The issue of gay rights is a hotly debated subject all over the world. Some cultures are more tolerant than others to homosexuality. In the majority of African countries, homosexuality is illegal, therefore punishable by law.
Recently officials of the Ugandan government announced that as a ‘Christmas gift’ to the Ugandan public, parliament would pass a bill that seeks to prohibit the promotion of gay rights and punishes anyone who funds, sponsors or abets homosexuality. This bill carries a series of jail terms for ‘convicted homosexuals’ including life imprisonment. Before it was amended due to international pressure, this bill sought to introduce the death penalty for certain homosexual acts.
Uganda is perceived to be one of the most homophobic countries in the world. Homosexuality is considered not only ‘deeply immoral’ but a ‘condition’ that needs to be eradicated through punishment, rehabilitation and prayer. In 2010, a Ugandan newspaper published the names and addresses of 100 gay individuals with a banner alongside them saying ‘Hang them’. This lead to multiple attacks and deaths of a number of the victims. In addition to the marginalization, discrimination, harassment, detention, attack and murder of gay individuals, there are reported cases of ‘correctional rape’ of lesbians.
The government claims that this bill is what most Ugandans want. The jury is out on whether this is a statistical fact or not. Even if this claim is shown to be true, the question of majority verses minority groups in situations where right and wrong are clearly a matter of opinion, exposes a major weakness of democracy. This is nothing new; history is littered with tales of minority groups rising against their oppressors. Not too long ago, the gay community was also marginalised in the western world. The question now is will Uganda (and Africa as a whole) follow the west into recognition and even integration of gay rights into society? Should Uganda follow?
Western countries, particularly America and Canada, are now seriously pushing for gay rights to be recognised in Uganda (or at least decriminalisation of homosexuality) by using economic threats such as withdrawal of aid. This has been perceived as move towards neo-colonialism and an attack on the sovereignty of Uganda. Ugandans refuse to be ‘bullied’ into accepting ‘western values’. This is not just a rejection of homosexuality in Ugandan society; it is a rejection of western influence and an expression of the right to self-determination.
Before steps can be taken to change anti-gay sentiments in Uganda, it is important to understand why there is such a profound disdain for the gay community in this country.
Homosexuality is considered by many Ugandans (and other Africans) as wholly ‘unafrican’ and an import from the western world. It has been speculated that the whole idea of homosexuality threatens the heterosexist social order which maintains the patriarchy that is characteristic of traditional African culture. Gay men are a lot more hated than gay women because being a gay man challenges the masculinity, therefore superiority, of men. It is an abomination.
These claims that homosexuality is a foreign concept to Uganda are false because the history books reveal several accounts of the existence of gay individuals in Ugandan history. One of the major kingdoms in Uganda had a famously gay King. Gay individuals have been in Africa a long time but they were neither persecuted nor promoted. The issue was not a debate. So what changed?
Not only are the current laws that criminalise homosexuality a remnant of British Colonial times in Uganda, it is mainly western-based religious views, particularly U.S. evangelical Christian views have been a major driver of this intense homophobia in Uganda.
Uganda is a deeply religious country with the majority of the population Christian (about 85%) or Muslim (about 12%). Religion dominates most aspects of life there, at least publicly. Almost all schools are affiliated with a religious institution, most healthcare facilities are linked to a religious institution and many forms of aid to needy communities are implemented through religious institutions at a grass-root level. As a result religious leaders wield great power both socially and politically.
A number of American evangelists including Scott Lively, author of ‘The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party’ have travelled to Uganda and held conferences maligning the gay community and accusing them of planning to replace the marriage based society with a culture of sexual promiscuity. Mr Lively was recently sued by a gay activist group called Sexual Minorities Uganda. This group maintains that Mr Lively, along with politicians and religious leaders in Uganda conspired to incite anti-gay hysteria by claiming that the gay community was seeking to sodomize children and corrupt Ugandan culture.
The Muslim community in Uganda is also quite vocal about its position against homosexuality. Many politicians and religious leaders in Uganda perpetuate the misconceptions that gay people are deeply immoral, sexual predators, defile children, recruit them into this ‘evil’ lifestyle and infect them with HIV. This propaganda is what exacerbates the hatred of gay individuals in Uganda and as long as these are the beliefs held by the Ugandan population, the battle for gay rights will be lost. It’s really a shame that these religious leaders are completely misrepresenting the religions they claim to uphold by promoting such intolerance and hatred.
Several observers have pointed out that it is highly likely that this great debate over gay rights is not just a matter of ‘morals’ but it is a political move orchestrated by politicians to reclaim a disillusioned public’s faith. Perhaps the government ‘s attempt at convince people that this bill is what they want, then passing the bill, is an elaborate ploy to convince the Ugandan people that their government does deliver. Frankly it would be more impressive if these very politicians could deliver on decent healthcare for the people of Uganda, or better roads, or better schools, or a reasonable pay rise for public service men and women instead of persecuting a minority group simply because they do not agree with their lifestyle choices.
Nevertheless, this renewed controversy has pushed a previously taboo topic into conversation. So far this has had a profoundly negative effect on the gay community. It is hard to tell whether these sentiments will change any time soon or even with time. It remains to be seen if the ‘Christmas gift’ will be delivered by the end of the year and what its true impact on international relations for Uganda will be.
Written by Irene Kyomuhangi.
Photographs © and courtesy of Kaytee Riek