The Ugandan president on Friday said he wants an anti-gay bill shelved for further study, but still described gays as abnormal and said some lesbians may be victims of "sexual starvation," according to a letter he sent to the speaker of the country's parliament.
Uganda's parliament passed a law on Dec. 20 that makes some homosexual acts punishable by life in prison and sent it to President Yoweri Museveni for signing. Under law, he has 30 days to sign a bill or return it to be amended or scrapped.
Homosexuality is taboo in many African countries. It is illegal in 38 nations on the continent, and activists say that few Africans are openly gay, fearing imprisonment, violence and loss of employment.
Referring to the bill in a letter to the speaker written on Dec. 28 but obtained by Reuters and other media Friday, Museveni said it was "something we had advised to shelve until we had studied it in depth."
The bill was first introduced in 2009, and initially proposed a death sentence for some sexual acts, but was amended to prescribe jail terms including life in prison for what it termed aggravated homosexuality.
Museveni is stuck between pleasing a conservative local constituency vehemently opposed to homosexuality and trying to avoid alienating Western aid donors who have denounced the law.
The United States and others have already criticized the bill, while Germany cut aid to the East African state last year, citing concerns about the bill.
Museveni said he views homosexuals as abnormal because "the normal person was created to be attracted to the opposite sex." But he disagreed with jailing or killing gay people.
"How about the women lesbians? Apart from the ones that are born abnormal and the ones that may become lesbian for mercenary reasons, there may be those that go into that practice because of sexual starvation when they fail to get married," he said in the letter.
Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda, but the new law prohibits the "promotion" of gay rights and punishes anyone who "funds", "sponsors" or "abets" homosexuality.
The president said he believed that improving Uganda's economy – including rapid industrialization and modernizing agriculture – was the best way to "rescue" young people from the risk of "disgusting behavior," because he said some young people get lured into homosexuality by "financial inducements."
Gay men and women in Uganda face frequent harassment and threats of violence, and rights activists have also reported cases of lesbians being subjected to "corrective" rapes.
In 2011, prominent Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato was bludgeoned to death at his home after a newspaper splashed photos, names and addresses of gays in Uganda on its front page along with a yellow banner reading "Hang Them."
AIDS activists say that if passed the bill would have prevented gays from having access to essential public health information, such as how to protect themselves from HIV and how to access life-saving treatment and support services.
Al Jazeera and wire services