This week, Uganda’s parliament is expected to begin debating extreme anti-gay legislation that “proposes longer jail terms for homosexual acts, including a life sentence in certain circumstances,” reports the British Broadcasting Corporation and Reuters.
Same-sex relations are already harshly penalized in the east African nation, where gays and lesbians are often shunned by family, forced to leave their homes or villages and targeted for violence or even death. Homosexuality is punishable by up to life in prison. Recent weeks have seen a revival of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, initially proposed in 2009, which seeks the death penalty or life imprisonment for the new offense of “aggravated homosexuality”—anyone caught engaging in same-sex acts for a second time—as well as for gay sex where one partner is a minor or is HIV positive.
“Uganda is headed toward passing [this] draconian anti-gay legislation,” Frank Mugisha tweeted Saturday. Mugisha is the director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), the sole LGBT rights organization in the nation. He was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award n November 2011—the first time that an LGBT rights activist has been honored by the prestigious award.
The international community has denounced the extreme measure, but the Ugandan leadership wants to fast-track the bill. “Ugandans want that law as a Christmas gift," Speaker of the Ugandan National Assembly Rebecca Kadaga told Reuters last week.
Kadaga has been the leading voice to resurrect the bill since late October—after Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird publicly criticized Uganda’s record on LGBT rights at a summit. Baird mentioned the tragic case of David Kato, the nation's first publicly openly gay man, who was brutally killed in January 2011.
The death penalty provision reportedly was removed on Friday, an MP told the BBC. This is at least the third time in the last three years that the death penalty provision has been removed. Unfortunately, the newest version of the bill includes several “substantial amendments” that go far beyond legislating sexual behavior and would effectively criminalize just “being” gay.
The expanded bill would force teachers, employers, landlords—even parents—to inform authorities of “suspected homosexuals,” according to Frank Mugisha and SMUG. “Any parent who does not denounce their lesbian daughter or gay son to the authorities would face fines of $2,650 or three years in prison” and “any teacher who does not report a lesbian or gay pupil to the authorities within 24 hours would face the same penalties.”
Some Ugandan LGBTs have become “so concerned” that they’re considering fleeing to neighboring Kenya, which is considered progressive on gay rights. “I have been personally asked by two activists to ‘host’ them at my home in case things turn badly,” Denis Nzioka told EBONY.com from Nairobi. Nzioka is the founder of Identity Kenya and the nation’s most visible gay activist. There are fears “that if the bill is passed it will mean that emergency rapid responses are put in place.”
Africa is one of the world's most hostile landscapes for gays and lesbians. Same-sex acts are illegal in at least 38 of 54 African states. Four nations—Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan—boast the death penalty for gays or same-sex activity. Africa's most populous country, Nigeria, has also considered enacting similar extreme anti-gay legislation that would ban any same-sex relationship, as well as pro-LGBT websites or groups. Early versions of the proposed Nigerian law prohibited same-sex couples from going out to dinner.
The timing of this so-called “Christmas gift” is especially tragic—only days before the celebration of World AIDS Day. “If passed [this] will have a disastrous impact on the country's HIV response. Medical doctors working on HIV/AIDS would be [compromised],” Dr. Alvaro Bermejo, Executive Director, International HIV/AIDS Alliance, noted today at the Huffington Post. “It’s likely to lead to even more infections.”
What’s next? If parliament approves the bill, which is likely, President Yoweri Museveni would have to sign it before it comes law—and he previously refused to do this in 2009. Also worth noting: Only two weeks ago, Britain, joined Denmark, Ireland and Norway to “suspend all financial aid to Uganda” over a massive corruption scandal in the prime minister’s office involving millions in lost funds. It’s the major story being reported across Uganda and much of Africa—but the anti-gay bill’s revival has diverted attention elsewhere.
Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News, NBC and FOX, and his writing has appeared in EBONY, The Advocate, OUT, The Los Angeles Times and many others. Read his award winning site Rod 2.0. Follow him on Twitter: @RodMcCullom