This Monday, a group of Ugandan leaders, including Africa’s first openly HIV-positive religious leader and a retired major in the army, called on Uganda’s parliament to reject the 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill. They also presented members of parliament with a petition signed by nearly half a million people from around the world.
David Bahati, an MP from Ndorwa West, tabled the Anti-Homosexuality Bill on October 14, 2009. Homosexuality is already a criminal offence in Uganda. Under section 140 of the Penal Code, practitioners can face up to life imprisonment. Bahati’s bill would create the offence of “aggravated homosexuality.” Conviction on this count would carry the death penalty.
Under the bill, homosexuality would be completely outlawed, queer rights groups banned, and failure to report a homosexual known to you within 24 hours of discovery would carry a fine as well as a prison sentence of up to three years. Attempting to have sex with someone of the same sex carries a seven-year sentence – accomplishing the act, a life sentence. Do it twice, and you’re dead. And this, even if you’re outside of the country: Ugandans convicted of homosexuality abroad will suffer the same penalties.
But it’s not just queer people who are targeted. The “aggravated homosexuality” provision entraps anyone and everyone who associates with non-heterosexuals by virtue of its two-strike system. Strike one – jail. Strike two – death. The offence is defined very broadly, giving the state the right to execute “serial offenders” – anyone who “has previous convictions of the offence of homosexuality or related offences.” Related offences include everything from failing to disclose to the government that someone you know is homosexual to touching someone “with the intent of committing the act of homosexuality.” Certain offences carry an automatic death penalty, including raping a child, having sex while HIV-positive, or having sex with a disabled person of the same sex.
Several of the measure’s sponsors have objected to characterizations of it as the “kill-the-gays” bill, claiming to hate the sin and love the sinner. Bahati complained on the Ugandan TV show Matters of State in December 2009 that there has been “a lot of distortion.” He said that the death penalty will only be applied to adults who rape minors or commit a rape while HIV-positive.
No one should be fooled. This law does nothing less than lay the groundwork for gay genocide. It is part of a much larger scramble for power in Uganda, one that is enmeshed in conflicts over Western influence and money, one that pits American-backed clerics and politicians against a maligned and marginalized minority.
Bahati has defended his bill by claiming it will prevent the promotion of homosexuality in schools and reinforce already-existing prohibitions on sex with minors and homosexual activity. Given that 95 per cent of Ugandans are opposed to decriminalizing homosexuality – according to a 2007 poll by the Steadman Group, at least – Bahati says this law will simply codify “the aspirations and values” of the Ugandan people.
The bill has received a warm welcome in Uganda. It’s found ample support at all levels of government and religion, and comments on news media web sites have been by and large enthusiastic. A massive rally in Kampala planned for February was cancelled due to security concerns, but hundreds demonstrated in favour of the bill in Jinja days later. GayUgandan, a pseudonymous blogger in Kampala interviewed by email, says that people “openly talk about killing us, express disgust, spit, and do all their things when we are right there in the middle of them.”
Bahati is a congregant at the church of Martin Ssempa, an evangelical pastor, former breakdancing champion, and HIV/AIDS activist. Ssempa is the flamboyant heart and soul of the anti-homosexuality movement in Uganda. In lively public presentations in churches and community centres, he shows audiences black-and-white photos of gay fetish pornography – mainly fisting and rimming. Ssempa claims these activities are the daily bread of same-sex love. He has come under fire recently for his porno presentations, but promises to bring them all the way to Parliament, because, he says, once legislators see what homosexuals do, they’ll ban the activities right away – just like they did with female genital mutilation in December 2009, after viewing a slide show presentation on the practice.
Ssempa has connections: Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor of the Saddleback Church in California who delivered the benediction at Barack Obama’s inauguration, is a friend and partner; Janet Museveni, the first lady of Uganda, is another. During the heyday of his anti-AIDS activism, when he burnt condoms in the name of Jesus and promoted abstinence and fidelity, Ssempa was the darling of U.S. aid programs. Now he’s repudiated the West, denounced Obama for preaching “a gospel of sodomy,” and chided Warren for condemning the bill (though Warren took his time doing so).
According to Ssempa, the stakes of homosexuality are high. “In Africa,” he told the BBC last month, “what you do in your bedroom affects our clan; it affects our tribe; it affects our nation.”
Paul Kagaba, another of the bill’s high-profile backers, thinks Westerners are seducing young people into homosexuality. He claims that there is an “ongoing recruitment of young people…funded by European and American organizations, which bribe [them] into sodomy with offers of money, iPod[s], and laptops under the guise of ‘sexual and reproductive rights’ seminars.” Kagaba is a member of Ex-Gay Uganda and a former member of Integrity, a queer-rights organization.
