Why Our Response to Uganda’s Anti-Gay Laws Isn’t Working

by | March 5, 2014
filed under LGBT, Politics, Racism

Photo of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni

by Arwen McKechnie

So, as many of you may know, after five long years of advocacy and international pressure against it, the President of Uganda has signed a bill into law which adds horrifically harsh sentences to existing Ugandan legislation criminalizing homosexuality.

The bill originally called for cases of “aggravated homosexuality” to receive the death penalty, but that has been removed. Repeat offenders of Uganda’s new law will instead be sentenced to life imprisonment, which I’m sure is cold comfort. First time offenders would receive fourteen years.

In addition to the increased prison sentences, the new bill also makes it a crime to provide any material or emotional support to LGBTQ people or causes.  Allies would face possible sentences of five to seven years for providing material support to LGBTQ causes or running a business or NGO which supports equality.

For actually “enabling” homosexual behavior – by marrying a same-sex couple, or by trying to aid or counsel a queer person – the mandatory minimum goes up to seven years.

This last clause is perhaps the most ominous, which is saying something, considering all of this legislation is a nightmare.

As a much cleverer friend of mine rightly pointed out, “aid and counsel” can be defined in any number of ways. If a lawyer represents someone accused of homosexuality and that person is convicted, is the lawyer then subject to prosecution herself? Will even the possibility of that happening have a chilling effect on who is willing to take on such cases?

I fear that the answer in both cases is yes – which means that whatever defence a person could offer against conviction will be weakened right from the start. This becomes an easy way for malicious people to ruin their enemies, creating an environment ripe for witch hunts.

These concerns don’t even address the fact that to identify as queer and do anything other than abjectly apologize for it is now a crime in Uganda. How can the Ugandan LGBTQ community do anything to repeal this law or advocate for basic human decency, when to do so is itself against the law?

The witch hunts have already begun: the day after the bill was signed into law, Red Pepper, a Kampala-based tabloid listed the names of “Uganda’s 200 Top Homos”, some of whom were known LGBTQ advocates, and some of whom have never before identified as queer, and, for all we know, may not still.

Red Pepper apparently has a history of homophobic attacks on people, and with the timing of this article, their intention seems clear. This is nothing less than an appeal to mob violence and vigilantism.

The last time such a list was published in Uganda, in 2011, a known gay activist, David Kato, was murdered, shortly after being granted an injunction preventing that paper from publishing the photos and names of any more gay people; his picture was one of the ones that had been published, under the caption “Hang Them.” Red Pepper’s editorial board has poured gasoline on a fire that will almost certainly result in the death or ruin of many innocent people.

Of course, by innocent, I mean everyone. President Museveni previously refused to sign this bill into law, back when it carried a death penalty for repeat offences, because he believed that sexuality was innate, and to penalize queer people so severely, beyond the existing penalties already in place, for something beyond their control was unjust. He’s apparently since been convinced otherwise by a team of Ugandan scientists who have all attested to the fact that homosexuality is a learned behaviour.

What I think much more probable is that President Museveni recognized that this bill was enormously popular within Uganda and got sick of being lectured and threatened by the global North, and recognized that same outrage in most Ugandans. No one wants to be talked down to, or treated as less than, and the representatives of many governments made their views pointedly known on this subject, sometimes in distinctly unhelpful ways.

In 2011, both American and British government representatives spoke publicly about tying their aid to human rights protections in the developing world, specifically to gay rights. Many people, even those fully supportive of gay rights and actively working to dismantle hateful legislation and cultural norms, saw that as a high-handed threat and recoiled from it.

I was in Ghana at the time, a country which also criminalizes male homosexuality, though informal persecution of lesbians is not unknown. Ghana is one of the most stable, prosperous countries in West Africa, but it still receives international assistance, and it still requires that assistance. All the same, the reaction from most of my coworkers was that foreign governments had no right to try and dictate national legislation, and if it came down to it, they would rather see Ghana act as a sovereign nation than bow to international bullying.

