LGBT people in Uganda live under threat and fear. By Ariel Rubin


he Kampala night club seems like your typical bar – a DJ blasting raucous dance music, drinking, laughing and even some furtive flirting are the order of the night. However, this remains one of Uganda’s few gay friendly bars. On a recent visit, as the debate rages over the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009, a current of fear and anxiety is felt beneath the veneer of another night out. One man notes wearily, “Why is that so shocking to you? This is the country that wants to kill and imprison us.” While life has never been easy for Uganda’s marginalised gay community, it could get a whole lot harder should the bill pass. Amos, an eloquent man in his early thirties committed in a relationship for many years notes, “Do some people know? Yes. Do some people suspect? Yes. Can they prove it in court? No. The new bill changes that.” As a group of seventeen human rights organisations notes in a recent statement, the bill “includes a provision that could lead to the imprisonment for up to three years of anyone, including heterosexual people, who fails to report within twentyfour hours the identities of everyone they know who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, or who supports human rights for people who are... The draft bill seeks to imprison anyone convicted of the offence of homosexuality for life.” The bill – known as the Bahati Bill, after David Bahati, the member of parliament who privately tabled it in October 2009 – comes out of an environment that is already deeply inimical to alternative lifestyles and any perceived threat to the traditional family. 94% of Ugandans consider themselves religious and 95% strongly oppose the legalisation of samesex relations. As one of Pastor Rick Warren’s purpose-driven nations, Uganda has become a test-tube for Western evangelicals. The coalescence of the church and the state is the norm in this profoundly religious

country that received millions of dollars for its abstinence programs from the Bush Administration. Warren, the highly influential US evangelical holds immense sway in Uganda. While finally condemning the bill after a great deal of recent pressure, Warren remains the same man who, in an April 2008 visit to Kampala, told religious leaders that homosexuality is not a natural way of life and, thus, not a human right, “We shall not tolerate this aspect at all.” As Anglican priest Kapya Kaoma notes in a recent article, the religious orthodoxy of many African churches provided the US religious right with a golden opportunity to extend the church’s influence into the government. According to Kaoma, “Africans resonate with the denunciation of homosexuality as a post-colonial plot.” Ugandan homophobia, thus, ironically doubles as an expression of resistance to the West while being stoked and funded by conservative leaders and church clergy from the very same West. A recent news item in the Vision newspaper, about Ethics and Integrity Minister James Buturo’s refusal to capitulate to donor country demands to scrap the bill, sums up the sentiment perfectly: We will not bend over for aid, Butoro tells donors. In a country where the notion of atheism is scoffed at as a joke, and a deep-seated fear pervades over the undue influence of Western decadence and liberalism, political elites have managed to introduce the perfect bill to distract much of the country from the entrenched problems like corruption and unaccountability. This is a country whose tabloid daily – The Red Pepper – routinely publishes articles with titles like Homo terror and List of tycoons who bankroll homos, in addition to notorious dossiers of first names, professions and physical descriptions of alleged homosexuals. As the campaigning season for the 2011

Ugandan elections is set to commence, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill further presents the opportunity for the ruling National Resistance Movement government to shore up popular support by vilifying an already marginalised minority. With the violence of the September 2009 riots still fresh and murmurs of deep-seated unrest in this triballydivided country, the fervour over the inflammatory bill has played directly into the hands of those who introduced it. As Sylvia Tamale – Dean, Makerere Law School – warns in a recent debate over the issue, “Anyone who cares to read history books knows very well that in times of crisis, when people at the locus of power are feeling vulnerable and their power is threatened, they will turn against the weaker groups in the society.” When discussing the bill, Tamale still can hardly believe it came into fruition. Clearly, the bill’s author is no lawyer, she notes, as it violates tenets of the 1995 constitution while legally the parliament lacks the power to nullify inconsistent treaties or constitutional provisions. “You cannot put this in a bill if you know your international law.” Indeed, one of the key consultants and writers of the bill is not a lawyer at all, but the controversial Ugandan pro-family pastor, Martin Ssempa. This is the pastor, who, over recent years, burned condoms in the name of Jesus and arranged for the publication of prominent homosexuals’ names in local newspapers. His abstinence-based HIV/AIDS work was supported by the Bush White House and he has close ties with the born again Ugandan first lady, Janet Museveni.

“As Africans, we find the whole subject of sodomy and lesbianism an unacceptable lifestyle.”


January/February 2010

Independent World report

A Red Pepper dossier on homosexuals: Scan by Gay Uganda via Box Turtle Bulletin.

Independent World report

January/February 2010


Protest outside the Ugandan High Commission in London: Photo by Russell Higgs/CC BY-NC-SA.

