28 June 2012

Africa: Is Being Out Outside Uganda Any Easier?

Cape Town — Last week, Uganda's Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo announced plans to ban 38 NGOs for allegedly promoting homosexuality and actively recruiting homosexuals.

The proclamation came on the heels of a police raid on a gay rights conference outside Kampala and resulted in the detention of several activists. The news is making waves, not least in South Africa, a country whose status as the continent's gay haven is choppier than ever.

"There are many lesbians in Uganda, but just like me, they all keep silent. The reason why I was not beaten up or attacked is that I managed to keep my sexuality a secret and wasn't found out," says C.

C. is a 28-year-old woman from Mukono, Uganda, who wishes to remain anonymous. I met her on Tuesday, here in Cape Town, at the launch of the People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP) report on refugees who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex.

Many Ugandans believe that being gay is 'un-African' and 'un-Christian'. Newspapers have openly exposed homosexuals and encouraged readers to locate and attack them.

But it is not just the church or the media that inflame hatred and violence towards gay and lesbian Ugandans. As demonstrated last week, the government's role is at least as important. It was not the first time authorities delivered widespread condemnation of 'the gay issue'.

Anti-gay legislation

In 2009, Ugandan MP David Bahati introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Its intention was to increase and strengthen punishments for homosexual acts, to include life-long jail sentences and even the death penalty in instances of what it termed "aggravated homosexuality".

Moreover, it promised to prosecute any person who was aware of someone's homosexuality but failed to report the individual to the authorities. In effect, this would mean that any mother could risk prosecution if she didn't report her own child.

For Bahati, the bill aimed to protect the 'traditional African family' and Ugandan children from the spread of homosexuality and pro-gay propaganda. Yet the international community and human rights defenders proved to view 'protection' differently. By the time the Ugandan Parliament dissolved in May 2011, no new anti-gay legislation had been passed.

But relief among sexual minorities and human rights defenders was short-lived. This past February, the bill was reintroduced, although the death penalty clause allegedly stripped away. It is now pending in parliament.

Everyday homophobia

Open anti-gay practices of government officials, such as Bahati and Lokodo, intensify the homophobic sentiments of ordinary Ugandans. As C. points out: "Nobody can make them understand what it means to be a lesbian."

C. tells me that the only person back home who found out about her sexual orientation was her father. And he, unlike many other Ugandan men who might find themselves under such circumstances, decided to protect her. But when he died in 2008, her safety net fell away.

It was then that she decided to flee to a country whose laws protect sexual minorities against discrimination.

Miles away

But today C. still lives in fear. "In South Africa, only the law is free, but not the people," she says. She mentions frequent reports about black lesbians getting raped and murdered for their sexual orientation, a phenomenon that tends to occur in urban townships.

"If they do that to South African citizens, then what can they do to lesbian refugees?" she wonders aloud. "As long as I can't find a good job, I cannot move to safer areas."

As the violence against black lesbian women in South Africa demonstrates, protective laws might be able to keep homosexuals from arrest and jail, but they cannot shield people from homophobic violence, much less discrimination, in their day-to-day lives. For legal protection to be really effective in guaranteeing safety and equality, priests, spiritual leaders, traditional leaders and the media must all back the movement.

For C., the journey to South Africa has been an improvement; she will not be locked up for being who she is. But safety still seems miles away.

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