12] Ibid.
[13] Dockerman, Eliana. “Ugandan President to Sign Anti-Homosexuality Bill.” Time.com (2014): 1
[14] “New Anti-Homosexuality Laws Raise International Concerns.” Vax 12.2 (2014): 3.
[15] “Listen, then Speak: Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill is Making Cross-Cultural Relations More Complex than Ever.” Christianity Today 54.2 (2010): 53.
[16] Kaoma, Kanya. “How US Clergy Brought Hate to Uganda.” Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. 17.1 (2010): 20-23.
[17] Boyd, Lydia. “The Problem with Freedom: Homosexuality and Human Rights in Uganda.” Anthropological Quarterly 86.3 (2013): 697-724.
[18] “U.S. Evangelicals Played a Key Role in Uganda’s Notorious Anti-Gay Bill.” Church and State 67.4 (2014): 21
[19] Englander, Daniel. “Protecting the Human Rights of LGBT People in the Wake of Uganda’s Anti Homosexuality Bill, 2009.” Emory International Law Review. 25.3 (2011): 1263-1316.

LGBT RIGHTS: A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE

By Viet Tran
Staff Writer

Sixty years ago, a series of political movements convulsed the world. These movements sought to bring equality under the law for misrepresented peoples. Most notably, the United States marked the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These landmark bills signaled the end to an era of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination. At the time, it appeared that animosity, civil disobedience and nonviolent protests would be a thing of the past. But fast-forward to the present and the world faces a new controversial civil rights topic: LGBT rights.

We currently live in a time of changing perceptions towards LGBT rights. Though only 17 of 50 states recognize it, our own president openly supports gay marriage. Elsewhere, the Catholic Church is now headed by a pope who has articulated his stance in a far less inflammatory manner than his predecessor. Pope Francis told reporters “if someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” While the pope does continue to criticize the “gay lobby,” his words reveal a possible silver lining on this contentious topic.

But in many other places in the world, discrimination still stands as the rule, not the exception. The recent publicity surrounding Russia’s anti-gay social and political atmosphere only scratches the surface of LGBT discrimination around the world. As President Obama remarked, “what’s happening in Russia is not unique.”

The following countries have some of the worst cases of LGBT abuse today:

Iran

This country plays host to some of the world’s most draconian anti-gay legislation. In a report by the Iranian High Council for Human Rights, the Iranian secretary-general made a statement to another foreign lawmaker that castigated homosexuality as a “sexual immorality and a disease.” Such views foster persecution of the gay community.

Under Iran’s harsh Islamic law, most acts of homosexuality are punishable by death. Until recently, the Iranian penal code also considered sodomy a capital offense for all those involved in consensual sexual intercourse. However, the supposed reforms to the penal code still impose a minimum punishment of 100 lashes while keeping open the possibility of a death sentence. The same punishments apply to lesbianism, creating a fearful environment for Iran’s homosexuals

Uganda

In 2009, a Ugandan lawmaker introduced an anti-homosexuality bill that originally set a death penalty for homosexual acts. After drawing widespread condemnation from around the world, legislators altered the bill. The revised bill changed the maximum punishment from death to lifetime imprisonment while maintaining a 14-year jail sentence for first time offenders. Despite Western opposition, Uganda president Yoweri Museveni made a public announcement confirming his intention to sign the bill into law. Two days ago, the bill went into effect, signaling a massive step backwards for LGBT rights in the Uganda.

India

There is a certain degree of irony when the Supreme Court of the world’s largest democracy upholds one of harshest anti-gay laws. But that’s exactly what happened in India in 2009. The court deemed constitutional a colonial-era statute that prohibited “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” The ruling drew widespread criticism, with the Human Rights Campaign denouncing the decision as a “disturbing step backward” for LGBT rights. Those criminalized for their homosexuality could face a maximum 10-year prison sentence.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is the largest Arab state in the Middle East and an invaluable ally of the United States. But under its harsh Sharia Law the punishment for homosexual acts is death by stoning. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a religious “task force,” polices private gatherings and arrests those exhibiting homosexual behavior.

Though many countries in the world we live in impose a hostile environment for the LGBT community, others have taken the initiative to improve LGBT rights. Here are a few notable examples: 

Argentina

In 2012, Argentina opened a new chapter in the struggle for transgender rights by passing one of the most progressive legislations yet,. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner legalized the Gender Identity Law, allowing individuals who identify as transgender to legally change the gender on their birth certificates. This continued a trend of progressive legislation for Argentina—it became the 10th country in world to legalize same-sex marriage in 2010.

Vietnam

Despite this communist state’s spotty record on human rights, Vietnam has surpsingly become a pioneer for LGBT rights in Southeast Asia. A potential breakthrough in gay rights occurred when Vietnam held its first gay pride parade in 2012. This country demonstrated further progress when the country’s ministry of health publicly announced his recommendations on the legalization of same-sex marriages in 2013.

Trinidad and Tobago/Jamaica

The Caribbean region is another center of progress for LGBT rights. Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar recently wrote a letter to United Kingdom-based Kaleidoscope Trust, a LGBT rights group. In the letter, she committed herself towards ending anti-gay sentiment and discrimination via national policy. Elsewhere, Jamaica, a country where violence towards the LGBT community is common and condoned by the police, now has a prime minister who has declared support for gay rights.

Malawi

One of the smaller countries in southeast Africa has shown that it can be a big player in championing LGBT rights. In 2012, Malawian President Joyce Banda publicly announced an initiative with parliament to repeal the country’s anti-gay legislation. If her campaign to overturn anti-gay legislation succeeds, Malawi will be just one of two African nations where homosexuality is not criminalized.      

Everyday countless people around the world face violence and inequality because of an inherent quality. They are persecuted because of whom they love, how they dress or simply who they are. Whether we are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, all these identities are integral facets of our beings and should never be subjected to discrimination of any form. At the end of the day, we are all human after all.

Image by lighttripper