The Antihomosexuality Bill that sat in limbo in the Ugandan Parliament for four years became law when it was passed by that body in late December 2013 and then ratified by President Museveni on February 24, 2014. Punishments are extreme:
- Life imprisonment for ongoing consensual same gender sexual activity
- Provisions to extradite Ugandans living abroad to stand trial
- Requirements that any Ugandan citizen or organization report “known homosexuals” to authorities or face imprisonment themselves.
The effects of the new law have been severe and immediate, quelling community-building, mobilization, and advocacy efforts by same gender-loving Ugandans; throwing social service, health services, and development organizations into disarray; sparking widespread condemnation by human rights activists and organizations; and eliciting sharp indictments from political leaders from the U.S., Canada, most of Europe, and Australia while a number of political leaders from countries across sub-Saharan Africa have voiced their support.
For HIV prevention and treatment programs, the effect of the law could be devastating. Real progress has been made in getting life-saving treatments to those infected and in developing specific prevention and support programs for those most at-risk. These advancements dramatically lower new incidences of HIV infection and make management of HIV for those already infected a chronic but manageable disease. Such progress has led many to begin to speak about the possibility of an “AIDS-free generation.” For men who have sex with men, one of the groups with the highest HIV prevalence rates, this law is a tremendous blow because services for them will be affected and they will fear that the clinical or social services providers they see one day at the local health centre may turn them into authorities the next. This not only threatens the lives and health of these men, but also threatens the lives and health of all Ugandans. HIV infection would undoubtedly spread across other communities and HIV service organizations crippled by the law. Those of us who rightly stand in opposition to this law must speak out and respond. Doing so is not an option; it is an imperative. The question—and it is a tangible and urgent question—comes in figuring out what we should say and what we should do. We believe that three principles are imperative to guide our responses.
First, we must ensure that we do no harm. Like it or not, the societies in the West that have been most vocal in opposition to the law in Uganda are also the same societies implicated in the ugly, brutal history of colonialism. The bitter memory of Westerners coming in to legislate and “enlighten” is powerful for Ugandans. Understandably so. Therefore, we believe that any efforts to fight against this law would be best served by working in partnership with Ugandan and east African allies, allowing their voices to be heard first and foremost. Unfortunately, with few exceptions this has not been the case. The majority of public voices speaking out about the law have come from the West. We fully support the commitments and passions driving those voices; we share them. But we also ask those voicing their opposition to consider that strident demands from our societies are quite often perceived by Ugandans as Western bullying. In response, they “double down” in support of the law in a show of resistance and national pride.
Second, the voices to guide the outcry should be Ugandan. Too many assume that no Ugandan voices of opposition have been raised, and this assumption is incorrect. There have been strong, courageous efforts by Ugandans to fight against the bill and to create and sustain communities for same gender-loving Ugandans and their allies. Those efforts have grown out of Ugandan civil society—its educational institutions, human rights organizations, and thought leaders. And those efforts have also grown out of Uganda’s religious communities—which is imperative to remember. Religious convictions have without question been a key force in fashioning the bill, sustaining it while it lay dormant in Parliament for over four years, and drumming up public sentiment to support the passage of the bill into law. But religious convictions have also sustained activists—both ordained religious leaders and ordinary people of faith worshiping in their church or mosque—to speak and organize and offer support. People of faith who are same gender-loving and people of faith who are opposed to this bill have stood on the front lines of the fight against this law. Many have paid a very high price; some have paid with their lives.
Third, even as efforts mount to overturn this law, we believe that efforts to minimize vulnerability for LGBT people in Uganda and their allies there is critical. Changing the law is a medium-to-long term strategy at this point. In the short term, its effects will be felt by LGBT people across Uganda. They will feel its effects at home with their immediate and extended families. They will feel it in their places of work. They will feel it in their houses of worship. They will feel it when they walk down the street. Those of us speaking out against the law have an obligation to lend our support—not only offering words of solidarity but also developing channels to help sustain grassroots responses that can shield people from harm. We must make such commitments even as we advocate for overturning the law, especially since such advocacy will undoubtedly lead to increased scrutiny and vulnerability for our partners there. They may well pay a price for our advocacy.
Those of us speaking out against this law must keep this in mind. We must figure out when and where to speak up and act. We must figure out what to say and what to do. But we must also figure what not to say and how to avoid doing harm in our zeal to do good.