In a recent radio debate, Ssempa repeatedly touches upon the overarching threats he believes the bill will remedy: the deracination of African culture and the erosion of family values alongside anxiety over the perceived increase of homosexual recruitment and molestation of young boys. Fears of insidious homosexual recruitment plots are the norm in Uganda. Even the president, Yoweri Museveni, notes in worryingly in a November speech that he hears “European homosexuals are recruiting in Africa.” The odious conflation of consensual sexual activity between two adults and paedophilia amidst the offensive and bizarre notion of a Western gay conspiracy has gripped not only the president but much of a fearful public as well. In a recent interview, Pastor Ssempa explains, “I think it is important to understand what sodomy is. It is inherently unhealthy, a sexual lifestyle that involves unmentionable acts such as rimming, golden showers and brown

showers. The anal sphincter, biologically, is not designed or suited for sexual penetration, and, by and large, many boys and men have been infected and had permanent damage from homosexual behaviour.” Even though the colonial-era penal code already criminalises sexual relations with a minor, the pastor believes the new bill will provide equal protection before the law for the boys who are molested or raped, “This bill is gender balancing the law.” For Ssempa, the idea of a seemingly monolithic and intractable culture is deeply relevant. “First of all, I am an African,” he explains. “And, as Africans, we find the whole subject of sodomy and lesbianism an unacceptable lifestyle.” Joel, a soft-spoken gay activist decries Ssempa’s version of culture as little more than a tool to stir up people who find something distasteful. After all, he says laughing, “Did you know, a long time ago, in Africa, women could not eat chicken?

Because, the meat was too sweet. So is that culture? Are we going to go back to that culture?” Joel, remains an avowed supporter of President Museveni and talks of how wonderful he felt when he left his village in his early twenties and realised he was not alone. “When I came to Kampala, I found so many people, even some small organisations. I feel at home here, only now this bill is really making it worse on me. Really, I was so happy and I am happy.” He and his friends are worried, yet, as they mingle and laugh at the bar, there is a profound sense of defiance and pride, “I think Ssempa has big people with guns and everything, and, the way they are threatening us, some of us, I think, we are ready to die, because, there is no way I am going to go away. And, I can not change. They want to preach and they want to educate. Me, I am not going to change.” For Joel, the law will not help eliminate homosexuality but simply continue to


January/February 2010

Independent World report

Photo by International Women’s Health Coalition.

drive it further underground and make it more dangerous by targeting medical professionals, lawyers and organisations who treat and work with homosexuals, adding that by stigmatising instead of educating homosexuals about the perils of risky sexual behaviour, it will likely end up exacerbating Uganda’s HIV/AIDS crisis. He notes the many straight men who often come to the Kampala night club to cruise and pick up men, “So many people are married and are hiding in their culture, when they actually are homosexual. They are proclaiming ‘I am heterosexual. I am not going to be attacked.’ But, then they will come here. We will have fun and tomorrow he will go.” Joel adds forebodingly, “If you do not protect me from HIV, you will also get it tomorrow.” Ultimately, activists fear the general erosion of Uganda’s human rights culture and the acute threat to democracy this bill presents. “This is not all about sex. We

are talking about the right for people to be employed, the right to access services equally, the right to justice and the right to freedom of speech and expression,” says Val Kalende, a journalist and activist for Sexual Minorities Uganda. A pervasive fear lingers in Uganda over how easily the bill, if passed, will be used as another tool in the arsenal of state intimidation. As opposition leader Morris Latigo concedes in a recent interview, “It is a very good bill in terms of opening up new possibilities for mischief in Ugandan politics.” Past allegations against prominent opposition leaders like Olaru Ottunu, that he is a homosexual while he is secretly married to a white woman, and, Kizza Besigye, that he is a rapist, are part and parcel of politics as usual in Uganda. This remains a country where the ruling party can simply resort to McCarthyesque scare tactics to intimidate and coerce any number of potential enemies of the state. Homosexuality becomes – like the purported communist threat of

1950s, in the US – an easy red herring, allowing a fearful ruling party to bolster its ideological support. As Sylvia Tamale notes in a recent interview, “All you have to do is send someone an unsolicited email or SMS which has some homosexual material and voilà... you will be guilty.” While the debate continues to rage on both sides, Joel is adamant, “Even if they summon me today, I am not going to leave... If the situation is too bad, I would of course run to another country, but, if the situation allows me to stay here then no... I love my country.” �

Ariel Rubin is a journalist for the Kampalabased newspaper The Independent. Online:

Independent World report

January/February 2010