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, originally a firm supporter of the bill, agrees with the broad principles Ssempa, Kagaba, and others have laid out: homosexuality threatens the integrity of Uganda because it is a dangerous foreign pollutant. “I hear European homosexuals are recruiting in Africa,” he told an audience of youth in November. “You should reject it because homosexuality is unnatural.”
In recent months, Museveni has distanced himself from the “harshness” of the proposed measures as pressure to veto the bill from Western leaders – including Stephen Harper and Hillary Clinton – has ratcheted up. The Bahati bill has become “a foreign policy issue,” Museveni said in January.
Things weren’t always like this in Uganda. “Five years ago, no one was talking about homosexuality. Except Ssempa,” GayUgandan says. “And no one would say anything. He was just one crazy obsessed man.” According to one queer activist now living in Nairobi, five or 10 years ago, people were so unthreatened by same-sex activities that there were even same-sex weddings.
There is a long history of same-sex love in Uganda. “When we turn to the past, we find that, contrary to popular belief, homosexuality in Uganda predates colonialism and other forms of subjugation,” explained Sylvia Tamale, a women’s rights activist and lecturer at the Faculty of Law at the University of Kampala in Makerere, Uganda, in her 2003 article “Out of the Closet.” “Historically…homosexual practises were neither fully condoned nor totally suppressed,” says Tamale. She lists the many ethnic groups in which homosexuality was accepted – including among the ruling class in the kingdom of Buganda – and concludes that “ironically, it is the dominant Judaeo-Christian and Arabic religions, upon which most African anti-homosexuality proponents rely, that are foreign imports.”
As more people have adopted queer identities in east Africa over the past forty years, they’ve become more high-profile targets for discrimination, suggests Tim McCaskell, an anti-homophobia and AIDS activist from Toronto who recently visited the region. (For the record, McCaskell warns that he is no expert on queer rights in east Africa.) Because homosexual identity didn’t exist per se, British colonial laws against homosexuality went largely unenforced. “[They] seem to have more relevance, because now there’s someone to target,” he says.
The fight against AIDS has been impetus for queer-rights organizations to form, he explains. Local organizations attempt to avoid the “homosexual” identity label, preferring “men who have sex with men” (MSM) – but “MSM has now become a kind of an identity that very much parallels gay identity,” McCaskell says. An indigenous queer identity has also developed in Uganda: kuchuism. Partly basing their identity on repudiation of gender norms, kuchus – who are both male and female – have to be very secretive, especially with the prospect of the Bahati bill becoming law.
But McCaskell cautions that the fight over sexual minorities isn’t just about civil rights; it’s about the concept of the nation. “As more people are picking up on these sexual identities,” he says, “other people are finding these things as threats to what they consider their national identity.”
Elisabeth Engebretsen, a professor specializing in gender and sexuality issues in transnational contexts at the McGill Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, points out that “there’s a strong link…between so-called intimate sexuality – even if very transgressive – and actual political nation-building. I think it’s really a key relationship,” she says. “[The situation in Uganda] isn’t really about sexuality as such; it’s really about nationalist politics and stating a cultural identity against that which is ‘foreign’ and hence ‘Western’ and which tries to tell us how we should think about sexuality and freedom.”
Ssempa and other anti-gay activists have made the national stakes in this debate very clear: “I care deeply about white people telling us what to do,” he said. “We really find that annoying. I want to say, we are a superpower!” He referred to Uganda’s oil reserves as a source of leverage. “America is bankrupt, deeply in debt to China, and soon to be completely dependent on African oil. The U.S. can’t afford to set preconditions now that Uganda sits on two billion barrels of crude.”
If we look at the past 20 years, McCaskell says, we see the slow erosion of borders in the developing world. “You have to see [the Anti-Homosexuality Bill] against the kind of neoliberal structural adjustment programs that have been affecting these countries,” he says. “As social services and education and health services all decline for the majority of the population, we’ve seen a concomitant increase in the influence of church-based organizations.” Restructuring programs in Uganda date back to Milton Obote’s second presidency, which began in 1980, shortly after the fall of Idi Amin.
These organizations are often funded and supported by American evangelicals – a relationship well-documented in Kapya Kaoma’s report, “Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African churches, and homophobia,” released last month. Kaoma is a Zambian Anglican priest. McCaskell says that church-based groups redirect people’s frustrations to local targets. “If your life is becoming more and more precarious because of what the IMF and World Bank have been imposing…you can’t get a hold of them, but if you can conceptualize ‘gay people’ as another foreign influence on your country, then all your anger goes against this foreign influence.” Profiting from this hatred, church leaders increase their clout. Their congregations grow in size, their power in the community expands, and they become important political players.
