by John Ireland
As the early morning sun rose over Kampala on Oct. 14, 2009, Gug lay in bed and contemplated his life. (“Gug” is a pseudonym he uses on his blog, GayUganda.blogspot.com, which provides a rare view into the LGBT experience in his country.) Regular power outages yield dead laptop batteries. They also assure intimate candlelight dinners . . . and sex. For this workaday poet in his mid-30s, it was time to wake up and face the harsh realities and intoxicating beauty of his country, a juxtaposition he knows all too well. By lunchtime, his life as a gay Ugandan would become riskier than he could imagine.
That day, “The Anti-Homosexuality Bill” was introduced by Ugandan Member of Parliament David Bahati. Gays have faced legal persecution in Uganda for decades, a vestige of British anti-sodomy laws that predate the country’s independence. Homosexual sex currently carries a 14-year maximum sentence in the country, but the new bill adds the definition of “aggravated homosexuality,” which would carry the death penalty. This would apply to “serial offenders,” those “living with HIV,” anyone who uses drugs or alcohol in the commission of the crime, and anyone who has sex with someone who is disabled or under 18 years of age. The bill also adds prison sentences for anyone who “promotes homosexuality” or knows of it and fails to “disclose the offence,” including parents that fail to inform on their children. Uganda’s parliament may take up the bill soon after reconvening on February 15.
Vocal condemnations of the bill have been issued from across the world. These include repudiations from a handful of American congressmen and Christian leaders, who—as it turns out—have traveled frequently over the past decade to Uganda, laying the groundwork for a revived anti-homosexuality campaign.
Perhaps the most influential international voice on the issue is the high-profile evangelical pastor Rick Warren, founder of the California-based Saddleback megachurch. In 2005, he welcomed Martin Ssempa to his congregation to present on HIV/AIDS prevention in Africa. Ssempa, a prominent backer of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, is a charismatic pastor from Kampala and a longtime antigay activist in Uganda. For many years, he has waged a campaign to publish the names of suspected gays, causing them to go into hiding.
In March 2008, Warren traveled to Uganda to show his support of the country’s Anglican bishops who were protesting the Church of England’s tolerance of homosexuality. Criminalization of homosexuality in Uganda is often justified by Warren’s widely circulated edict: “Homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right.” In addition, anticolonial sentiment has long fueled the ignorant belief that homosexuality is a Western import. Bahati alleges that foreign and non-governmental organizations, including UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund), actively promote homosexuality.
Tweeting from the Closet
The actions of these politicians and religious leaders have dramatically changed the lives of gay and lesbian Ugandans. On Dec. 30, 2009, Gug was outed in an article in The Red Pepper, a newspaper published in Kampala.
Well aware that state-run media are off-limits, Gug has made rich use of less easily regulated outlets. His blog posts are often delayed due to regular power outages and slow server response times, so many of his most poignant observations are delivered via mobile phone, as he sits in the lush darkness of a central African downpour.
Gug’s Twitter feed describes the increased pressure he feels to go deeper into the closet:
“my friends by law should report me. within 24hrs of knowing i had sex”
“life can be tough. but well, we continue living it. if i tweet every time after sex i will keep a record.”
“a record of the number of lifetimes i should spend in prison. just for making love.”
“seated in the middle of kampala with my partner of years shoulder to shoulder. yeah. homophobic uganda”
Gug also provides a deeper assessment of the reality of his homeland, again on Twitter: “living in uganda, its tough to reconcile the ugly, and the beauty of life. they present side by side.”
According to American journalist Jeff Sharlet, author of the 2008 book The Family that exposed the U.S. congressional ties of a secretive group of Christian power brokers of the same name, Bahati is a “core member” of the group. According to Sharlet, The Family preaches a gospel of “biblical capitalism,” which blends evangelical Christianity, right-wing politics, and free marketism into a worldview that celebrates power as a reflection of God’s grace.