Ghana was the first country in Africa to declare its independence in 1957, and Ghanaians are rightly proud of that fact. I think it can be easy for foreign legislators, who are, after all, responsive to their own ideologies and those of their voters, to forget that the last African nation to achieve self-government was South Africa, and that goal was only reached, after decades of brutal violence, less than twenty years ago. Twenty years.

Colonialism is a vivid, lived experience for many people across this continent, and any international lobbying effort that carries even hints of that legacy should be avoided. President Museveni directly acknowledged this dynamic in his formal statement upon signing the bill: “I would like to discourage the USA government from taking the line that this law will ‘complicate our valued relationship’ with the USA, as President Obama said… [A] ‘valued relationship’ cannot be sustainably maintained by one society being subservient to another.”

This isn’t the first time this kind of response to criticism of the bill has come up – in 2012, criticism from the Canadian government led one Ugandan MP to “protest in the strongest terms the arrogance exhibited by the Foreign Minister of Canada, who spent most of his time attacking Uganda and promoting homosexuality… If Homosexuality is a value for the people of Canada, they should not seek to force Uganda to embrace it. We are not a colony or a protectorate of Canada.”

She was cheered as a voice for Uganda’s people, and for resisting international interference; homophobia and anti-queer rhetoric have now become populist moves in some political circles.

Even if Northern countries want to withdraw their aid to protest these laws, is it ethical for them to do so? Does that really serve the best interests of the recipient country’s people or their queer communities? Will more under-fives dying of malnutrition or malaria encourage homophobic people or their legislators to rethink their position? I doubt it.

Even if it doesn’t lead to a further backlash against queer communities because of the perceived favouritism of Northern legislators (which many activists fear), aid to Uganda and other developing countries serves a vital purpose that benefits many, including queer people.

Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands have already promised to halt aid to Uganda and while the dollar value of their combined aid is around $26 million, a pretty modest contribution, the impact will still no doubt be felt by communities that relied on their programming. The United States’ aid to Uganda, by contrast, is valued at $456.3 million every year.

Don’t get me wrong, these laws are horrific and disgusting and I am very angry and very afraid of what will come from them. I’m not trying to argue any kind of moral relativism or that homophobia is suddenly okay in Africa, just because it’s common; it’s not okay, and it never will be. I

Map of Gay rights laws in Africa - MapBut with every Facebook post I read on this topic, with every angry editorial from a human rights agency demanding immediate condemnation from the North and punishment of the Ugandan government, as if they were in fact a subservient state, I see the positions of African nations becoming more and more entrenched. Our “helping” is making things worse, and it’s time to realize that and take a deep breath.

There are things that we can do, though. We can lobby our own governments to be more sensitized to refugee claims coming from countries which persecute queer people. We can protest in our own countries when refugees are deemed “not gay enough” and their claims are rejected because they’ve spent a lifetime hiding their orientation. We can get out own houses in order and ensure that homophobic and discriminatory legislation and practices are identified and changed. We can refuse to support institutions and organizations that promote hatred and intolerance, whether at home or internationally (see video below), and we can give our money and time instead to organizations that foster equality and mutual respect.

In the words of Africa’s greatest son, “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

(photo of President Museveni in the public domain, graph of Africa via the Globe and Mail [source])


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  • Jarrah Hodge

    Hey Arwen. Thanks for your thoughts and research on this.

    I know I personally felt better hearing our government and seeing the US government speak strongly against what was happening in Uganda. When something is happening so far away it can make you feel relieved to see your government doing something when you feel like you can’t personally (even though, as you point out, there are things we can do).

    Reading your piece did make me worry that withdrawing aid could potentially make things more difficult for the activists and other marginalized Ugandans. When you have a potential witch-hunt situation, making people more desperate is unlikely to help.

