Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The state of gay rights in Uganda may be changing

for the worse. This isn't a new story, really, but in case anyone doesn't know, a severely worded anti-gay bill, introduced by MP David Bahati in October 2008, has been making its way through the legislative process in Uganda. The new law would make possible life imprisonment, or even the death penalty, for having homosexual relations in Uganda. Sentences up to 7 years are also possible for anyone offering protection or support to gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender persons. It now appears that a vote on the bill is imminent.
Is it possible to do anything about it? One course of action would be to write to your local Congressional Representative, recommending he or she sign on to condemnatory letters introduced by Representatives Tammy Baldwin, Barney Frank, and Jared Polis. One of these letters is addressed to Ugandan President Museveni, the other to US President Obama. An action site with a supporting letter to send to your own Representative is available at Amnesty International USA.
Will it help? I believe anything that shines a light on a situation like this, no matter how ineffective it might seem at first glance, can have an effect. It is always better than doing nothing. Museveni, it should be noted, has already said he does not support the bill (New York Times, 08 January 2010), and, according to the NYT story, Uganda's "Minister of State for Investment Aston Kajara said the government would ask Bahati to scrap the bill because they fear backlash from foreign investors." Worldwide outcry could work to strengthen the executive will to oppose the legislation, even if it gets a cosmetic face-lift (like lifting the death penalty). Although the Obama White House has already issued an official condemnation (see, e.g., "White House Condemns Antigay Uganda Bill," by Kerry Eleveld, The Advocate, 12 December 2009), the bill clearly hasn't gone away; Bahati has refused to withdraw it. I don't believe President Obama has spoken personally on the subject; if he did, Ugandans might indeed take notice.
Another question that I've seen asked is whether it's appropriate for westerners to "dictate" to an African country what their internal policies should be about anything? As one irate (and obviously homophobic) commenter wrote at the Amnesty International blog:

"It is their country and they can make laws the[y] deem fit. Why should the west dictate what africa does. It seem to me that the western countries have made a mess of the world."*
To which I replied:
(a) Nazi Germany could have made the same argument; (b) fine, but I suggest western countries follow Sweden’s lead and cut back sending Uganda foreign aid; (c) would you make the same argument about a country that passed a law banning Islam (or Christianity, or any custom you want to name that you approve of) and making its practice an offence punishable by imprisonment or death?
Of course you could substitute in (a) for Nazi Germany any of a number of places past and present. Any reasonably awake person knows where they were and are. And maybe you can make whatever laws you want in your own country, but we also have the right not to support you, trade with you, share diplomatic relations, play your soccer teams, or invest a dime within your borders, have a nice day. I would add to (c) that it's always easy to advise laissez-faire as long as it's not you getting thrown in jail for speaking out against your government, not your family being persecuted for being the wrong religion, not your tribe getting slaughtered. Have western countries "made a mess of the world"? Sure, we have a lot to answer for. Is that an excuse for silence? I don't think so. I wonder what a gay or lesbian in Uganda would say.
*Actually, there's a bitterly ironic point here, since conservative US church "missionaries" (not to mention influential religious figures like Rick Warren, who has been backpedalling furiously) have already involved themselves in Ugandan sexual politics, to the detriment of gays there (see, e.g., "Americans Role Seen in Uganda Anti-Gay Push," by Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times, 03 January 2010).

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