Bahati has organized the Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast along with James Nsaba Buturo, the country’s Minister for Ethics and Integrity. Sharlet has recently detailed the deep connections between U.S. Senators John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Uganda’s leadership over the past decade, particularly as military and infrastructure aid has flowed to Uganda from the United States. This includes a $15 million “abstinence only” anti-AIDS campaign, which is credited with halting the nation’s once-robust condom distribution programs, and thus almost certainly fostering the spread of HIV.
Closeted life is similar the world over. Gug finds a comfort zone and a way to “pass” that has kept him safe so far. He can relax within a tight-knit group of other “kuchus” in bars, after the early evening crowd leaves. He tweets:
“like a change of guard. football fans out. us partiers in. and the night is young . . . its pleasant to be in a place of safety. where i and other kuchus can interact in relative safety. a heavy cloak lifts.”
The Anti-Homosexuality Bill is transforming his circle of friends, forcing them to make difficult choices. He describes how he and his partner are drawn into the battle, sometimes reluctantly:
“he is on the phone. counseling. someone being blackmailed. yeah, a kuchu. life, as normal”
“some weighty decisions on my mind. personal. I tend to mull them over . . . and i have”
“would i ever leave kampala??? or uganda? not by choice. this is home”
Gug is politically active in the Kampala LGBT community, but has chosen thus far to lead from the shadows. Until he was outed in the press last month, he was facing a deep personal crisis of how best to stand up to the oppression, while eluding those who could do him harm. He tweets:
“i have a horror of being outed. true. but my camouflage has worn thin over the years. too many know who i am”
“back to thought. the battle is a desperate one. so, our weapons have to be horned. a brain that is versatile and quick.”
On December 10, in a seeming about-face, Warren recorded a video “encyclical,” in which he explains to Ugandan pastors that he opposes the bill. Gug and other Ugandan LGBT activists suspect it was largely an effort to mollify Western media and rights watchdog groups.
Gug writes on his blog:
“We are poor. Only 4% of the country has internet connection, so very few will hear about the fact that he has done what he did. Of course, the Christian stations are very many. So, he can use his clout to air it? Please? . . . !”
Warren’s office did not return phone calls requesting information on how the video will be distributed.
If the bill passes, Uganda stands to lose a great deal of international credibility, as well as funding. Sweden, which gives $50 million in aid to Uganda each year, has indicated it will reassess its commitment. Catherine Hankins, the chief scientific adviser for UNAIDS, speaking of the African AIDS Vaccine Program, warned, “If the bill passes, [we] would have to decide . . . whether this is an appropriate place [for the funding].” Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) recently warned, “[The bill’s] passage would hurt the close working relationship between our two countries, especially in the fight against HIV/AIDS.” The U.S. annual commitment is estimated to be approximately $250 million.
Commenting on the pressure being exercised by the international community, Bahati is defiant: “We are not going to yield to any international pressure—we cannot allow people to play with the future of our children and put aid into the game. We are not in the trade of values. We need mutual respect.”
For his part, Ssempa is preparing for battle. He responded to Warren’s encyclical with a heated video of his own claiming that Ugandans are so angry (“sheer rage”) with one-time ally Warren’s message that they are planning to burn copies of his bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life, in the streets. He goes on to say that there will be nationwide demonstrations “opposing Barack Obama,” saying that Ugandans “will not bend over for homosexuality.”
Part of the need for the law, Ssempa explains, is that Africa has a big problem with “sorcerers” spreading the belief that people with HIV/AIDS can “get healed” if they “rape a virgin.” He does not mention that current law already provides the death penalty for “aggravated defilement” (essentially statutory rape), with the same circumstances specified in the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
“Our fathers have handed down a rich heritage . . . how can we turn around and betray 5,000 years worth of history?” Ssempa says. “Even when they threaten to cut off aid . . . if homosexuality is the price for receiving Malaria drugs and [antiretrovirals] to treat our people who have HIV/AIDS, then we would rather die.”
“Legislated to Death” originally appeared in In These Times.