By RODNEY MUHUMUZA
KAMPALA, Uganda — The medical workers who knew he was gay ignored him, attending to those who arrived after him as they openly gossiped about his homosexuality.
Pepe Julian Onziema, a prominent gay activist in Uganda, said Wednesday he recently was forced to confront some nurses at a private clinic after they neglected to serve him in apparent hostility toward his sexual orientation.
Now that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has signed a new law imposing harsh sentences for gay sex, life is expected to become even more difficult for the country’s homosexuals, including getting health care. The Ugandan government has issued assurances that health workers will not discriminate against homosexuals, but some gays say they are not confident about that.
Uganda’s health minister, Ruhakana Rugunda, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that gays will not be discriminated against by medical workers despite the strengthening of criminal penalties against homosexuals.
Rugunda said that a clause which would have required medical workers to report homosexuals to police was removed from the bill that became law on Monday.
“We are saying that as far as health is concerned, they are at liberty,” he said, talking about gays. “They should give full disclosure to their nurses … We do not discriminate against patients on the basis of sexual orientation. That’s why we are encouraging gay Ugandans to take advantage of the health systems.”
But Onziema, who is one of the few openly gay Ugandans, said he and other homosexuals have experienced prejudice when seeking health care.
“I once went to a clinic where I stayed in the queue (line) for hours and people who came after me were being served,” he said. “You stand in the queue and they ignore you. And you hear them saying, ‘That is a gay person. We can’t serve him. We shall not serve him.'”
The new law has already spread fear among gay Ugandans and many now are actively trying to flee the country, said Onziema.
Inflaming rampant anti-gay sentiment in this East African country, a Ugandan tabloid newspaper on Tuesday published a list of what it called the country’s “200 top homosexuals,” saying it wanted to expose gays and their sympathizers “in salutation to the new-anti-gay law.” That list included many people who previously had not identified themselves as gay, endangering their jobs and lives, said Onziema.
Uganda’s new anti-gay law prescribes life imprisonment for those convicted of engaging in gay sex. It also creates the offenses of “conspiracy to commit homosexuality” and “aiding and abetting homosexuality,” both of which are punishable by seven years behind bars. Those convicted of “promoting homosexuality” face similar punishment.
There have been no physical attacks on gays since the law came into force on Monday, but Onziema said he was trying to confirm a report that two “suspected gay men” walking hand in hand were attacked Tuesday in a Kampala suburb.
Although the new anti-gay measure is popular among many of Uganda’s 34 million people, it has been widely condemned around the world. Rights groups say it is draconian and unnecessary in a country where homosexuality was already criminalized under a colonial-era law.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is demanding a revision or repeal of Uganda’s anti-gay law, warning that it could fuel prejudice and encourage harassment against gays. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has warned that it could cut aid to Uganda over the new law.
But those who support the law in Uganda say such a tough measure was needed to deter the West from promoting homosexuality in Africa. In signing the bill, Museveni shrugged off Western criticism as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country.
Some Ugandan lawyers and activists have said they will challenge the law in court as impossible to implement and illegitimate in a country whose constitution bars discrimination based on sexual orientation.