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Uganda’s ’Death to Gays’ Bill Not Dead Yet

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Aug 22, 2011
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A bill that a Ugandan lawmaker with ties to anti-gay American evangelicals introduced two years ago shocked the world and sparked an international outcry because it called for the death penalty in cases where gay men had repeated sexual encounters with members of the same gender -- or, in the case of HIV positive gay men, after even a single same-sex liaison. (No similar penalty was suggested for HIV positive heterosexual men, however.)

The bill remained on the table throughout the international condemnation, and is still pending in that country’s parliament. GLBT news site Box Turtle Bulletin provided an Aug. 22 update, reporting that the Ugandan cabinet has rejected the anti-gay bill for a second time, but the parliament may well take up the bill once more once the country’s budget issues are resolved.

"The decision to throw out the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was made at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday where Mr. Mwesige, according to sources, told ministers that the Bill was unnecessary since government has a number of laws in place criminalizing homosexual activities," an Aug. 22 article in Ugandan newspaper the Daily Monitor reported.

But the anti-gay lawmaker who proposed the measure, David Bahati, disagreed that the current laws go far enough, the article added.

"Mr. Bahati and his group maintain that the country should have stronger laws against homosexuality in order to protect the moral fabric that holds society intact," the Daily Monitor said.

"The future of this country’s children will be determined by the peoples’ representatives in Parliament," Bahati told the press.

Bahati’s bill not only provides a penalty of death to gays, but also subjects heterosexuals to severe penalties if they know about gays in sexual relationships but decline to turn them in to officials.

The Box Turtle Bulletin report offered an account of the subterfuge by which the bill’s supporters have sought to pass its provisions without attracting renewed attention from the world’s press and from GLBT equality advocates.

"Earlier reports of the Cabinet’s decision indicated that members recommended dismantling the bill and passing portions of it surreptitiously as amendments to other bills in the hopes of escaping worldwide attention," the article said.

"Parliamentary Affairs Committee recommended that in the Clause 3 defining ’aggravated homosexuality’ and which specifies that ’A person who commits the offence of aggravated homosexuality shall be liable on conviction to suffer death,’ that the phrase ’suffer death’ should be replaced with ’the penalty provided for aggravated defilement under Section 129 of the Penal Code Act.’

"Section 129 of the Penal Code Act mandates the death penalty for an unrelated offense of child molestation," added the Box Turtle Bulletin article. "Parliament ultimately failed to pass the bill due to a lack of a quorum because of controversy over another unrelated bill."

An Aug. 22 posting at Warren Throckmorton confirmed the status of the bill and that it might be taken up once again by the Ugandan parliament.

"Currently, budget meetings are on the agenda but a budget is slated to get a vote by next Wednesday," the posting read. "After that, other business, including the anti-gay bill could be considered. As of now, according to Kawesa, there is no official action scheduled for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill but she said the bill could come up at any time after the budget has been passed."

In March of 2009, several American evangelicals traveled to Uganda and presented what they called the "Seminar on Exposing the Homosexuals’ Agenda." Their talks contained assorted claims about gays and the "dangers" that gays pose to society. The views set out by the Americans ranged from highly dubious claims that gays can be "converted" to heterosexuality to wild, undefined assertions that a "gay agenda" was at work "to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity," as well as stereotype-based pronouncements that gay men prey on teenage boys.

Bahati proposed the "Death to Gays" bill shortly after that appearance.

A right-wing American religious group called The Fellowship Foundation -- also known as "The Family" -- includes both Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, and the lawmaker who introduced the anti-gay bill, David Bahati, among its membership. The Family sponsors an annual religious event called The National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., for the purpose, some claim, of influencing policy and giving like-minded, powerful individuals the opportunity to network. It is traditional for members of Congress to attend and for the United States President to speak at the Washington, D.C. event. President Obama has also attended Prayer Breakfast events.

The Prayer Breakfast Network Web site set out the group’s aims and motivations, with text informing readers that, "Our PURPOSE is to reach leaders for Jesus Christ.... Our STRATEGY is to use Prayer Breakfast events.

"Prayer Breakfasts have shown to be highly effective at reaching into our community and impacting our leaders," the site’s text adds. "Leaders desire to come, get involved and experience a fresh reminder of our country’s Spiritual Heritage."

The Washington, D.C. event is coordinated with similar prayer breakfast gatherings around the country on the first Thursday of every February.

Ugandan GLBTs say that life in the country has become far harder for gays in the wake of the bill’s introduction. The nation’s tabloid press has taken an extreme anti-gay turn, with one Ugandan publication, Rolling Stone (not affiliated with the American music magazine) publishing the names and photos of 100 people the paper claimed were gay and lesbian. The headline that appeared with the list read, "Hang Them!"

"Before the introduction of the bill in parliament most people did not mind about our activities," one Ugandan man, Patrick Ndede, told the Associated Press in an Oct. 20, 2010, article. "But since then, we are harassed by many people who hate homosexuality," Ndede added. "The publicity the bill got made many people come to know about us and they started mistreating us."

Uganda is only one of a number of African nations where anti-gay social sentiments are on the rise.

In July, a regional minister in Ghana, Paul Evans Aidoo, announced a push to "eradicate" gays, and ordered government security forces to round up and arrest Ghanaians suspected of being GLBT.

Aidoo was reportedly acting after having been lobbied by anti-gay religious groups from both the Christian and Muslim faith traditions. One religious group, the Christian Council of Ghana, went a step further and demanded of its followers that they not lend their support at the ballot box to Ghanaian politicians who might be supportive of GLBT rights.

Such anti-gay efforts might well backfire and boost HIV rates in African nations. Health advocates have long warned that countries that stigmatize and criminalize gays drive same-gender sexual conduct, whether between gays, bisexuals, or straight men who have sex with men (MSMs), underground.

Worse, the fear of prosecution prevents people from being tested for HIV, sharply raising the risk that HIV positive people will transmit the virus to others. An effective treatment regimen has been proven to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, but no such regimen will be used where people are too afraid to be tested, let alone pursue treatment.

Another side effect of such stigmatization is that the very people who most need fact-based health information and the means to protect themselves and others, such as condoms, are far less likely to receive those things in a climate where homosexuality is criminalized.

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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