I'd like you to take a moment to stop and think: What would you do if just being yourself were made illegal? Would you hide? Would you scream for help? Would you try to be someone else? These hypotheticals might seem irrelevant to you, or maybe they make your skin crawl — regardless they are likely just that, hypotheticals. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many people. For some it is a question faced daily — whether it is the color of their skin, their cultural background, or in the case of Uganda, with whom they fall in love.
On Friday, the Ugandan Parliament passed legislation to punish acts of "aggravated homosexuality" with life imprisonment. This decision came along other harsh penalties for "promoting homosexuality," which can include actions such as offering HIV counseling or housing someone suspected of being a homosexual. The reasoning given by David Bahati, the Member of Parliament who authored the bill, was two pronged: to protect the children of Uganda from being recruited into a "gay lifestyle," and to strengthen "the nation's capacity to deal with emerging internal and external threats to the traditional heterosexual family."
I get it. Uganda is worried that if it's entire population is homosexual, its population will shrink because homosexual relationships aren't based around procreation. Oh, wait a minute. That can't be true, because according to the World Watch Institute, Uganda is on track to have the world's highest population growth (a misfortune attributed to the government's lack of commitment to family planning, which they believe will entrap the country in poverty and instability).
But if that's not it, then it must be to protect children from sexual abuses, a truly important mission. But wait, in 2012 the Ugandan Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development presented on the child protection crisis in Uganda, and itself omitted any mention of recruitment into homosexuality as a key child protection concern in Uganda. They do, however, focus on physical, sexual, and emotional abuse (something suspected homosexual children are surely victim to, now, by their own government).
But there exists no evidence that gay men (or lesbian women) molest children at higher rates than heterosexual men or women. Moreover, research by Nicholas Groth — a leader in the field of children's sexual abuse — shows that the stereotypical pedophile cannot be considered homosexual or heterosexual because "he often finds adults of either sex repulsive" and often molests children of both sexes. So it seems that David Bahati and his fellow conspirators are severely mistaken. And the greatest misfortune of their mistake is the price that many homosexual Ugandans will have to pay.
So what does this mean for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in Uganda? It means it is against the law to be themselves. As a Ugandan gay activist Frank Mugisha put it, "I am officially illegal." An anonymous Ugandan gay man blogs, "We are lepers, to be shunned. The only thing good for us was death or life imprisonment: that is what our countrymen think of us."
And Gregory Warner, a NPR journalist in Kampala, Uganda, reports, "Being LGBT in Uganda can get you expelled from school. It can get you fired from your job, kicked out of your family, beaten up on the street, and even killed in some cases." In some cases, the treatment women receive for being lesbian may make them wish they had been killed, as Stephen Fry discovers in talking to this Ugandan woman who experienced corrective rape.
Interestingly enough, the development of this law has created a bitter and broad-based contempt for Western diplomacy, which has threatened a potential decrease of funding should the country go through with ratifying the law. This has been seen as form of neocolonialism. The irony of this lies in the fact that the bill "was composed with the help of American evangelical leaders who have close ties to the authors and promoters of the bill in Uganda." The evangelists came from 'The Family,' a secretive group associated with conservatives in the United States, who seek to influence policy (which in this case, happened to be bigotry). "In 2009 three American evangelists came to Uganda to teach about the evils of the "Homosexual Agenda." And, after that, in October 2009 came the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill in the Ugandan parliament." Neocolonialism at its finest.
Only time will tell what devastation this law will cause families, communities, and the country as a whole — the very institutions the law is trying to protect. We must continue to debate and discuss this topic, particularly in the United States, if only because the malice of our own citizens helped fuel this discrimination. Their actions must be held accountable as much abroad as they are at home. And it is our collective responsibility to make that happen.