Uganda: Anti-Homosexuality Law Sets Off Firestorm in the West

5 February 2010

Ugandan MPs probably didn't know what a firestorm David Bahati of the ruling National Resistance Movement would raise when he first presented his proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill in October 14, 2009.

After all, homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda – in most of Africa for that matter – and the new law would merely be an extension of an existing law. Still, raise a firestorm it did. The bill has started a conversation on human rights, HIV prevention, and sexuality on newspaper pages across the continent and discussion threads all over the African blogsphere.

It can be argued that this bill has never wholly been a Ugandan issue: Section 140 of the existing Ugandan penal code penalizes "carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature" and was initially meant to restrict comingling between "against the order of nature" blacks with the colonizing white population.

Still, an interesting meme coming out of this controversy is how the legislation speaks to the competing liberal-conservative instincts on issues of social policy in the West. The U.S. evangelical movement has been at the heart of this culture war, and has proved essential to the shaping of this bill.

American political commentator Rachel Maddow found links between some Ugandan ministers, including MP Bahati himself, and the influential C-Street lobby, a society of U.S politicians with an evangelical bent. A video Maddow features shows a conference where the organizers behind the bill talk about being influenced by a small group of psychotherapists – who practice not just in the U.S., but in England and perhaps elsewhere – that claim to have the cure for homosexuality.

In an interview with the BBC, MP David Bahati adopted the stance of these evangelicals, saying "We recognize [homosexuality] as a learned behavior which can be unlearned."

Perhaps it is the information on possible U.S. involvement in Bahati's initiative that triggered the spate of articles and interviews across the Western media, everywhere from the BBC to Time Magazine and the New York Times.

Some members of the more socially conservative Republican Party began distancing themselves from the Ugandan bill as the news of its drastic provisions – life imprisonment and even the death penalty in some circumstances – spread.

So have prominent pastors in the U.S. who have worked in Uganda. One such pastor is Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in California, who delivered the invocation at U.S. President Barack Obama's inauguration and has distanced himself from a Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa with whom he has worked on many initiatives.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill has also proved radioactive in Ugandan foreign relations. The European Parliament has adopted resolution condemning the bill, while countries like Sweden are contemplating withdrawing funding and trade deals with Uganda should the bill pass. Even the U.S. – whose gay rights laws are more lax than those in Europe – will soon hold hearings as to whether or not this bill violates a statute that requires that no country infringes its citizens' human rights.

International organizations have also expressed their condemnation of the bill, as United Nations officials consider reversing a decision to establish a major AIDS research institute in Kampala.

It is no surprise, then, that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has recently showed some wariness towards the bill. MP David Bahati, however, still stands by his proposal, although he is now showing a bit more flexibility.

The Ugandan Parliament will put the anti-homosexuality legislation to a vote as soon as late February and only one thing is for sure: the world will be watching.

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