An anthropologist's take on Uganda and the Great Lakes region...

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2009

It is now almost two years since a group of young Ugandan MPs within the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) tabled the notorious private members bill, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The bill proposed increased sentences for all forms of homosexuality, and the death penalty for any act of 'aggravated homosexuality' (defined in terms of 'serial offending', sex with a minor, sex with a person with disabilities, or sex for an HIV+ individual).

Led by David Bahati, MP for Ndorwa West, this reactionary political gesture challenged the public views of their party's leader, President Museveni, and his government's avowed commitment to social equity. As a result, the bill was immediately disowned by several senior ministers. However, Bahati and his conspirators used skillful PR and a sympathetic media to build popular support for the draft legislation. Their rabble-rousing may also have been tolerated because it served to distract public attention from growing social and political unrest.

In late 2009, the President attempted to squash the proposal by issuing an executive order against it, in which he claimed that the legislation had become a ‘foreign policy issue’ (given the widespread condemnation that it was by then receiving from donors, and from the international human rights community). He also appointed a special parliamentary committee that found '99 per cent' of the draft legislation to be either 'unconstitutional' or 'redundant'.

However, despite these, and other, legal rulings against it, the bill continued its passage through parliament, bolstered by the homophobic content of some popular radio stations, and print media outlets. One key forum for this sentiment became the radio ‘phone- in’ show, in which callers would typically take it in turns to berate either an individual gay man, or gay people in general. The print media – especially the tabloid press – also dedicated a growing number of articles to the subject. This toxic media environment reached its zenith in October 2010, when a tabloid newspaper called Rolling Stone published the photographs, names, and addresses, of 100 allegedly gay indviduals – including one Anglican Bishop – alongside a banned headline that read: ‘Hang Them’. 

For a thoughtful examination of this poisonous media environment, and its implications for Uganda's LGBT community, see BBC Radio 1 DJ Scott Mill's documentary on the subject, which was first broadcast in February 2011. The first part of Mill's film can be viewed here:

But encouraged by this media response to his plan, and by the support that he was receiving from certain sections of the Pentecostal-charismatic (P/c) Christian community, in early 2011, Bahati and the others attempted to revive their bill. With dissent growing around Museveni’s twenty-five year incumbency, the timing seemed right. Whether by cynical manipulation or unhappy political coincidence, the timing was in fact potent. In January 2011, just weeks before Museveni’s seventh election win, a prominent gay-rights activist called David Kato – who was one of those named in the Rolling Stone list – was brutally murdered at his home in Kampala. In one particularly shocking aspect of the case, fighting then broke at Kato’s funeral, when the presiding pastor delivered an anti-gay sermon. 

This time the international furore reached heightened proportions, and led in May this year to a major campaign putting pressure on the Ugandan parliament. As a result, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill’s passage was again blocked (this time on a technicality). However, reflecting just how emboldened the NRM's 'young turks' have become within the current (9th) parliament, it seems likely that Bahati and the others will again attempt to revive the draft legislation. Either way, the wider homophobia remains.

Earlier this year, Dr. David Mills and I were approached by members of All Our Children, an education charity with which we are involved, to comment on the current situation regarding both the bill and wider homophobia in Uganda, and to think through its implications for individuals and agencies who are working in the country. Our discussions on the subject eventually led to us drafting a 'briefing paper', and this has now been published on All Our Children's website. In this paper we look at the background to the current bill, and also at some of the wider historical, political and cultural dimensions to homophobia in Uganda. We hope that the paper - which can be downloaded here - will be of interest and use for a wide range of actors currently engaged in the country.

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