An Ugandan case: Homosexuals v. The Parliament

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

By Manuel Miranda

Vile”, “Odious”, “Abhorrent”. “Demanded”, “Legal”, “Necessary”. These are some of the contradictory quotes that I’ve read about the recently passed “Kill the Gays” Bill in Uganda. According to a 2010 survey by The Pew Research Center, homosexual behavior is considered “morally unaccepted” by 89% of Uganda’s population. In a country where there are over 35 million people, 89% represents a huge number. But in a world where the homosexual community is slowly but surely gaining legal rights, why does Uganda fall behind on this issue?

The approval of Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill come comes in stark contrast to the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in Maine and Maryland, and with the re-election of Barack Obama as President of the United States for a second consecutive term. Obama is arguably the most pro-LGBT president in U.S. history. Through President Obama’s support of same-sex marriage, the American LGBT community and its allies feel that their long struggle for the recognition of their legal rights is finally being acknowledged. At his second inaugural address, President Obama said: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

Uganda has had its own history of human rights concerns, particularly when it comes to homosexuals. Until 2009, when the Uganda’s homosexual bill was proposed, same sex marriage was criminalized under Uganda’s Penal Code. In 2007 and again in 2010, local Ugandan newspapers published lists of names and images of hundreds of allegedly gay Ugandans. The publications provoked national outcry against homosexuality and many demanded the State to “hang them”. Suddenly, engaging in homosexual behavior was not only criminal, but also justified extreme levels of humiliation, violence, and murder.

The assassination of activist David Kato, who also appeared on the aforementioned lists, is an example of how homophobic acts go unnoticed by the Ugandan authorities. Kato became an advocate for gay rights in Uganda and the rest of the world by publicly denouncing the violation of human rights in his country. Winning his lawsuit against Rolling Stone newspaper brought to the gay community a glimpse of justice, but the Law wasn’t enough to keep Kato safe from hatred or a tarnished name.

In the last debate of the “Kill the Gays” bill, an antigay group arrived at Parliament to meet directly with its speaker, Edward Kiwanuka Ssekandi, and presented him with a petition containing what they said was more than two million signatures in support of the bill. Among them was Rev. Martin Ssempa, leader of a religious Christian sect known for sensationalist tactics against the LGBT community, with a coalition of other religious leaders, civil society organizers and two self-described former homosexuals, one of them alleging he’d been raped by David Kato. But in a curious turn of events, Ssempa’s credibility has been called into question when he was recently convicted of falsely accusing a rival pastor of homosexuality, raising suspicions among Ugandans about who, exactly, the bill and the anti-gay crusade is targeting.

Despite the attention and strong criticism of the international community, the violent events in Uganda against homosexuals triggered the approval of a stronger anti-gay bill that remained shelved for three years before its official passing, announced by the parliament in November of 2012.

The anti gay bill conveys two types of homosexuality, Offense to Homosexuality and Aggravated Homosexuality.  Offense to Homosexuality involves same-sex acts or being in a gay relationship, with a life imprisonment punishment. Aggravated Homosexuality is defined as gay acts committed by parents or authority figures, HIV-positive people, pedophiles and repeats offenders. An early version of the bill established that if convicted, they face death penalty. According to The New York Times, it is not clear whether the version of the bill has removed the capital punishment clause.  The bill also accounts for citizens abroad with a section where Ugandans who are found committing acts of homosexuality outside the country will be extradited and judged under the Ugandan law, likely punished with life imprisonment or death penalty.

The inclusion of death penalty punishment in the bill was widely discussed after the harsh criticism it has received since the news of its passing for December of 2012, including threats from some European countries to cut aid to Uganda if the bill becomes law. Though death penalty it is still legal in many countries like China, Iran, North Korea and the US, it’s a paradox that such a Christian based country would want to justify the murder of Ugandans based on their sexual orientation in order to follow “God’s law”.

The mastermind behind this bill, David Bahati, has stated that his purpose is “to protect families and children from homosexuals”. During a televised interview on The Rachel Maddow Show, Bahati asserted that $15 million of foreign money has been poured into Uganda for the purpose of recruiting children into homosexuality. When asked by Rachel Maddow whether Baharti had actual evidence of his allegations, he offered Maddow to email it her. So far, there has been no update by Rachel Maddow confirming this information.

Another argument that Bahati relies on is that engaging in a homosexual life goes against “God’s law” and that people in Uganda should follow that law. In response, Maddow, an openly gay journalist, said to Bahati when closing the interview: "You are singling out a minority among your population for treatment that frankly is not the direction that the rest of the world is going."

The rest of the world is going forward. In the last 10 years, over 25 countries have legalized same-sex marriage and other type of civil unions, to level the playing field and ensuring homosexuals are treated as equals in the mainstream. Even in the United States, where until 1973 homosexuality was considered a disease (an idea still considered up for debate in some parts of the world), has begun to recognize same-sex marriage, at least on a state level. However, the US Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments on a same-sex case in the near future.

In Africa, it is illegal to be gay in 25 out of 38 nations. Countries like Mauritania, Sudan, and northern parts of Nigeria gay people face death penalty. A continent-wide resolution that condemns, prohibits and punishes homosexuality was proposed by Atim Ogwal Cecilia Barbara, a Ugandan lawmaker, at the Pan African Parliament in Johannesburg on 9 October. 

Extreme measures of prosecution are applied to homosexual citizens of Cameroon. In 2011, according to Justice Ministry records cited by Human Rights Watch, 14 people were prosecuted for homosexuality and 12 were convicted. Once the alleged homosexuals are arrested, they are tortured or otherwise treated poorly in custody until they give confessions, which are then used as evidence against them.

Passing the anti homosexual bill in Uganda does not represent the end of the problem, as David Bahati thinks it will. In fact, as Rachel Maddow stated herself, it only opens another issue: a political one. Uganda will become a “rogue state” among the international community, where the allegedly minority of the population is treated unequally and unfairly, as it happens in other African countries.

Like Cameroon, Uganda will be widely viewed as one of the most repressive countries in Africa, if not the world, when it comes to prosecuting same-sex couples. The members of Uganda’s parliament are currently on vacation and won’t be coming back to work until February, leaving the bill in a limbo where its passing and the inclusion of the death penalty still remain uncertain. Regardless of the death penalty clause in the Uganda’s anti-gay bill, its ratification creates a social precedent in Africa that same-sex couples and homosexuals are not only not equal and should be punished for who they are.

Manuel I. Miranda Vargas was born in Valencia, Venezuela. He received his law degree at Universidad de Carabobo in 2010 and is currently expecting a LLM Degree at Suffolk University Law School in 2013, with a concentration in Intellectual Property.