Uganda: Is Love a Crime?

picture: Guillaume Paumier, Flickr

picture: Guillaume Paumier, Flickr

Monday 24th February 2014, the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, toughening already existing anti-gay laws in Uganda. This action has lead to a lot of criticism from Western countries. Barack Obama condemned the bill for being a step backward, while Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands were the first countries to cut aid to Uganda. Despite international reactions, Museveni is sticking to the new law, and states that it is needed to stop the spread of Western social imperialism. Consequently, the Western criticism seems to have the opposite effect than desired on the Ugandan authorities. In defiance of the West, Ugandan authorities have said President Museveni wanted “to demonstrate Uganda’s independence in the face of Western pressure and provocation”.

Accused homosexuals can now be sentenced to between seven years and life in prison. The penalty for gay sex is life imprisonment, and same goes for ”aggravated homosexuality,” , including sex with a minor or while HIV-positive. Not reporting gay people is also made a crime punishable with imprisonment. If a person fails to report a homosexual act, they can face up to three years in prison.

It is interesting that anti-gay laws were originally implemented in Uganda by a country which today condemns the antigay bill. Britain, Uganda’s previous colonial ruler, is now looking to support the people of Uganda by channelling aid through alternative routes than via the Ugandan government, in order to try to convince Uganda to meet the UK’s human rights principles. Of the 84 countries that still criminalize homosexuality today, roughly half of them are ex-British colonies. Even though homosexuality was first criminalized in the constitution after the British colonization, this negative view on homosexuality existed before the European colonization. It is not only limited to Uganda, but it is also a widespread opinion held throughout Africa. Well-known persons have even been subjected to violence, for example, in South Africa where Eudy Simelane, who played for the South Africa women national football team, was raped and murdered for being openly lesbian.

Even though Ugandan authorities want to disassociate themselves from the West, the anti-gay campaign which preceded the new bill had Western encouragement, consisting of support from fundamentalist religious groups in the USA. Scott Lively, a US pastor, is currently being sued in the USA for his role in driving forward the anti-gay bill. At a conference held by Lively in Uganda, he stated that AIDS is the punishment for homosexuality and rejecting the design of one’s own body.

The view that homosexuality is a disease that needs to be treated still exists in Uganda. Preaching that homosexuality is a curable illness has dangerous consequences. One of them is the phenomenon known as ”corrective rape”, where men rape lesbian women, to “cure” them from their inner feelings. Pastor Martin Ssempa, a famous spokesman against homosexuality, states that the standard is for a man to marry a woman. Therefore, homosexuality falls short of that standard. This is where anti-gay spokesmen and laws coincide, and can lead to societal violence against homosexuals, like in the case of Eudy Simelane.

If the West can’t influence the Ugandan government by telling them what is right and wrong, how can the Ugandan government authorities be reached? The solution seems to come through corporations. One day after President Museveni signed the bill enacting harsher laws on homosexuals, the Ugandan newspaper ”Red Pepper” published an article exposing the country´s ”top 200” homosexuals. It outed citizens who had never publicly disclosed their sexuality.  An organisation called ”All out” made a petition, asking people to sign to lobby for big corporations to take action. ”All out” got Apple to drop a gay ‘cure’ app from their online store, and helped get key national Olympic sponsors to speak out against Russia’s anti-gay law. They also succeeded with a petition to Orange, the corporation pulled its adverts when 77,329 people had signed it. Ugandan activists have asked corporations to show that the new anti-gay law is bad for business in Uganda. The more organizations and corporations that act, the bigger effect it will have on Uganda to think twice before its authorities apply the new law aggressively. Maybe this is where the future lies for homosexuals in Uganda, their dignity being closely tied to the ethical decisions of large Western corporations.

Many people have a difficult time understanding the hatred against homosexuals, and Stephen Fry captures it well: ”There are people who are so, rabidly homophobic, and I just find that fascinating. It’s as if you met someone, who spent all their lives, trying to get rid of red telephones. (…) Why would someone bother to attack a group of people who never did them any harm?”.

TOVE GUSTAFSSON