Africa’s Culture War: The Fight Over Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill

ABC's Dana Hughes reports from Nairobi:

A lot of attention has been paid to the proposed anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda. And rightfully so, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009 would sentence HIV positive homosexuals to death for having sex, and severely punish any homosexual with up to life imprisonment. Any Ugandan, gay or straight, who knows a homosexual and fails to report him or her to the authorities could face up to seven years in prison. There is intense international pressure on Uganda to withdrawal the bill, Hillary Clinton highlighted the bill today in a speech on human rights saying that “law should not become an instrument of oppression.” Even President Obama said in a statement over the weekend that the law “moves against the tide of history.”

Human rights groups say this draconian law has been pushed by the U.S. evangelical movement. American pastors were prominent speakers at an anti-homosexual conference last March. A key Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa who has been pushing the law, has been a featured speaker at Rick Warren’s Saddleback church. After weeks of silence, Warren released a video last week condemning the bill. Speakers from the conference have also now denounced the bill as being too harsh. Critics say the damage has already been done.

But while American evangelicals are being examined for their role in the origins of the bill in Uganda, East Africa, and for that matter Africa as a whole, is decidedly, virulently against homosexuality. Nigeria’s Northern States and Sudan have tabled laws where being gay can lead to a death sentence . Burundi recently passed a law making homosexuality a criminal offense, Rwanda is also reportedly considering passing a similar law.

Homosexuality is even illegal in Kenya, which is a fairly liberal African country. While the laws against homosexuals are rarely enforced, the idea of striking them or even adding laws to protect their rights gets a resounding no from lawmakers. When the British High Commission reportedly tried to get the current government to put a clause in the new draft constitution protecting the rights of homosexuals, government officials scoffed telling the diplomats “If we put that in there, the people will not vote for the constitution.” An informal poll of cab drivers, middle class business people, college students and a few random Kenyans on the streets, taken by this reporter shows that the lawmakers are right – people overwhelming said they would immediately reject a new constitution that included a place for homosexuals.

In fact, South Africa is the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa with laws acknowledging gay rights, but even there the country has a problem with homophobia. There are several documented cases of lesbians being targeted for rape to “correct” their sexual preference. The victims say they get very little support from the police who often insinuate that by being lesbian they deserved what happened.

Africans see homosexuality as being both un-African and un-Christian, a double whammy in a place where both local tradition and the religious influence of colonialism and missionaries intersect and often dictate people’s everyday lives. And the poorer and more uneducated a person is the more likely they are to both go to church on Sundays and see a “witch doctor” on Monday, and be a zealot about both. The poor and uneducated are also more likely to be less tolerant of homosexuality. In a story I reported about a year ago on gay nightlife in Nairobi, I had to change the names of the sources for their protection, but the man who grew up in Nairobi had told his parents and his closest friends. The young man from Meru, a rural area about two hours away had never told his family he was gay, had a girlfriend in his home village and constantly lived in fear his father would find out, because if he did “he would kill me,” he said. So this young man, who admitted to engaging in “risky” behavior while in Nairobi with men, would then go home to his girlfriend. It’s a common trend among homosexuals here who are persecuted for being too “out.”

Besides the human rights aspect of the Uganda bill, health professionals says the potential public health problems it may spawn – driving HIV positive homosexuals even further underground -- could set the country backwards significantly in fighting HIV/AIDS. The law in Uganda is extreme, even by African standards, but the fallout may be a preview of Africa’s own version of a “culture war.” The international pressure for Uganda to get rid of the bill has been growing. Besides human rights groups and U.S. officials, Prime Ministers Gordon Brown and Paul Harper have reportedly told President Yoweri Museveni directly that the bill’s passage would be unacceptable. Uganda, and other African countries are heavily reliant on the political and financial support of the West and can’t afford to completely alienate allies. But politicians here also can’t afford to alienate voters. Anti-homosexual laws are very popular, particularly with villagers. As one Ugandan politician told a local reporter “There’s not one politician who will be voted out for being for this bill, but he will be voted out if he comes out against it.”

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