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Uganda’s Only Gay Bar Shuttered

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Oct 7, 2011
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Things have gotten worse for Uganda’s sexual minorities with the shuttering of the country’s only gay bar, the Associated Press reported on Oct. 6.

"Jacqueline Kasha said Thursday that her Sappho Islands bar was padlocked by the landlord on Sunday," the article reported. "The landlord said the bar was noisy and attracted ’strange’ people."

The article noted that the so-called "Death to Gays" bill remains before the Ugandan parliament. The bill would steepen existing anti-gay laws by inflicting capital punishment on gays who have repeated sexual encounters with others of the same gender, or HIV-positive gays who have sex with other men even once. (HIV-positive men who have sex with women face no such punishment.)

The bill, which was proposed by David Bahati, a lawmaker with ties to anti-gay American evangelicals, would also punish people who know of same-sex relationships but do not report them to the authorities.

Several American evangelicals visited the country in 2009 and purported to warn their audiences of the threats they said gays posed to society and to the family. The evangelicals suggested that gays intended to destroy the institutions of marriage and family and "recruited" young people who would otherwise not be gay.

A Jan. 29 New York Times article reported that after the American evangelicals told Ugandan crowds that gays "recruit" teenage boys into a "lifestyle" that is "chosen" and can be "cured," a wave of homophobia quickly swelled. Bahati introduced the bill shortly afterwards.

The social climate in Uganda has grown steadily more anti-gay since then.

"Last year, a tabloid newspaper in Uganda published the names and photos of men it alleged were gay," the AP article recounted. "One cover included the words ’Hang Them.’

"Shortly afterward, a prominent gay rights activist whose picture was published was bludgeoned to death," the article added.

That activist, David Kato, was attacked and beaten in his home on Jan. 26. Kato died en route to a hospital. He had been bludgeoned with a hammer, suffering two blows to the head.

Kato was part of a group called Sexual Minorities Uganda. He and two others who had been named in the Rolling Stone article took the tabloid to court and won their case; the court ruled that Rolling Stone had infringed upon their rights. The tabloid expressed no remorse and vowed to continue its persecution of the country’s GLBTs.

Police said that Kato was attacked and beaten by "robbers," and denied that Kato’s sexuality or the Rolling Stone article had any bearing on his murder.

The manner of Kato’s death and suspicions that his death was the result of anti-gay bias didn’t spare the equality activist a final indignity. An anti-gay Anglican cleric named Thomas Musoke disrupted Kato’s funeral with a homophobic tirade that outraged mourners and led to "a scuffle," various media sources reported.

Musoke was charged with conducting Kato’s funeral service, but rather than allow the slain gay leader a dignified memorial, the Anglican priest launched into a harangue, telling mourners that gays needed to "repent" of their sin--the "sin," that is, of being homosexual. Some of the 200 mourners attending the funeral swept up to take the microphone away from Musoke and end his tirade; police intervened, spiriting Musoke away from the scene.

Despite the risks associated with being out, some of Uganda’s GLBT advocates continue to press for recognition and a measure of equality. Activists are fighting social and political bias in pressing for the inclusion of gays and other men who have sex with men (MSM) in a new national strategy to combat HIV, PlusNews reported on Aug. 30.

Activists and health experts have long warned that anti-gay nations that simply try to sweep gays under the rug (or round them up in mass arrests, as a minister in Ghana has recently said he would do) court disaster. The fear is that gays, bisexuals, and men who identify as heterosexual but still have sex with other men (MSM) will simply go underground and avoid testing and treatment.

Because HIV positive individuals who do not receive proper and timely treatment are at much higher risk of passing the virus along, persecution that promotes such health risks runs a grave risk of pushing AIDS rates higher.

Such was the case in South Africa during a period of time when government officials refused to take effective action and even promoted ineffectual preparations made with beet juice as a "cure" for HIV. As a result, the nation’s HIV rates skyrocketed.

Uganda’s national plan for dealing with the AIDS epidemic does not factor gays and other MSM into the picture -- an oversight that activists are saying must be corrected.

The new plan will be completed this year, and "lays out a framework for responding to the epidemic, pinpointing priority areas for programming; the next one is expected to guide the country’s HIV programs until 2015," the PlusNews article says. But in its current form, the plan barely acknowledges MSM and dismisses them as insignificant in the AIDS epidemic and efforts to combat it.

This assertion is flatly contradicted by the data. The article referenced a survey that showed HIV rates among MSM were more than double that for the general population. Even that survey was affected by the nation’s anti-gay policies, though--the article noted that assembling the data for the survey was "severely interrupted" when advocates for the gay community were placed under arrest.

Such persecution interferes in researchers’ efforts to gain meaningful and accurate data because the people they are trying to talk to are less willing to talk to them, said Apophia Agiresaasi, who heads the Action Group for Health, Human Rights and HIV/AIDS.

"They will say they belong to a category that’s more acceptable, or if they’re in sexual relationships with both men and women, they will identify as heterosexuals," Agiresaasi said, adding that as a result the data from such surveys may underreport the number of gays and MSM.

The HIV plan "directs how resources from donors and governments are utilized," according to Kikonyogo Kivumbi, who heads up the Health and Science Press Association, an advocacy group.

"It means that whoever is going to access those resources in the delivery of public health services, if the policy directs them, they can introduce LGBTI -friendly services," added Kivumbi.

"These people are engaging in sex," Kivumbi said. "Whether you want it or not, infections of HIV will occur."

"According to Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), the absence of a national dialogue around safe sex education for sexual minorities means that many members of the MSM community do not know how to avoid HIV transmission," the article said.

The current version of the plan would do nothing to correct the situation. Though it identifies sex workers and other populations (such as those who live in fishing villages) as susceptible to the epidemic and in need of education, condoms, and other forms of outreach, the national plan neglects to provide similar resources for gays and MSMs.

Bahati has rewritten his bill somewhat to attempt to mollify critics, but observers say that the most egregious parts of the proposed anti-gay legislation have appeared in other forms, and charge that lawmakers are trying to slip the bill’s punitive provisions into the nation’s laws under the radar.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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