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Gay Activists Say Uganda Becoming More Tolerant

Members of Sexual Minorities Uganda, at the opening of fourth annual sexual and gender-based violence/persecution awareness campaign week in Kampala, Uganda, March 19, 2012.
Members of Sexual Minorities Uganda, at the opening of fourth annual sexual and gender-based violence/persecution awareness campaign week in Kampala, Uganda, March 19, 2012.

Life is not easy for Uganda's embattled homosexual community, which is still fighting against a harsh bill in parliament that could mean life in prison for some of them. Gay and lesbian activists say that in many ways, Uganda is becoming a more tolerant place.

Gay plight

The plight of Ugandan homosexuals has been grabbing international headlines for years. In 2009 the country’s parliament introduced a bill that would make some homosexual acts punishable by death, and would make it a crime not to report gays and lesbians to the police. Last year, gay activist David Kato was murdered in his home.

But despite everything, gay activists say that living openly in Uganda is actually these days than it was before. They are ferociously fighting the controversial bill, from which the death penalty clause has reportedly been removed. And in terms of public opinion, they say, things are looking up.

Change

Lesbian rights activist Joanitah Abang says the debate surrounding homosexuality in Uganda has made people more open-minded. Even some politicians are starting to support their cause, she says, although most will not yet say so publicly.

“Even some people in the mainstream, in government, are beginning to understand," said Abang. "Of course, those in government will tell you, ‘I will talk to you, I will support you, but don’t mention me anywhere.’ People are willing to know, and people are beginning to accept.”

Bishop Christopher Senyonjo agrees. He is one of the only religious leaders in this conservatively Christian country to publicly support homosexual rights, and has been counseling gay and lesbian youth for over 10 years.

Senyonjo was rejected by his Anglican church for refusing to condemn homosexuality. But, he says, some of his colleagues have been inspired by his example, even if - like politicians - they will not say so in public.

“Some religious people who are my friends, they say, ‘Christopher, we know what you are doing. We support you.’  And that’s why I’m trying to have more dialogue, even with those religious leaders,” he said.

Sexual Minorities Uganda

Frank Mugisha, head of a Kampala-based NGO called Sexual Minorities Uganda, attributes some of this progress to continuing international pressure to recognize homosexual rights.  Over the past few years, he says, this pressure has changed the language used by Ugandan politicians.

“For example, the president of Uganda has shifted from the notion where he would say that there are no homosexuals in Uganda, to kill them if you see them, to now saying that homosexuals were here and they were not being persecuted," said Mugisha. "And I see that as an effect of the international pressure, having to talk to them or to bring up the issue every time they meet with our politicians.”

As a result, says Abang, it has become easier for the homosexual community to participate in public events, such as a march several weeks ago in which several dozen gay activists walked the streets brandishing posters.  She says that under the watchful eye of the international community, police are no longer likely to arrest them at public demonstrations.

“Because you can imagine a number of people walking on the road and you come and arrest them - definitely it’s homophobia," said Abang. "So I think that as much as they want to do more in order to stop us, they are also scared of what the repercussions would be.”

Western pressure

But, she adds, not all forms of Western pressure have been helpful.  British Prime Minister David Cameron declared last year that he would cut aid to countries that did not respect gay rights, a statement that was intensely criticized by many Africans who saw it as an attempt to impose European cultural values on them. According to Abang, this type of statement from a Western leader actually hurts Uganda’s homosexual community.

“I think that was very wrong, because there will be a lot of backlash," said Abang. "And for me it was also wrong because I belong to the wider community. That money that reconstructs the roads, helps build hospitals - I also use those hospitals. I use those roads.”

In terms of public opinion, more gains have been made by Ugandan activists themselves, says Mugisha. If homophobia is on the decline, it is thanks to local civil society organizations like his.

“The advocacy work is effective, because when Ugandans hear other Ugandans speaking out, it is very, very much more effective," said Mugisha. "So that has worked.”

As a result, Ugandan gay activists are becoming bolder. Last month, Sexual Minorities Uganda filed a lawsuit against American evangelical pastor Scott Lively in a U.S. federal court, accusing Lively of whipping up anti-gay hysteria in Uganda that inspired the anti-homosexuality bill.

Such acts, says Mugisha, are a violation of international law. He hopes that if Lively is convicted, it will send a message both at home and abroad that exporting homophobia is unacceptable.

But even if Kampala is becoming an easier place for homosexuals to live, things outside the capital and other major cities are just as bad as before, says Mugisha.

“It is very difficult for people up-country, because now that is where there is a deep-rooted religion. People get arrested and harassed a lot more," said Mugisha. "When I talk to people in the rural areas, they are like, ‘How do you do it?  Aren’t you scared that they would kill you or beat you?’ Because I think that’s their fear. They think that could happen to them if they are out.”

Long way to go

Despite their optimism, gay and lesbian activists agree that there is still a long way to go before homosexuals will be officially tolerated in Uganda. But as for Bishop Senyonjo, he says he is gratified to see that at least some of his work has been paying off.

“I know some of these young people who say to me, ‘If you didn’t help us, we were contemplating committing suicide.’ I am happy to see them alive. I’m really happy.”

Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill is still before parliament. Although it enjoys strong support from legislators, President Yoweri Museveni has distanced himself from the bill, saying it hurts Uganda’s image abroad.

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