US & World

Taboos Silence Opponents Of Uganda Anti-Gay Bill

In Uganda, a bill designed to eradicate homosexuality has strong support in government and in evangelical circles. Proponents of the bill link homosexuality to the West. But despite condemnation elsewhere, few in the country are willing to speak against it because those who do are labeled gay.

In Uganda, a bill designed to eradicate homosexuality has strong support in the government and among evangelical Christians. Proponents of the bill link homosexuality to the West. And under the bill, Uganda would withdraw from any international treaties or protocols that recognize the human rights of gay people.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill a "very serious potential violation of human rights." But few in Uganda are willing to speak against it because those who do are labeled gay.

In the lobby of Uganda's parliament building is an installation showing the potentially disastrous effects of climate change. The sign says: "The Choices, Actions and Agreements Made Now Will Determine Which Future Becomes Reality." Whoever wrote that might well have been describing the country's political climate.

Ugandans may soon have a choice to make. Homosexuality has been illegal there for more than 100 years. Now lawmakers are considering legislation that would go further. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009 would jail consenting adults who engage in gay sex. It would give life sentences to people in same-sex marriages.

David Bahati, a first-term lawmaker, wrote the bill.

"This is a defining bill for our country, for our generation. You are either anti-homosexual or you're for homosexuals, because there's no middle point. Anybody who does not believe that homosexuality is a crime is a sympathizer," Bahati says.

It is the first bill Bahati has ever written, and he calls it a "very wonderful piece of legislation." His bill would impose the death penalty on adults who have gay sex with minors. And it would jail anyone who fails to report gay activity to police within 24 hours.

And what if his brother were engaging in homosexual activity?

"I'd arrest him myself and take him to the police," Bahati says.

The bill is popular. Even Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, has linked gay practices to Western influences.

Sylvia Tamale, a law professor and author, couldn't disagree more.

"Homosexuality or same-sex attractions have been part and parcel of African communities for time immemorial. But the terms 'homosexuality,' 'lesbian,' 'gay' — those are relatively new. And those are terms many Africans attracted to people of the same sex never use or never identify with," she says.

Tamale teaches law at Makerere University, the top school in Uganda's capital, Kampala. She is writing a book on sexual orientations in Africa, and she is one of the few people in Uganda who has publicly criticized the legislation.

"There's no doubt about the fact that the majority of Ugandans are for the bill. Many of them have already blocked their minds. All they hear is 'homosexuality' and they don't want to know, they don't want to understand. All they see is anal sex, period," she says.

If the bill becomes law, a coalition of lawyers and activists will try to kill it in court. Human rights lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuzi says U.S. evangelicals may be behind the bill.

"It's difficult to tell from looking at this bill to say whether it is homegrown or foreign. The people who are anti-gay are supported by the Christian right from the U.S. It could be possible that there is some external influence," Rwakafuzi says.

U.S. evangelicals have long had a close relationship with top Ugandan leaders. In March, three American evangelicals attended a conference in Kampala on how to turn gay people straight. California minister Scott Lively was a key speaker.

Stephen Langa heads Family Life Network, the group that sponsored the event. He often quotes Lively's teachings, and he claims that rich Westerners are paying children there to have gay sex. Langa says a lot of people need to be in jail.

"Providing literature, writing books about it, standing up and saying it is OK — you should be arrested. Even if you are not in the act, you should be arrested. Anybody who tries to promote it should be arrested. That's why we need a stronger law," Langa says.

Lively has called Uganda's bill "too harsh." And Rick Warren, the popular U.S. pastor whose ministry extends to Uganda, condemns the bill.

But they are not the only Americans active in Uganda. A U.S. evangelical group called The Family reportedly includes U.S. lawmakers who have shown great interest in Ugandan affairs. The bill's proponents are reluctant to talk about whether The Family supports them in any way.

Langa initially denied that he had ever heard of The Family. Then he said wealthy enemies have long associated him with the group. But he refused to talk about how much money his organization has.

In the end, supporters say the bill is by Ugandans and for Ugandans.

But Val Kalende is Ugandan, and the bill is meant to eradicate her from society. Kalende, a lesbian activist, says if there are rich Western promoters of homosexuality in Uganda, she would like to meet them. As a volunteer, she says, she can barely pay her rent.

"They think that our lives are all about having sex, sex, sex, sex. They don't see it as a sexual orientation," she says.

Kalende says the bill will roll back HIV/AIDS treatment in the country and push gay Ugandans deeper underground.

But gay Ugandans won't be the only people down there. Erias Lukwago, a first-term lawmaker, says he doesn't like the bill but can't afford to disagree with it in parliament.

"I'm telling you I cannot. I fear the reaction of society to be associated with gays — highly stigmatized, ostracized. Even for this interview alone it might be perceived that the gay community is paying me," he says.

Until the political climate changes in Uganda, Lukwago says he is keeping his mouth shut. Copyright 2009 National Public Radio. To see more, visit