Roughly four dozen LGBT activists and allies turned out on November 19 to protest at Uganda House –– that nation’s permanent mission to the United Nations on Manhattan’s East 45th Street –– voicing their outrage about a draconian proposal to criminalize the promotion of same-sex conduct and impose the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.”
Amanda Lugg, the British-born lesbian advocacy director at the African Services Committee whose father is from Uganda, told the protesters that she was there “standing in solidarity” with gay, lesbian, and HIV-positive Ugandans.
The proposed Anti-Homosexuality law would supplement existing legal prohibitions on “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” –– a measure already used to persecute openly gay men and lesbians there.
The new measure specifically criminalizes same-sex conduct –– ranging from sexual stimulation to “touching another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality” –– with a potential sentence of life imprisonment.
For those found guilty of “aggravated homosexuality” –– defined as sexual conduct by “serial offenders” as well as those who are HIV-positive –– the potential penalty is a death sentence.
In prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality,” the bill would not only bar political activity on behalf of gay rights, but would also require anyone learning the identity of a sexually active gay person to report that information within 24 hours, or face a stiff fine or jail time.
Human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, in condemning the proposed law, noted that the “promotion of homosexuality” provisions could cripple HIV prevention, diagnosis, and treatment efforts based in frank discussion of risk factors and harm reduction techniques.
Dipika Nath, an LGBT researcher at HRW, said the legislation is an effort to isolate Uganda’s LGBT population by “removing any social support system” its members might have.
“Complete isolation, complete fear, expurgation” is the goal, she said.
Lugg said that while the Ugandan population is generally supportive of existing prohibitions on homosexual conduct, this more far-reaching proposal has sparked opposition since its introduction in Parliament last month.
Nath argued that just as the existing sexual conduct prohibitions in place in Uganda are a relic of British colonial rule, this more lethal approach is in part an import from the West. She noted that Exodus International, a Christianist group that promotes “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ,” even as it calls for “spiritual warfare” against gay-identified people, recently met in Uganda.
On November 16, however, Exodus International released a press statement noting that it had written to President and Mrs. Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda voicing its opposition to the Anti-Homosexuality Law, stating, in part, “We believe that sexual crimes against children, homosexual or heterosexual, are the most serious of offenses and should be punished accordingly. Homosexual behavior in consensual relationships, however, is another matter. While we do not believe that homosexual behavior is what God intended for individuals, we believe that deprivation of life and liberty is not an appropriate or helpful response to this issue.”
Talk to Action, a website that monitors the Religious Right, published a post alleging that two allies of the controversial Christian pastor Rick Warren, who gave the invocation at President Barack Obama’s inauguration –– Archbishop Henry Orombi, the Anglican bishop of Kampala, and Pastor Martin Ssempa –– are major supporters of the bill.
Ssempa has endorsed the bill, recently writing to Warren Throckmorton, Ph.D., (who is himself a controversial figure due to his therapeutic approach toward individuals wishing to "alter homosexual feelings or behaviors," but someone who has condemned the measure strongly), “I am in total support of the bill and would be most grateful if it did pass.” Ssempa reiterated that view in an interview on Premier Radio, a UK Christian station.
Warren released a statement in October distancing himself from a key bill sponsor, writing, “Martin Ssempa does not represent me, my wife Kay, Saddleback Church,” and noting that he had cut his ties to Ssempa.
The Contact-Online blog, an Anglican news and commentary source, wrote on November 13 that the Ugandan Anglican Church and Orombi “[do] not yet have an official position” yet on the measure. The Church opposes the death penalty.
Nath pointed out that similar legislation was considered in Nigeria in 2006, but withdrawn in the face of widespread criticism. That bill was re-introduced late last year, but has not been acted on. The time for pressure on Ugandan officials, she said, is now; the Parliament there is expected to take up the measure in January.
“The movement must be global,” Nath said. “The problem is not just Uganda.”
Episcopal Reverend Patricia Ackerman, affiliated with Anglican Women’s Empowerment, is part of an effort, spearheaded by the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, to have religious leaders sign on to a letter to Uganda’s minister of ethics and integrity, Dr. James Nsaba Buturo, protesting the proposed legislation.
Ackerman said the effort is focusing particularly on winning support from African-American religious leaders and reaching out to the Anglican Church in Uganda.
Approximately 30 activists gathered outside the Ugandan Embassy in Washington, also on November 19. According to Bob Witeck, a DC public relations professional who did pro bono publicity for the Washington protest, three activists were invited inside to meet with Embassy staff.
Katherine Roubos, a 24-year-old journalist who formerly worked for the Daily Monitor in Uganda, said that she had almost been deported after she tried to write about gay issues for that newspaper. At a rally called by Ssempa, she was denounced as a “homopropogandist.”
“I’m touched because I see when I was in Uganda, I felt all the attention on me,” she recalled. “I feel the real issue in Africa is on African people. I’m impressed there are people in America worried about Africa and Africans.”
Michael T. Luongo contributed additional reporting from Washington.