The question I was asked most upon return to California after three months of fieldwork in Northern Uganda was not, Is it safe is there? or, What’s the food like? or even, How’s the project going? Instead, it was What is going on with homosexuality in Uganda?!
For the past few months, there has been an international press storm brewing over an issue controversial in most every corner of the world: gay rights. This one happened to focus on my current East African country of residence. Here’s why: Uganda has a new bill pending in Congress that would legislate brutal punishment for homosexual citizens. Actually deemed, “The Anti-Homosexuality Bill,” this law would penalize those found “guilty” with life in prison or, in some cases, execution.
Although Africa doesn’t have a glowing record when it comes to gay rights, Uganda is relatively isolated in its extremity on the issue. There are seven countries in the world that prescribe the death penalty for homosexuality, and four others that dole out life imprisonment. Among those eleven, just four are in Africa (the majority are in the Mid-East and Central Asia). Overall, promoting this legislation is a rare step to take, and Uganda is paying for it in international disapproval.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the World AIDS Campaign, several United Nations agencies and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton among many others have spoken out against the bill. State sponsored killing based on sexual orientation is a grievous violation of numerous international conventions as well as the sign of a severely repressive government. But the outcry is nearly exclusively foreign. My friends back in California who asked me about the situation were disappointed to learn I knew only what they knew through NPR, The New York Times, and other progressive Western media. People in Uganda just aren't talking about it.
This shouldn't come as a surprise. Fighting the bill locally is an alarming Catch 22: many say that for it to be squashed, disapproval must come from Ugandan citizens. But any citizen who speaks out against the bill is assumed to be gay, and therefore eligible for execution should it pass. This kind of association pattern in a place where lynchings are common means that activism by Ugandans in Uganda is nearly impossible.
One final note: the buzz in the US about this pending law may seem random: Uganda isn’t the only country to punish homosexuality with death. Furthermore, Uganda is newsworthy for a variety of other alarming human rights issues (extreme poverty, famine, child soldiering and HIV/AIDS to name a few) – why pick on their gay rights record?
It isn’t random. Much of the heightened interest is because there's evidence that the bill may have been pushed by a strong US contingent, even some of our own US Congressmen. A group called “The Family,” whose members include US state representatives, have been accused of offering ideas and endorsement that gave rise to the bill. Outrage from American press and individuals could very well stem from feelings of involvement by association. To find out more, read these articles: New York Times, Human Rights Watch, NPR, check out this radio broadcast about The Family's involvement in Uganda, and listen to four Ugandans voice their views.