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

T 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
country that received millions of dollars
for its abstinence programs from the
Bush Administration.
Warren, the highly influential US
evangelical holds immense sway in
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
remains one of Uganda’s few gay friendly Uganda. While finally condemning the already marginalised minority.
bars. On a recent visit, as the debate rages bill after a great deal of recent pressure, With the violence of the September
over the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Warren remains the same man who, 2009 riots still fresh and murmurs of
Bill 2009, a current of fear and anxiety is in an April 2008 visit to Kampala, told deep-seated unrest in this tribally-
felt beneath the veneer of another night religious leaders that homosexuality is divided country, the fervour over the
out. One man notes wearily, “Why is that not a natural way of life and, thus, not a inflammatory bill has played directly into
so shocking to you? This is the country human right, “We shall not tolerate this the hands of those who introduced it.
that wants to kill and imprison us.” aspect at all.” As Sylvia Tamale – Dean, Makerere
While life has never been easy for As Anglican priest Kapya Kaoma notes Law School – warns in a recent debate
Uganda’s marginalised gay community, it in a recent article, the religious orthodoxy over the issue, “Anyone who cares to read
could get a whole lot harder should the of many African churches provided the US history books knows very well that in
bill pass. Amos, an eloquent man in his religious right with a golden opportunity times of crisis, when people at the locus
early thirties committed in a relationship to extend the church’s influence into of power are feeling vulnerable and their
for many years notes, “Do some people the government. According to Kaoma, power is threatened, they will turn against
know? Yes. Do some people suspect? Yes. “Africans resonate with the denunciation the weaker groups in the society.”
Can they prove it in court? No. The new of homosexuality as a post-colonial plot.” When discussing the bill, Tamale still
bill changes that.” Ugandan homophobia, thus, ironically can hardly believe it came into fruition.
As a group of seventeen human rights doubles as an expression of resistance to Clearly, the bill’s author is no lawyer, she
organisations notes in a recent statement, the West while being stoked and funded notes, as it violates tenets of the 1995
the bill “includes a provision that could by conservative leaders and church clergy constitution while legally the parliament
lead to the imprisonment for up to three from the very same West. A recent news lacks the power to nullify inconsistent
years of anyone, including heterosexual item in the Vision newspaper, about Ethics treaties or constitutional provisions.
people, who fails to report within twenty- and Integrity Minister James Buturo’s “You cannot put this in a bill if you know
four hours the identities of everyone refusal to capitulate to donor country your international law.”
they know who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, demands to scrap the bill, sums up the Indeed, one of the key consultants
or transgender, or who supports human sentiment perfectly: We will not bend over and writers of the bill is not a lawyer
rights for people who are... The draft bill for aid, Butoro tells donors. at all, but the controversial Ugandan
seeks to imprison anyone convicted of In a country where the notion of pro-family pastor, Martin Ssempa. This
the offence of homosexuality for life.” atheism is scoffed at as a joke, and a is the pastor, who, over recent years,
The bill – known as the Bahati Bill, after deep-seated fear pervades over the burned condoms in the name of Jesus and
David Bahati, the member of parliament undue influence of Western decadence arranged for the publication of prominent
who privately tabled it in October 2009 and liberalism, political elites have homosexuals’ names in local newspapers.
– comes out of an environment that is managed to introduce the perfect bill to His abstinence-based HIV/AIDS work
already deeply inimical to alternative distract much of the country from the was supported by the Bush White House
lifestyles and any perceived threat to entrenched problems like corruption and and he has close ties with the born again
the traditional family. 94% of Ugandans unaccountability. Ugandan first lady, Janet Museveni.
consider themselves religious and 95% This is a country whose tabloid daily
strongly oppose the legalisation of same- – The Red Pepper – routinely publishes
sex relations. articles with titles like Homo terror and List “As Africans, we find the
As one of Pastor Rick Warren’s of tycoons who bankroll homos, in addition
purpose-driven nations, Uganda has become to notorious dossiers of first names, whole subject of sodomy and
a test-tube for Western evangelicals. The professions and physical descriptions of
coalescence of the church and the state alleged homosexuals.
lesbianism an
is the norm in this profoundly religious As the campaigning season for the 2011 unacceptable lifestyle.”