In the process, the unstable boundaries of the nation are projected onto the body. The “foundational anxieties” surrounding nation-building in postcolonial contexts, as Engebretsen puts it, are transposed onto sex acts. Celebrated queer theorist Judith Butler has posited that the body – specifically its permeable parts, like the anus or the mouth – comes to stand in for the nation as a whole. Thus transgressive sex – the kind that crosses those unstable boundaries, like anal and oral sex between men – becomes “a site of danger and pollution,” Butler writes in Gender Trouble, her groundbreaking book on sexual subversion.
“The real borders of the nation are being made permeable by neoliberalism and free trade and all of these deals that are being imposed by the Western world,” McCaskell says. To seize back the reins in national definition – a fraught process when your nation lies apparently helpless at the confluence of foreign powers – power-brokers in the developing world attempt to control the bodily borders within the nation. To do so, they scapegoat queer people.
But there’s more: in addition to redefining Uganda as a nation, political leaders can distract from the pervasive poverty and corruption – which are often related to those very same structural readjustment programs. “The current fracas about…sexuality is a simple red herring that the government is using to distract attention from some very massive corruption and abuse of power,” GayUgandan says. “[Kuchus] are a distraction.”
The law’s effects will spread far beyond Uganda as well. Witness what some African bloggers have called a pogrom against gays in Mtwapa, Kenya, last month. It will scare people away from getting treatment, setting up the conditions for AIDS rates to skyrocket. “People are going to have to go deep, deep underground,” says McCaskell. “This could set them back years, and with the kind of transport and increasing economic ties in the east African community, it could mean a huge increase in AIDS cases in the whole region.”
Kaoma’s report on the role American evangelicals play in bankrolling homophobia in east Africa is compelling. Beyond funding, it discusses the close relationship between American church leaders, their African counterparts, and local lawmakers. He describes how “U.S. religious conservatives of all stripes have gone to Africa to lobby political leaders there to criminalize homosexuality.”
In part, Kaoma relies on an effective rhetorical trick: turning the tables on the homophobes. “It is actually homophobia that is un-African,” he writes. Queer rights activists need to unmask these homophobia-peddlers, he says, and stop them from contaminating Africa with their hate.
Both sides’ accusations of Western influence have some validity. It’s true that queer activists in Uganda have borrowed language and ideas from the West. But it’s also true that homophobic campaigners in the country, besides just taking money and gifts from evangelicals, have founded their ideology on the ideas of North American pastors.
Though it’s important to use the homophobes’ rhetoric of foreignness against them, Kaoma’s tactic oversimplifies the situation. There is no meaningful distinction to be made between “indigenous” and “imported” attitudes or customs in Uganda (or anywhere), at least since colonization. All nations are in constant contact with others. “It’s kind of belittling people…to think that a discourse is just imported without their middle level of actually appropriating it,” says Engebretsen. “You have perhaps the same signs or symbols…but the ways in which people are locally appropriating what [those signs] say are totally different.”
“[Queer identities] don’t have the same kinds of meanings [as in the West],” McCaskell says. “We’re seeing a dissemination of ‘gay identity,’ but we’re also seeing it taken up in ways that are pretty culturally bound.” The same goes for homophobic activism.
What’s a concerned Westerner to do? Because any intervention from the West has been so problematic, it can leave onlookers feeling helpless.
On the one hand, the enormous outcry from Western leaders has led Museveni and Minister of Ethics and Integrity James Nsaba Buturo, formerly a strong proponent of the bill, to soften their positions. GayUgandan thinks this is the best way to help the situation: “Whether we like it or not, Ugandans are very dependent on the West. For the U.S., we are fighting the War on Terror in Somalia – and the U.S. is giving us lots of military aid. That pressure is what works. So putting pressure on your governments puts pressure on the government in Uganda.”
And there are some signs the pressure is working. Unconfirmed reports claim that Museveni plans to veto the bill, though Parliament could overturn that decision with a two-thirds majority vote. The bill should be voted on later this month – Ssempa wants it passed before Easter – but GayUgandan says no date has been set. “It’s supposed to be all dependent on how busy the parliamentary schedules are. But it is all relative. When the government wanted, they passed through constitutional amendments in a month.”
But European and North American leaders’ attempts to influence the government in Uganda has only emboldened the bill’s supporters, who say the country will go without foreign aid if need be. So while we pressure our leaders to put the arm on Uganda’s politicians, we need to remember that our sexual-rights paradigm is inapplicable in that country. We often frame gay rights in North America as a private matter about personal choices, but the issue is national in Uganda – it’s about the country’s integrity.
“To take our understandings of the sexual body into another cultural context, and especially when you have all of these historical connections with colonialism, is quite dangerous, because we really speak beyond each other,” Engebretsen says. “A body isn’t simply that sexual body [as we see it in the West], but is so much more.”
See the whole interview with GayUgandan here.