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UNITED NATIONS, Jul 4 2012 (IPS) - In Uganda, like in many sub-Saharan African countries, same-sex relationships are illegal and punishable by incarceration in prison for up to 14 years, legislation that is supported by a majority of Ugandans and influenced by the lobbying efforts of U.S. evangelical churches.
The law could soon become even more draconian under the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, also known as the “Kill the Gays” Bill, which was re-introduced in parliament in February of this year.
“There isn’t the slightest idea of when (the bill) will be voted on, if it will be voted on at all, if it will pass or if it won’t… It really is anyone’s guess,” Katherine Fairfax, one of the two filmmakers of the award-winning documentary “Call Me Kuchu”, told IPS.
The highly controversial bill was first submitted by Member of Parliament David Bahati in October 2009 and divides homosexual “crimes” into three categories: supportive homosexuality, homosexuality and aggravated homosexuality.
Not reporting a gay friend or relative to the authorities would be considered as aiding the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community and punishable by three years of imprisonment, according to the bill, while engaging in homosexual acts such as intimate touching could lead to life in prison.
One may wonder what “aggravated” homosexuality includes. According to the bill, it contains different felonies such as engaging in homosexual acts with a disabled person, a minor, or if the “offender” is HIV-positive.
“This inflammatory bill will be taken as further confirmation that it is okay to attack or even kill people perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender,” said Victor Mukasa of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
The bill is yet to be voted on, and has been delayed due to pressure from the international community, including Britain and Sweden, which are threatening to cut financial aid to Uganda should the legislation pass.
“Call Me Kuchu,” directed by Fairfax and Malika Zouhalli-Worrall, follows the fight of courageous LGBT rights activist David Kato and his friends against the rampant homophobia in Uganda. It was recently screened at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York.
This small but influential group of Ugandan gay activists emerged in their fight against Bahati’s bill, which Kato considered to be “profoundly undemocratic”.
“The hardest work is done by activists like those in this film. They are an inspiration to me,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told journalists after a screening of the film.
The work of these activists drew a lot of attention at home and abroad, and they often made the front pages of Ugandan tabloids that carry out a “witch hunt” vilifying the gay community.
One of these tabloids was Rolling Stone magazine (no affiliation with the U.S. publication of the same name), which published a list of the nation’s 100 “top” gays and lesbians with their photos and personal information in October 2010.
The subtitle, written in flashy letters, read “Hang them!”
Asked about his magazine’s actions, Giles Muhame, the editor, told journalists, “Sometimes violence is justifiable. But we didn’t advocate for violence against David Kato. We said this man should be arrested, tried, sentenced, hanged.”
Shorty after he won a lawsuit against Rolling Stone magazine for publishing the list, David Kato was murdered in his home.
So why, at a time when gay rights are advancing in many countries around the world, is the LGBT community under such attack in Uganda?
“The fact that so many states are now voicing their support for the rights of LGBT people internationally… only increases the sense of pressure on those countries that are holding out against change,” Charles Radcliffe, senior adviser on sexual orientation and gender identity in the U.N human rights office, told IPS.
“And the reaction in some cases is to dig in,” he added.
The Ugandan government is indeed digging in, aided by U.S. evangelical leaders who are turning to Africa after having lost their anti-gay battle in the U.S.
Among other things, these church leaders organise conferences in which they insist that homosexuality is a direct threat to the cohesion of African families.
Three of the most active U.S. evangelical leaders are Lou Engel, Scott Lively, and Rev. Rick Warren, who is known for having delivered the invocation at President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony.
(Obama has since come out fully for gay marriage).
“Homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right,” Warren asserted during a visit to Uganda in 2008.
Lively goes even further. “Homosexuals (are) the true inventors of Nazism and the guiding force behind many Nazi atrocities,” he writes in the preface of his book, “The Pink Swastika”.
The Western preachers espouse the idea, widely accepted in the region, that people choose homosexuality as a lifestyle.
Ugandan member of Parliament David Bahati couldn’t agree more. “It’s not an inborn orientation, it’s a behaviour learnt – and it can be unlearnt,” he claims.
But homophobia has actually been imported into Africa from the West for a long time.
“If it is the case that Western religious preachers are going to Africa today and fanning the flames of homophobia, they are part of a long and dishonourable tradition stretching back many decades,” Radcliffe told IPS.
According to him, it all began with the colonial era laws used to criminalise same-sex relationships.
Whatever the source, homophobia is now ubiquitous in Uganda and triggers different forms of violence directed against a small group.
In spite of some lawsuits won in favour of the LGBT community, such as the one against Rolling Stone magazine, it is still very dangerous for a gay person to live in Uganda.
“While there are these victories building up, the situation is still pretty much as precarious, sadly,” Zouhalli-Worrall told IPS.
And with the re-introduction of the “Kill the Gays” Bill in Parliament, it might get worse.
“Each society will find its own way forward and move at its own pace. But no society can withhold basic rights from certain individuals indefinitely,” Radcliffe told IPS.
“Change will come, the only question is how fast,” he added.
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