28 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 29


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

In a recent radio debate, Ssempa showers. The anal sphincter, biologically, Because, the meat was too sweet. So is
repeatedly touches upon the overarching is not designed or suited for sexual that culture? Are we going to go back to
threats he believes the bill will remedy: penetration, and, by and large, many that culture?”
the deracination of African culture and the boys and men have been infected and had Joel, remains an avowed supporter
erosion of family values alongside anxiety permanent damage from homosexual of President Museveni and talks of how
over the perceived increase of homosexual behaviour.” wonderful he felt when he left his village
recruitment and molestation of young boys. Even though the colonial-era penal in his early twenties and realised he was
Fears of insidious homosexual code already criminalises sexual relations not alone. “When I came to Kampala, I
recruitment plots are the norm in Uganda. with a minor, the pastor believes the new found so many people, even some small
Even the president, Yoweri Museveni, bill will provide equal protection before organisations. I feel at home here, only
notes in worryingly in a November speech the law for the boys who are molested or now this bill is really making it worse
that he hears “European homosexuals raped, “This bill is gender balancing the on me. Really, I was so happy and I am
are recruiting in Africa.” The odious law.” happy.”
conflation of consensual sexual activity For Ssempa, the idea of a seemingly He and his friends are worried, yet, as
between two adults and paedophilia monolithic and intractable culture is they mingle and laugh at the bar, there
amidst the offensive and bizarre notion deeply relevant. “First of all, I am an is a profound sense of defiance and pride,
of a Western gay conspiracy has gripped not African,” he explains. “And, as Africans, “I think Ssempa has big people with guns
only the president but much of a fearful we find the whole subject of sodomy and and everything, and, the way they are
public as well. lesbianism an unacceptable lifestyle.” threatening us, some of us, I think, we are
In a recent interview, Pastor Ssempa Joel, a soft-spoken gay activist decries ready to die, because, there is no way I am
explains, “I think it is important to Ssempa’s version of culture as little more going to go away. And, I can not change.
understand what sodomy is. It is than a tool to stir up people who find They want to preach and they want to
inherently unhealthy, a sexual lifestyle something distasteful. After all, he says educate. Me, I am not going to change.”
that involves unmentionable acts such laughing, “Did you know, a long time ago, For Joel, the law will not help eliminate
as rimming, golden showers and brown in Africa, women could not eat chicken? homosexuality but simply continue to

30 January/February 2010 Independent World report


Photo by International Women’s Health Coalition.

drive it further underground and make are talking about the right for people to 1950s, in the US – an easy red herring,
it more dangerous by targeting medical be employed, the right to access services allowing a fearful ruling party to bolster
professionals, lawyers and organisations equally, the right to justice and the right its ideological support. As Sylvia Tamale
who treat and work with homosexuals, to freedom of speech and expression,” notes in a recent interview, “All you have
adding that by stigmatising instead of says Val Kalende, a journalist and activist to do is send someone an unsolicited
educating homosexuals about the perils for Sexual Minorities Uganda. email or SMS which has some homosexual
of risky sexual behaviour, it will likely A pervasive fear lingers in Uganda material and voilà... you will be guilty.”
end up exacerbating Uganda’s HIV/AIDS over how easily the bill, if passed, will be While the debate continues to rage
crisis. used as another tool in the arsenal of state on both sides, Joel is adamant, “Even if
He notes the many straight men who intimidation. As opposition leader Morris they summon me today, I am not going to
often come to the Kampala night club to Latigo concedes in a recent interview, “It leave... If the situation is too bad, I would
cruise and pick up men, “So many people is a very good bill in terms of opening up of course run to another country, but, if
are married and are hiding in their culture, new possibilities for mischief in Ugandan the situation allows me to stay here then
when they actually are homosexual. They politics.” Past allegations against no... I love my country.” �
are proclaiming ‘I am heterosexual. I am prominent opposition leaders like Olaru
not going to be attacked.’ But, then they Ottunu, that he is a homosexual while he
will come here. We will have fun and is secretly married to a white woman, and,
tomorrow he will go.” Kizza Besigye, that he is a rapist, are part
Joel adds forebodingly, “If you do not and parcel of politics as usual in Uganda.
protect me from HIV, you will also get it This remains a country where the
tomorrow.” ruling party can simply resort to McCarthy-
Ultimately, activists fear the general esque scare tactics to intimidate and
Ariel Rubin is a journalist for the Kampala-
erosion of Uganda’s human rights culture coerce any number of potential enemies
and the acute threat to democracy this of the state. Homosexuality becomes – based newspaper The Independent. Online:
bill presents. “This is not all about sex. We like the purported communist threat of independent.co.ug

Independent World report January/February 2010 31