By Meron Mesfin
In the past couple of years Uganda has been making international headlines due to a highly controversial bill regarding the treatment, or rather the verdict, on homosexuals in Uganda. Likened, by renowned Bishop Desmond Tutu, to
the Nazi regime in Germany and the Apartheid regime in South Africa, the bill has complicated Uganda’s relationship with some Western powers. With some cutting aid and others condemning the anti-gay bill, it is no surprise that the deliberations caught the Ugandan public’s attention.
Originally introduced in 2009 by David Bahati, a Ugandan MP and member of the National Resistance Movement, the bill proposed the death penalty for what was termed “aggravated homosexuality.” This, according to the bill, prosecutes homosexuals who have sexual intercourse with minors, disabled people, or when said homosexuals are HIV-positive. According to the government Museveni’s decision to sign the bill was based on a report by “medical experts” who say “homosexuality is not genetic but a social behavior.” Museveni publicly signed the bill into law on February 24, and afterwards confirmed that he did it because of the reports from the medical experts concluding that the cause of homosexuality is mainly choice.
The anti-gay bill enacted in Uganda has also been criticized on the basis of its practicality. The bill states that people “in support” of homosexuality, whether they are homosexual or not, are subject to a fine or to imprisonment. As well as any sort of public support for homosexuality, just knowing a person who is “guilty” of homosexuality, and not reporting them to the authorities, constitutes as a crime. The aim of the bill is to reduce acts of homosexuality and condemn any kind of recognition and support for it; but how effective is this bill actually going to be? Will enforcing the moral beliefs of the lawmakers and government officials actually prohibit homosexuality? I say no.
Just because it is now illegal, it will not change the sexual orientation of individuals. Moreover how will homosexuals actually be caught? Yes, homosexuals will most likely not engage in public displays of affection but the bill does not guarantee that it will not be done in private. My point is that the anti-gay bill will not be be able to achieve its goal of reducing homosexuality, it will merely increase the fear of public display of affection. In a country like Uganda, I firmly believe that people do not choose to be gay. As the famous Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie emphasizes, why would someone want to be gay in not just an African country, but even this world that is still extremely reluctant to accept gay rights?
The harsh law on homosexuals could possibly foster a stronger gay community. We have seen throughout history that government crackdown on civil society only made it stronger. African Americans proceeded with the civil rights movement even after heavy persecution. The ANC in South Africa continued with their mandate despite being labeled a terrorist organization by the Apartheid government. LGBT groups outside of Uganda and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International will also not sit down and watch homosexuals be killed one by one. They will lend a helping hand in fighting for the cause because they feel it is their duty. In England, protests were held outside the Ugandan High Commission in London against the anti-gay law. Moreover countries such as the United States as well as international financial institutions have cut back aid and imposed sanctions on Uganda due to this new law. External and internal outcry against the anti-gay bill will not fade away due to the signing of the bill, which is another factor that contributes to the ineffectiveness of the anti-gay law.
On the other hand, it should be acknowledged that Uganda is an independent and sovereign country that passed this law due to popular support from MPs and lawmakers. President Museveni had been prolonging the signing of the bill for over two years. He claimed that he wanted to give scientists time to research on the causes of homosexuality, whether it is genetic or simply choice. However as a longtime ally of the West and recipient of aid, President Museveni must have been afraid of the consequences that his stance on homosexuality would bring about, namely Uganda’s relationship with the West.
Nevertheless President Museveni responded to the loud cries of Ugandan MPs such as David Bahati and well known Pastors such as Martin Ssempa who played a huge role in endorsing the legislation and rallying Ugandans to support the bill. Some Ugandans I have conversed with, who support the bill, claim that Uganda’s decision must be respected due to the fact that it was largely supported by the Ugandans themselves and therefore, if anything, public opinion and democracy were upheld.
The Turkish government recently banned Twitter; Saudi Arabia cracked down on female drivers in the country; Russia and Iran have a bad track record in how they deal with human rights activists that challenge the State. Therefore Uganda is not passing this law because liberal ideologies or human rights are alien to African countries, as some may argue. Unlike Turkey, which is a well-known democracy, President Museveni took this stance on homosexuality to please the majority of the citizens, who happen to be conservative religious folks who pushed for the legislation.
As a Christian individual who was born and lived in Uganda, do I agree with the bill? No. It’s unfortunate that in the 21st century human beings are being persecuted for who they choose to love. Many Ugandans argue that the Bible’s stance on homosexuality is in line with their beliefs, but it should be emphasized that the Bible is interpreted differently amongst individuals and therefore the church and state must be separated. As Chimimanda Adichie argues, if the Bible claims that sodomy is wrong, then why is divorce or fornication not a crime? Aren’t these also considered to be morally wrong in the Bible? A paradox emerges in the way people view crime and this must be corrected.
A key point to note is that human rights is and has always been a work-in-progress. Minorities have, and in many cases, are still being persecuted as we can see from Uganda. However this law is not the end of the LGBT mandate in Uganda. “Liberal” countries such as the United States have still not yet fully adopted gay rights, and meanwhile there are conservative religious Christian groups endorsing anti-gay legislations like in Uganda. This problem is therefore not exclusive to just Uganda, it is a worldwide issue, and it will take time to acknowledge and fully promote gay rights.
Born in Uganda to Ethiopian parents and raised in Rwanda, Meron Mesfin is currently reading International Studies at Simon Fraser University in Canada. She is the President of SFU African Students Association due to her passion for African politics and culture and sees the necessity to raise awareness about the continent due to the myopic view held by many in the education and elsewhere.