Opinion

Two cheers for gay rights in Uganda

The emphasis on gay activism obscures Museveni's human rights abuses

February 24, 2014 9:00AM ET
Ugandan Pastor Martin Ssempa screens gay porn to warn press against what he calls the danger of homosexuality at a press conference in Uganda's capital Kampala on Feb. 16, 2010.
Benedicte Desrus/Sipa Press/uganda_bill.082/1105311844

In “God Loves Uganda,” filmmaker Roger Ross Williams follows a group of American Christian missionaries as they try to launch a religious revival in this impoverished East African country. It soon becomes depressingly clear that these young evangelists are linked to a group of American and Ugandan preachers who are persecuting Uganda’s gays and lesbians.

The preachers are behind Uganda’s controversial anti-homosexuality bill, which makes “aggravated homosexuality” — meaning habitual gay or lesbian sex — punishable by a life sentence. Under this law, even straight Ugandans who fail to report friends who engage in gay sex could end up behind bars.

On Feb 24 , Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed this draconian bill into law, reversing an earlier promise to veto it. His change of heart will disappoint those Western donors who give Uganda nearly $1 billion in foreign aid annually. In recent weeks, the head of the European Union delegation in Uganda, Kristian Schmidt, met with Museveni in person, urging him not to sign it. U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice spent hours on the phone with Museveni trying to talk him out of it. In the midst of a Sunday golf game on Feb. 16, President Barack Obama issued a stern statement condemning the law, warning that by signing it, Museveni could harm Uganda’s relations with the U.S., currently the nation’s second-most-generous donor, after the United Kingdom.

“God Loves Uganda” rightly exposes the poisonous movement that gave rise to the anti-gay bill. Yet the film — an Oscar nominee for best documentary — as well as the diplomatic reaction to it overlook other serious human rights abuses in Uganda that affect far more people. Inadvertently, the filmmakers and diplomats — despite their good intentions — are ignoring one of the harshest crackdowns on human rights on the African continent and playing right into Museveni’s hands.

The documentary suggests that American Christian zealots like Scott Lively, a California minister and a co-author of “The Pink Swastika,” manipulated the bill’s Ugandan authors. Lively is shown in the film explaining to a group of rapt Ugandans his theories that homosexuals helped plan the Holocaust, have infiltrated the United Nations and the European Union and will soon take over the world if Christians don’t stop them.

But the Ugandans who drafted the anti-gay bill had it in mind long before Lively arrived. In 2004, I interviewed Martin Ssempa, one of the vehemently anti-gay Ugandan pastors who helped draft the legislation. In “God Loves Uganda,” he screens a sadomasochistic gay porn video and tells his audience that this is what Western homosexuals have in store for their children. When I met Ssempa 10 years ago, he had not yet begun his anti-homosexuality crusade; we mainly discussed U.S.-government-funded abstinence-only campaigns. But he was not shy about his views on homosexuality. He told me that gays were trying to create sexual pandemonium so that dark forces could steal Uganda’s natural resources.

Four years later he joined Uganda’s Ethics Minister James Buturo and ruling party caucus chairman David Bahati to draft the anti-homosexuality bill. Ordinary Ugandans, who knew very little about homosexuality and were horrified by Ssempa’s S&M videos, supported the bill. 

The best way to make gay rights meaningful to the long-suffering Ugandan people is to support everyone else’s rights as well.

The origins of Uganda’s anti-gay bill, however, lie less in antipathy to homosexuality than in the murky world of Ugandan politics. The legislation was first proposed in October 2009, one month after Ugandan police killed scores of unarmed demonstrators angry that Museveni’s police were blocking the king of the Baganda, Uganda’s largest tribe, from visiting Kayunga, the site of a land dispute between the government and the Baganda.

The introduction of the anti-gay bill distracted the public from this atrocity, for which no senior official has ever been punished. It also distracted Uganda’s Western ambassadors, who said little about the killings but threatened to cut off foreign aid if the bill passed. It died in parliament but resurfaced in October 2011 after a series of Arab Spring–style anti-government street protests spread throughout the country. The brutal police crackdown on the peaceful protesters left at least nine people, including a baby, dead. Western diplomats said little about this too. They did, however, hold further anxious meetings about the anti-gay bill. Behind the scenes, even some Ugandan gay activists began quietly urging the diplomatic community to stop singling out the rights of gays while ignoring the plight of other Ugandans. By taking such a narrow focus, the Western powers were reinforcing conspiracy theories about a Western plot to spread not gay rights but homosexuality itself in the country.

The bill died once again but was resurrected in December and passed parliament, just in time to divert public outrage from some of the worst human rights abuses in Uganda’s history. These include 1) the ongoing theft of government revenues and donor aid; 2) the resulting collapse of Uganda’s systems of public education and health care; 3) the virtual house arrest of Kizza Besigye, the country’s main opposition leader, who is followed wherever he goes, including even short trips to the local coffee shop, by truckloads of police in riot gear; 4) the harassment and possible murder of other government critics; 5) the draconian Public Order Management Bill, requiring police authorization for all meetings of more than three people; 6) Uganda’s support for the M23 rebels, who are wreaking havoc in neighboring Congo; and 7) worst of all, Uganda’s involvement in South Sudan’s civil war, which commenced Dec. 15. Ethiopia is reportedly considering entering the war to counter Uganda’s support for President Salva Kiir, and the conflict may well evolve into a massive regional conflict, with no end in sight.

In 2012 the World Bank and the European Union modestly reduced aid to Uganda over corruption allegations, but they, along with the United States, have remained silent about the other abuses. In 2013 the U.S. even doubled military aid to Uganda, and American tax dollars may now be funding Museveni’s brutal adventure in South Sudan. But the U.S. is hardly alone in getting Uganda’s politics wrong. Last week the EU’s managing director for Africa, Nicholas Westcott, even praised Museveni for his peace efforts in South Sudan.

What these diplomats will do now is anyone’s guess, but here’s a suggestion: The best way to make gay rights meaningful to the long-suffering Ugandan people is to support everyone else’s rights as well — something the West, by lavishing so much praise and aid on Museveni’s tyrannical regime, has completely failed to do. America’s own civil rights history suggests this will work. It’s worth remembering that the struggle for gay rights in the West followed two centuries of struggle for other people’s rights. At first, a few courageous intellectuals began calling for women’s rights; soon others called for workers’ rights, children’s rights, civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities and the rights of the disabled as well as press freedom and reforms to combat corruption. Then finally, in the late 1960s, the modern struggle for gay rights began. The best thing the diplomats can do right now to support gay rights in Uganda is to condemn all human rights abuses in the country — regardless of whether the victim is straight or gay, male or female, poor or wealthy. Only when all Ugandans experience freedom and justice will they come to recognize the rights of their gay brothers and sisters too.

Helen Epstein is the author of “The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa” and a current fellow at the Open Society Foundations.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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