The 'Kill the gays' bill: Why it matters outside Uganda

The Speaker in Uganda’s parliament is promising a gift like no other for Christmas to her countrymen.

Rebecca Kadaga has vowed to resuscitate the “kill the gays” bill, that was put into cold storage in 2009 after it spurred international outrage.

At a time when the US Supreme Court is mulling same-sex marriage and the court in India has just heard arguments about decriminalising consensual gay sex, Uganda wants to get on an express train back to the dark ages. The bill in question threatens to make homosexuality, already a criminal offence in the country, punishable by death if someone is convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” which could include repeat offenders, HIV-positive persons, or someone who has sex with a minor. And that’s not all. The bill has a range of jail sentences, including life terms, for lesser “gay crimes”.

It demands three-year prison sentences for a family member or a neighbour or a landlord who does not turn in a “known homosexual” to the police. If Ugandan gays think they can flee the dragnet by seeking asylum, even that might not be an escape route. The bill wants Ugandans who engage in same-sex activities outside the country to be extradited for punishment.

On the face of it, the bill sounds so draconian, it seems almost ridiculous. Surely, Uganda which is heavily dependent on foreign donors, knows that western donors are squeamish about their tax dollars ending up funding something that’s gotten the nickname “kill the gays” bill.  They prefer their homophobia to served up a tad more discreetly.

The Speaker in Uganda’s parliament  has vowed to resuscitate the “kill the gays” bill, that was put into cold storage in 2009 after it spurred international outrage. Reuters

But whether the bill becomes law or not, it’s ended up exposing the rest of the world to some uncomfortable home truths that extend well beyond Uganda.

It’s never really about the gays. When any government suddenly wakes up to the homosexual menace, chances are  it’s a smokescreen. In the US, every time an election gets close, right wingers like to press on the homosexual panic button to get the faithful out to vote. Uganda is no exception. As Stephen Wood writes on

Currently, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill lies in a queue behind another controversial bill that will determine who has access and control over Uganda's lucrative oil resources.

Similarly, a number of high-level corruption scandals dog the Government, such as those within the Office of the Prime Minister and Ministry of Public Service, which have led in recent weeks to aid withdrawal from a number of countries, including the UK and Germany. Simultaneously, attacks on press freedom and civil society continue to occur.

Gerald Bareebe and Brett House point out that the first incarnation of the bill happened in 2009 when Uganda’s increasingly autocratic president Museveni was suppressing riots in the semi-autonomous Buganda region. The US State Department has been raising a lot of concerns about  serious problems in Uganda’s electoral processes. All that makes this a perfect time to throw gays “under the Ugandan bus” write Bareebe and House.

In short, Ugandan gays are a lot like nuclear weapons in North Korea: the threat to blow one up gets intensified whenever either government comes under increased pressure.

Follow the money: Archbishop Desmond Tutu has thrown his moral weight to protest this outrageous bill but ultimately the only real pressure a strongman understands is money. And that means going not just after donor governments but after the multinational corporations that do big business in Uganda. They carry a far bigger stick than Tutu does. And activists need to push them and push them hard.  Citibank, for example, is one of the largest employers in Uganda but its response to date has been tepid writes the blog ThinkProgress. It has only “only reiterated its nondiscrimination policy:

While the laws and cultural norms in some countries where Citi operates differ from commonly accepted global standards for human rights, Citi supports equality without regard for, among other personal characteristics, race, gender, gender identity or expression, disability, age, nationality, or sexual orientation.

Barclays at least had the guts to name the bill and issued a statement saying it was “engaging at appropriate levels of the Ugandan government” to express its views.

The other big target is Pepsi. Activists trying to push Pepsi to take a stance saying if Pepsi were to speak out against the bill it would "force Ugandan officials to put the bill on hold — or even pull it entirely."

Culture wars are Frankenstein monsters.  The Christian right wants to maintain face-saving distance from this bill but their finger prints are all over it. The right has been warm in its embrace of Museveni who decided he wanted to dedicate his country to God and renounce “the Satanic influence” of the “last 50 years of [its] history”. Of course, he has been in charge for a big chunk of that period. The Christian right has long made Africa its happy hunting ground for funding a culture war that’s increasingly finding little resonance in the United States. Now the Family Research Council is being forced to say while it does not support the death penalty for homosexuality it does oppose “the suggestion that gay and lesbian acts are universal human rights.”  But as Tim Padgett writes in Time Magazine this is all too little too late:

As a Catholic, I’m all too aware that Pope Benedict XVI has also said that saving humanity from homosexuals is as crucial as saving rain forests from lumberjacks. And that a Vatican spokesman, after last month’s pro-gay-marriage votes in the U.S., made the equally cruel remark that gay marriage is a slippery slope to polygamy. Don’t blame Ugandan Catholics if they’re getting dangerously mixed signals from Rome.

So what will happen in the end?  There are already reports, that are being contradicted by others, that the death penalty provision has been removed, or will be removed from the bill. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the bill with its prison sentences for homosexual “crimes”, with its demand that families and neighbours rat on gay and lesbians, is equally horrendous.

The real danger is that the death penalty will be dropped and the United States and Britain and Pepsi and Barclays all heave a sigh of relief and get back to business as usual write Bareebe and House, meaning they can continue “to finance a strongman who eliminated presidential term limits in 2005 and has stayed in power for 26 years through deeply flawed elections.”

And lesbians and gays will be expected to feel grateful that instead of facing death sentences they can look forward to life imprisonment.

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Updated Date: Dec 07, 2012 18:16:06 IST