Tuesday, 10 May 2011

First They Came For The Homosexuals

David Bahati's Anti-Gay Bill has been kicked around the back benches of the Ugandan parliament for two years now. Despite widespread condemnation and campaigns against it, it has remained viable; and by the time you read this, it may already have become law. But why now? The answer is one that should remind us all, regardless of sexuality or personal moral beliefs, why lgbt equality is a cornerstone of wider human rights.

To understand the development of this bill it's important to understand a few factors about Ugandan history and culture. Chief among this is the poor access to education faced by many Ugandan people and the prevaling awareness, despite this, that the country has been screwed over economically by Western interests (though several other problems contribute to its financial difficulties today). This means that people are largely unaware of historic attitudes to homosexuality in the area (a fact also true of British people if we go back more than a few hundred years). Whereas same sex relationships existed in the past in various socially accepted forms, it is widely believed that traditional Ugandan society was intolerant of homosexuality, and that it is a form of behaviour that was imported from the West. This means it is associated with decadence and exploitation.

Where Ugandan children from poor families do have access to education, it is generally through the Church. Missionary groups from America provide many schools and their importance in improving children's prospects cannot be underestimated. A considerable number of them, however, perpetuate existing ideas about homosexuality and describe it as an abomination. It has been suggested that this is a political strategy, a means whereby the West can play out its culture wars at a distance. In this case, the word 'war' threatens to lose its metaphorical status.

The Anti-Gay Bill emerged from a context in which homosexuality was stigmatised but ordinary Ugandans were not yet ready to consider taking aggressive action against it. What changed this was a religiously-inspired crusade by Martin Ssempa, a pastor whose tactics have since been widely discredited within the country but whose influence remains. His strategy involved positioning gay people as a threat to children (this, of course, worked for many decades in Britain). He also showed graphic videos of certain types of gay activity and focused on presenting anal sex as damaging and disease-spreading. This created an apparent emergency which an ambitious politician like Bahati could easily recognise as an opportunity.

That was two years ago. An international outcry at the time – hard won, because much of the mainstream media chose to ignore what was happening – eventually persuaded President Yoweri Museveni to withdraw his support and the bill was quietly sidelined 'into committee', as civil servants put it. This didn't stop a vicious newspaper campaign against lgbt people (though Uganda's rather more effective version of the PCC reined it in to an extent); and it didn't stop riots, occasional murders, or the exhumation of the bodies of gay people so that they could be dumped outside relatives' houses – but it did mean that the state itself stood apart from the violence. Until now.

What has changed? The answer is, again, rather complicated, but it centres on an increasing shift toward the kind of contempt for human rights shown in the bill itself. If we look at the bill in more detail we can see that it was never intended simply as an instrument for criminalising lgbt people. Because it's very difficult to prove a person's sexual orientation – certainly if they haven't had anal sex (which supporters assume, incorrectly, isn't practised by straight people) – homosexuality is something that anybody can be accused of. This provides an easy way of framing and disposing of political opponents (or those who simply fall foul of corrupt officials). And there's more. Simply knowing that somebody else is lgbt and failing to report it can lead to a prison sentence. This would criminalise parents who fail to turn in their children, but it is also, again, an easy means whereby to frame people.

The Anti-Gay Bill was always an attractive political tool to corrupt factions within government. What has changed is that the Ugandan government has now reached a point where it has more need of such measures to control an unhappy populace, and where it also needs a distraction. Those opposing the bill around the world need to think carefully about what that means.Yes, it is important to challenge the bill, but how many other stories do you see about Uganda in the Western news? With the focus on this piece of legislation it is all the easier for Museveni's government to get away with the other human rights abuses it is perpetuating and to keep foreign eyes off the protests and riots. Because ultimately, the suffering of lgbt people is unlikely to lead to sanctions or other serious forms of intervention.

When you want to be free to deal with a population using violence, you start by dehumanising them. That was easy for the Ugandan government and its allies to do with gays. Once that happened, ordinary people became more comfortable with the idea of lynch mobs. Some will have joined in, perhaps thinking they had to do it to protect their children, and once one has been involved in something like that it is harder to convincingly express moral outrage when one sees the same tactics used against other groups. Dehumanisation spreads. Police officers, too, become more comfortable with using violence against the population they serve. Yes, lgbt people are at serious risk in Uganda, but not just because of their sexuality or gender identity (little distinction is made there between the two); they are at risk because all Ugandan citizens are at risk in a rapidly deteriorating situation.

Yoweri Museveni has been president since 1986, popular partly because of the role he played in taking down the tyrranical dictator Idi Amin. Yet things have deteriorated so badly now that Ugandan sources are beginning to compare the two. There's talk of serious financial corruption and despite the country's new-found oil wealth little money seems to be reaching the country's poor. It's a difficult situation which requires a hard line. The Anti-Gay Bill is a good tool for the job at hand. Its day has come.

So what can concerned people in the West do? Don't neglect the petitions and the writing to representatives, but remember that there's a lot more to express concern about than the fate of lgbt people alone. Ugandan lgbt activists are now standing side by side with others defending wider human rights issues.

Read the African press. Follow what is happening in Uganda. And write to the Ugandan government to let them know what you think.

President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni
State House Nakasero
email: info@statehouse.go.ug

Prime Minister Apollo Nsibambi
email: ps@opm.go.ug

Chair of the Uganda Human Rights Commission
Med Kaggwa
email: uhrc@uhrc.ug

Remember, this is something you can do regardless of the passage of the Anti-Gay Bill. This is something we need to keep up. Because after they come for the homosexuals, they come for other people; and when this sort of process gets started, the human consequences can be catastrophic.


  1. I think the central idea there, that LGBT oppression is a symptom of general oppression, is a very valid one. Obviously being gay in Uganda isn't going to be a barrel of laughs, but as you say being a straight person in Uganda doesn't grant you a free ride.

    I would compare the situation in some ways to women's right in Saudia Arabia. Yes, women lack all sorts of rights we in the west would say are essential... but is it really accurate to say that *men* in Saudi Arabia are "free"? To own property, sure, but better hope it's not alcohol...

    I think you can get much more mainstream support when you deal with these sorts cases not as an LGBT issue or a feminism issue or a racism issue or a religious issue or whatever, but ultimately as a greater human rights issue.

    George Q

  2. I am very happy to report that the bill was set aside again today. Ugandan lgbt people have once again won a reprieve, but the bill is not actually gone and wider abuses in the country continue, so please do take action.