Ugandan Speaker of the House Rebecca Kadaga started a media frenzy this month when she promised to resurrect the 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill and get it passed by the end of the year as a “Christmas gift” to the Ugandan people.
Popularly referred to in the American media as the “Kill the Gays” bill, this legislation initially included the death penalty for perpetrators of “aggravated homosexuality,” which the bill defines as anyone who sleeps with a minor or disabled person of the same sex, engages in same-sex behavior while being HIV-positive, or is a “serial offender” of homosexuality.
Homosexual acts are already illegal in Uganda, but the bill’s author, MP David Bahati, says that stronger legislation is needed to confront the growing “threat to the traditional family.” Bahati and his supporters claim that the Ugandan LGBT community actively recruits young people and forces them to commit homosexuality. The bill severely punishes this type of behavior and it even allows “victims of homosexuality” to attack their ‘converters’ with impunity. Because the language of the bill is purposefully vague, there is no definition for what constitutes a “victim of homosexuality.” If someone of the same sex brushes your shoulder, does that give you the freedom to hurt them?
There are many similar problems and quandaries with the 2009 version of the bill, but several MPs have also claimed that the bill has been significantly altered in committee. Most importantly, MP Medard Segona told the BBC last week that the death penalty had been stricken from the law. Mr. Bahati confirmed this earlier this month when he told the Associated Press that “there is no death penalty” in the current version of the bill, but Uganda’s Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights & Constitutional Law contradicts the MPs’ claims and asserts that the death penalty component was left intact.
Although the revised bill has not yet been released to the media or the public, the Coalition claims that it obtained a leaked copy. But if the coalition has a copy of the bill, then why won’t they release it to the media? The government of Uganda could potentially punish the group for illegally obtaining parliamentary documents, but if that was their worry, then the Coalition should have leaked the bill to the media without taking credit for it.
Another possibility is that LGBT-rights groups are keeping the death penalty in play to rally support against the bill. On Wednesday, Kasha Jacqueline, the Executive Director of Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG) said with certainty, “We know that the bill refers to death, contrary to what the media is saying.”
It is unclear how Freedom and Roam Uganda could have information that hasn’t been shared with the BBC, The Guardian, The New York Times, or the U.S. State Department. Earlier this week, the spokeswoman for the State Department, Victoria Nuland, said that the U.S. government hadn’t seen the revised bill and that she didn’t know what had been added or omitted.
So what is fact and what is fiction?
The truth is that we don’t yet know what the bill contains. The text of the revised version should be released in the next few days, but then it is another question entirely if the bill will ever be passed. There is a lot of support for the legislation, but there is also opposition within Uganda and around the world.
Several donor countries have told the government of Uganda that they would revoke aid to Uganda if the bill is passed. On the surface, this sounds like a useful threat, but it has also been inadvertently interpreted as a challenge by Ugandan lawmakers, who decry the “new imperialism” of Western encroachment on “traditional family values.”
Never mind that those “traditional family values” primarily stem from British missionaries who first brought Christianity to Uganda in 1877. Now that the country is 90% Christian and enraptured by the “born again” movement, most people are committed to family values that are broad enough to include polygamy, which is widely practiced and accepted, but narrow enough to prohibit homosexuality.
Despite these contradictions, MPs like David Bahati have a point. This whole firestorm began on October 25th when Rebecca Kadaga attended the 127th Inter-Parliamentry Union (IPU) assembly in Quebec. In response to Canada’s Foreign Minister, John Baird, who criticized Uganda’s record defending the rights of sexual minorities, Kadaga sharply said that Uganda “is not a colony or protectorate of Canada.”
When Kadaga returned to Uganda, she was greeted at Entebbe airport by throngs of anti-gay activists and a crisis brewing in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM). It was revealed that members of the OPM had embezzled millions of dollars that were earmarked for communities in Northern Uganda that were affected by the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). In a matter of days, Denmark, Ireland, the UK, Norway, and Sweden cut off foreign aid to Uganda valued at $80 million USD.
In this context, Kadaga’s decision to resurrect the Anti-Homosexuality Bill can be seen as a two-pronged defense against “Western encroachment.” It is payback for the European countries who have already cut foreign aid and retribution for others who keep criticizing Uganda for persecuting members of the LGBT community.
Thus, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is about much more than just curtailing and punishing homosexuality. It’s also a power struggle between Uganda and Western nations that have been giving contradictory messages on gay rights. At the same time that the U.S. State Department lobbies fervently against the bill, the evangelical movement in the United States has clear ties to Mr. Bahati and the bill’s inception.
Mr. Bahati is a member of The Fellowship Foundation, or “The Family,” which is a powerful, global Christian group that hosts the annual National Prayer Breakfast. Every sitting U.S. President has spoken at the National Prayer Breakfast since Dwight D. Eisenhower and The Family might be the most powerful Evangelical group in the country.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bahati authored his infamous bill after attending a conference in Kampala hosted by Scott Lively, an anti-gay activist from California’s Abiding Truth Ministries. This begs the question: whose traditional values is he fighting for—Ugandans’ or conservative American evangelicals’?
The American media is currently obsessed with criticizing Ugandans for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Here’s a quick recap of top headlines this week:
While these headlines might not come from esteemed publications, they represent a growing rhetoric in American media that condemns Ugandans without looking critically at what is happening here on the ground and without weighing the contradictory forces emerging from the United States and other countries’ records on LGBT rights. After all, why is Uganda getting so much of our attention when seven other countries already have the death penalty for people who commit homosexuality?
According to the Economist, three people were executed in Iran last year for engaging in homosexuality and in 2010, a Saudi man was given 500 lashes and sentenced to five years in jail for sleeping with another man.
Perhaps our obsession with Uganda comes from the traditions we share. All seven countries that have the death penalty for homosexuality are Muslim countries operating under sharia law. Because Uganda is overwhelmingly Christian, American evangelicals have been able to form close ties with Ugandan faith-based groups. And as pro-LGBT rights groups and the American Left try to counteract these messages, we have essentially exported our culture wars abroad.
No matter what Kadaga and Bahati do, it seems that they are trapped between countervailing winds from the United States. After all, who knows what most Ugandans think about this bill? Lawmakers aren’t legislating based on opinion polls; they are primarily responding to domestic and international lobbyists.
As for Americans’ role in this dilemma: perhaps we should take a minute to discover the truth before we join the voices screaming on one side or the other. And maybe we should also try to settle our culture wars at home before we start exporting them abroad.