by Donovan X. Ramsey
The Sub-Saharan African nation of Uganda has made international news this week as the result of the government’s passage of harsh bill into law that criminalizes homosexual acts. Ugandan culture has subsequently been placed in the spotlight. Ugandans say, however, that the law is the result of more than homophobic attitudes within their culture.
Legislation for the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act was originally introduced in 2009 and, at the time, included a death-penalty clause for some homosexual acts. In December, the Ugandan parliament passed the bill after replacing the death penalty with a proposal of life in prison for “aggravated homosexuality.” The current law, signed Monday by President Yoweri Museveni, also includes a punishment of up to seven years in prison for people and institutions that perform same-sex marriages.
The day after the law was signed, a Ugandan tabloid published a list of the country’s “top homosexuals,” compounding concern in the international human rights community for the safety and welfare of gay Ugandans.
The White House issued a statement soon after the law was passed that read, “Instead of standing on the side of freedom, justice, and equal rights for its people, today, regrettably, Ugandan President Museveni took Uganda a step backward by signing into law legislation criminalizing homosexuality.”
The statement continued, “As President Obama has said, this law is more than an affront and a danger to the gay community in Uganda, it reflects poorly on the country’s commitment to protecting the human rights of its people and will undermine public health, including efforts to fight HIV/AIDS. We will continue to urge the Ugandan government to repeal this abhorrent law and to advocate for the protection of the universal human rights of LGBT persons in Uganda and around the world.”
Ugandan attitudes toward homosexuality
A report last year by Pew Research found that 96 percent of Ugandans believe society should not accept homosexuality. But the country does not stand alone in its strong anti-gay sentiments. Many African and predominantly Muslim countries have the strongest attitudes against homosexuality globally. In total, thirty-eight African countries have anti-gay laws, many which were introduced during the colonial period.
According to Pew, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have populations that are almost entirely against homosexuality. The majority of people in Nigeria (98 percent), Senegal (96 percent), Ghana (96 percent) and Kenya (90 percent) also believe homosexuality should not be accepted by society.
But anti-gay sentiments in Uganda go much deeper than cultural homophobia.
“Americans do not understand that gays were tolerated in Uganda before the gay lobby, activists and evangelical conservatives stirred up this issue in Uganda,” says Mabingo Alfdaniels, a Ugandan educator and blogger living in New York City. Alfdaniels says that in recent years the U.S government and several groups on both sides of the gay rights debate have used the Sub-Saharan country as a foreign battlefield for their ideological fight.
Uganda: Foreign battlefield for gay rights fight
In 2012, a Ugandan gay rights group filed suit against an American evangelist for conspiring with religious and political leaders in the country to create anti-gay hysteria by warning people that gays would assault their children. The Sexual Minorities Uganda claimed that Scott Lively, who runs the California-based Abiding Truth Ministries, gave speeches in Uganda that initiated the persecution, arrest, torture and murder of homosexuals.
Frank Mugisha, of Sexual Minorities Uganda, told the Times that before the speeches in 2009, gays and lesbians were “looked at as different,” but that “no one bothered them.” Alfdaniels agrees, even citing a gay wedding that took place in the 1990s within Uganda’s capital city of Kampala. He says, while continental Africans are predominantly conservative, attitudes he’s seen American conservative groups in Arizona and Texas that are much more homophobic.
“This is more of an American domestic issue than it is Uganda’s. American conservatives are battling liberals and Uganda is just a battleground,” says Alfdaniels. “The two groups are supporting and financing either side of the issue in Uganda…Threats and patronizing voices from the West – whether by individuals, leaders or organizations – only serve to vindicate this suspicion.”
In days since the law passed, international forces have moved to put pressure on the government of Uganda. The World Bank, for example, delayed a $90 million loan to the country Friday and its president, Jim Yong Kim, has criticized Uganda’s new law.
Ugandan spokesman Ofwono Opondo called the suspension “blackmail” and took to Twitter writing, “As always, Uganda government will live within national resource means by prioritizing sectors and possible re-allocation.”
Alfdaniels says that while Western nations should intervene, they should apply quiet diplomacy.
“Western intervention confirms people’s suspicion that homosexuality is a Western imposition,” he says. “The anti-gay people are seeing this as a war against imperialism. The Ugandan government is presenting this case of the anti-gay law as fight for national sovereignty. This is putting the gay people in much more danger than ever before.”