Stop the Uganda anti-homosexuality bill!

The re-tabling of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill threatens to institutionalize discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender persons.

Ever since the re-tabling of the anti-homosexuality bill, Uganda is back on the spotlight of human rights. The controversial bill seeks to make all acts of homosexuality and associations with homosexuals illegal.

Ndorwa West MP David Bahati proposed the bill that seeks to criminalize homosexuality and proposes the death penalty for aggravated homosexuality. He says the bill will protect the society’s moral fabric.

The Uganda Law Society (ULS) has warned that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009, if enacted into law in its current state, would institutionalize discrimination against those who are, or thought to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

“The bill would further purport to criminalize the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, compel HIV testing in certain circumstances, impose life sentences for entering into a same-sex marriage, introduce the death penalty for ‘aggravated’ homosexuality, as well as punish those who fail to report knowledge of any violations of its provisions within 24 hours.”

A priest who preferred to be anonymous labored to explain the existing section of the Ugandan penal code with words “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” that the Ugandan Government has been riding on to persecute gay persons:

Everything hangs on how you interpret; ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature’ (section 145 of the Uganda penal code Act cap 120), doesn’t it? If the ‘order of nature’ strictly means the male organ (penis) penetrating the female organ (vagina), then activities such as oral sex, masturbation – alone or together – or any other form of sex, like ones locally known in the western part of Uganda as Kachabali, are against the order of nature and illegal in Uganda.

Furthermore, since homosexuality as an orientation (rather than an act) is not explicitly mentioned in the existing penal code (but only carnal knowledge against the order of nature) it could be cogently argued that being a homosexual in Uganda is not itself illegal.

This is further indicated by section C of the bill, which forbids a MALE person to have carnal knowledge of HIM or HER against the order of nature. In other words, it is the sexual act of sodomy (or whatever else is considered disordered) which goes against the code, rather than sexual orientation per se.

The sexuality of the one who performs a sexual act, whether that person be heterosexual or homosexual, cannot be construed from the sexual act itself, since one or two or even more sexual acts, even when commonly perceived or as being ‘homosexual’, hardly make that person a homosexual.

Consequently, any heterosexual male who has non-penetrative sex with his wife or female heterosexual partner (and there must be hundreds or thousands in Uganda) is, according to this section of the code, equally guilty of a felony and liable to imprisonment. This makes the law completely nonsensical.

Ssentongo Musa, an administrator at Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) knows how hatred towards LGBT (Lesbians, Gay, Bisexual and Trans) has hurt them in the health facilities of Uganda.

He says “Nurses and midwives have little or no knowledge about LGBT health issues. When you walk into a government health facility with your sickness and declare your sexual orientation, you are turned into an object of amusement. All of them beckon on each other to come and watch a cinema of a gay person.”

“When I get anal gonorrhea and I tell the nurse my sickness, they start lifting eyebrows, finger-pointing and making funny faces. Instead of giving me help, they start rallying others workers to come and see a gay person suffering from anal gonorrhea. They ask me ‘are you male or female?’ For me whether I am male or female is irrelevant when I have come for treatment. They will then start giving you lectures about how to change your sexual orientation.”

Ssentongo adds, “The stigma against LGBT has put us in a very precarious situation. We lost a colleague to AIDS. He was very sick and referred to Mulago hospital. When he said he was gay, instead of being treated he was being ridiculed. After four weeks he died. But he just needed more specialized treatment from Mulago hospital.”

He says that SMUG has been engaging different sectors, especially the Ministry of Health, to plan for improving access to services for LGBT. Unfortunately nothing in their plans currently features LGBT health. But surely somebody at the ministry needs to open up to the perception of minority groups? If they can plan for children, women, persons with disabilities, the elderly and the mentally ill, they should be able to plan for LGBT as well. They have the resources to plan for the whole country and someone is just NOT planning for LGBT.

In Uganda, there are only three LGBT-friendly health facilities, all of which are private. But some of them still display fear of LGBT – for instance, some doctors and other health workers feel they cannot be required to treat gay persons.

There is a high level of homophobia in Uganda.

Julie, a businesswoman in Kampala, says, “I hate them. But I do not support the Government of Uganda following them everywhere and denying them the opportunity to associate amongst themselves.”

President Museveni of Uganda recently said, while appearing on BBC’s Hard Talk programme, that “the difference between Africa and western Europe is the promotion of homosexuality, as if it is something good. The issue [of homosexuality] is mishandled by western countries and their activist groups. I don’t support promotion of homosexuality, but I do not support persecution or discrimination of homosexuals.”

One may ask why, if the president does not support the persecution of gay persons, he would he allow a member of his cabinet to persecute gay persons. Recently Uganda’s minister of Ethics and Integrity, Reverand Father Simon Lokodo, disbanded a gay leadership workshop in Entebbe, and then made a public statement that he would ‘crush’ the homosexuals in Uganda.

Ssentongo Musa notes that, even with all this animosity, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. An official at the Ministry of Health encourages LGBT to interact with them, saying “we need to understand you in order to be able to help you”.

There are also other groups in Uganda that have been supportive of the LGBT movement, such as Akina Maama, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, the Refugee Law Project, Spectrum Uganda Initiative and Forum for Women Development.

But as the controversial bill goes through parliament, there is bound to be a showdown between the Government of Uganda and its international partners.

For Ssentogo of SMUG, there is only one way forward: “We have to kill this bill, before it kills us.”