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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