    One thing I’ve also wondered is whether the response we’re seeing from the Northern governments is being applied evenly to other countries with similar laws? My sense is that it’s not, that aid funding has not uniformly been pulled from other countries for this reason. And certainly we still do business with more economically-powerful countries that have criminalized homosexuality.

    It makes me question whether the strong response is more about the message it sends to the Canadian/American public, because of the publicity around the specific situation in Uganda, rather than a principled commitment to human rights around the globe.

  • Arwen McKechnie

    You’re exactly right Jarrah, and it’s something I wanted to address in the original post, but thought it was secondary to the bigger issue of how some advocacy is counterproductive.
    In January, Nigeria’s President signed an eerily similar bill into law in that country:

    The law imposes a 14-year prison sentence on anyone who “[enters] into a same-sex marriage contract or civil union,” and a 10-year sentence on individuals or groups, including religious leaders, who “witness, abet, and aid the solemnization of a same-sex marriage or union.” It imposes a 10-year prison sentence on those who “directly or indirectly make [a] public show of [a] same-sex amorous relationship” and anyone who “registers, operates, or participates in gay clubs, societies, and organizations,” including supporters of those groups.

    This new legislation adds to existing legislation that already criminalizes homosexuality. In the Northern part of the country, in 12 states homosexuality is punishable by death. Since the President signed off on the law, there have been dozens of arrests and at least one incident of mob violence.

    By contrast to Uganda, the reaction to the Nigerian law has been curiously muted. Part of that may a question of leverage: Nigeria has considerable oil-wealth and is not as reliant on international assistance as Uganda. There’s also probably some regional politics at play, but I don’t want to speculate too much as this is not my area.

    The point is, if the protection of human rights was the driving force behind opposition to these anti-gay laws, there would have been at least as much outrage about the situation in Nigeria, and there wasn’t. So it seems to me that human rights are a secondary concern for the foreign governments speaking out on this.

  • Gary

    Your thoughtful article echos the dilemma that many of us recognize. Criticize Uganda and you are a neo-colonialist imposing your wretched values on decent Africans. Stay silent and you feel..and are…complicit. Yes, your suggestions of what can be done are fine as far as they go but there are also uncomfortable implications of NOT confronting this ignorance head on…is the right to love whomever you choose a universal human right or a luxury only recently and imperfectly acquired in parts of the West? Do we focus on the victims and offer them refuge, like Jews fleeing Germany in the 1930s? I have lived in African countries for 40 years and can assure you there are many very frightened and vulnerable Gay people, some will be exposed, some will be humiliated, tortured and killed. But then this is also true for Africans generally, hundreds of millions of whom live in abject poverty, die young of preventable causes and despair of having a decent life…some of them are filled with hate … Hate based on religion, ethnicity, clan or sexual orientation. All of this is wrong but it is also overwhelming. I am afraid there is no solution other than to continue the centuries old effort to expand tolerance of diversity and educate those who may one day be able to play a small role in making their societies less wretched.

  • Arwen McKechnie

    Hi Gary, thanks for your comments.

    Personally, I have no idea what the right solution to this issue is, or even if there is a right solution. I chose to focus on what interventions seem effective and which do not. I appreciate that advocating within our own countries doesn’t have the same sense of immediacy as protesting the actions of foreign governments, but I think in the long term, those actions will be more useful. As you noted, many fundamental human rights are not accessible everywhere in the world. Food security, freedom from persecution on the basis of religion or ethnicity and an end to violence against women are just as important as priorities, and I think the only way forward is to address them all together, instead of attempting to leverage them against each other.
    I also think that the comparison to European Jews in the 30s is inexact: both Canada and the US could have done much more to limit the scale of the Holocaust if we had been inclined to. Our countries were rife with anti-Semitism at that time and our immigration policies actively prevented Jewish refugees from finding shelter here; those policies were only permissible because voters approved and/or tolerated them. If we as engaged global citizens truly believe that the right to live free of persecution on the basis of sexuality is as intrinsic as any other human right, we should ensure that our immigration and refugee policies reflect that.

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