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Uganda Gay Kill Bill is an Uphill Battle for LGBT Activists

On November 23, Uganda’s infamous anti-gay “Kill the Gays” legislation was passed by a committee vote. It will now move to parliament, where it will be debated on the floor. Speaker of the House Rebecca Kadaga expects to pass the bill by the holidays as a “Christmas gift” to Uganda.

The bill (linked here in its original form) was first tabled in late 2009 by MP David Bahati. It has been heavily influenced by American evangelicals (an issue I have written about here), and represents the politicization of homophobia in the country and the creation of an enabling environment for severe discrimination in virtually every meaningful aspect of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) Ugandans' civil and political lives. Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, and many of the proposed clauses of the new bill contradict the 1995 constitution.

Since its inception, it has been tabled three times and subjected to revision. Even though it was reported in the past weeks that the death penalty clauses for “aggravated” homosexuality (when one partner is HIV positive, under 18, or is a “repeat offender”) will be reduced to life imprisonment – civil society organizations such as Freedom and Roam Uganda have stated that the committee that approved the bill cannot change it, so it will be at the discretion of parliament to amend.

The current form of the bill has not been made public, but the known clauses remain vague, opening the door for potential rights abuses. Clause 5 states that “a victim of homosexuality shall not be penalized for any crime committed as a direct result of his or her involvement in homosexuality.” As blogger Sokari Ekine points out “this clause is an open invitation to lynch LGBTI people, so in reality the death penalty remains.” In a country where the judicial system is very weak, mob justice very real, and many of the issues with which homosexuality has been correlated with – sexual predilection for children and Westernization – this clause effectively opens the door for individuals to be targeted without legal remedy on the basis of real or imagined homosexuality. 

Passage of the legislation will have the effect of isolating foreign donors, with several already threatening to withdraw aid if the bill passes. The UK recently suspended all of its aid to Uganda over a corruption scandal, and others have expressed concerns over Uganda and Rwanda’s alleged support to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s rebel M23.

However, the bill is very effective at controlling political space within the country by diverting attention from domestic issues and legitimizing government restrictions on civil society organizing. It also provides the government the opportunity to appeal to certain constituencies by appearing to resist Western influence. In 2009, the current Kampala mayor stated that it was too politically risky not to support the bill.

This latest round comes after Kadaga’s trip to Canada in late October. Kadaga was confronted on the anti-gay legislation during an inter-parliamentary forum there and returned to a hero’s welcome for defending Uganda’s sovereignty. On November 9, a "statement from concerned citizens" was delivered to Kadaga at a public meeting outside Ugandan parliament demanding the bill be passed.

Kadaga has already announced her intention to run for President in 2016; Ugandan blogger Sebaspace has described her reintroduction of the bill as allowing her personal political ambition to drive her into the “cynical embrace of failed Ugandan politicians.”

In the past, parliament has been accused of using the bill to distract from other domestic matters, like the 2011 purchase of fighter jets. In a letter dated November 13, Kadaga affirmed that the bill must be "concluded", stating that it should be addressed immediately after conclusion of the oil bills.  

Elsewhere, members of the LGBTI community have suggested that the passage of the anti-gay legislation might be the best possible outcome, as it is likely to be immediately repealed by the Constitutional Court. The Court has checked discrimination in the past, such as the December 2010 ruling that the Rolling Stone tabloid’s publication of the names and photos of “Uganda’s top 200 homos” violated the right to privacy. Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda has stated that passage of the bill would not be a "doomsday scenario," as existing laws on homosexuality cannot even be implemented. But that is a big "if."

Another problem is that paradoxically, attention to the bill has at times been detrimental to LGBTI groups. The priority focus on stopping the bill has made it possible for some organizations to receive funding when LGBTI issues don’t form a key part of their mandate. The focus on the bill also obfuscates the space for other forms of LGBTI advocacy, such as access to health care.

The bill’s passage is deeply embedded in the political landscape of the country, and civil society has responded dynamically. Several members of the LGBTI community have already wired money to friends in neighboring countries so they can escape if the bill passes. Despite these challenges, civil society has remained critically engaged.

Since February 2010, when Pastor Martin Ssempa first showed gay pornography in church, there has been the Constitutional Court ruling, SMUG’s case filing in the U.S., and Uganda’s First Gay pride event in August 2012. This is incredibly monumental and there should be more attention placed on this, as attention towards homophobia in Uganda has at times had the converse effect of at times strengthening the anti-gay lobby. In the words of LGBTI activist David Kato, before he was brutally murdered in January 2011, "the struggle continues."

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