Uganda’s Parliament ignored Western criticism and passed a bill on Friday that punishes acts of homosexuality with prison terms that can include life in prison.
The bill has been a source of controversy for years. Western governments and leaders, including President Obama, have criticized the measure, which President Yoweri Museveni must sign for it to take effect.
The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, it’s actual name, also makes it a crime to “promote” homosexuality, which could mean simply offering HIV counseling.
It also makes it a crime punishable by five years in prison for renting an apartment to an LGBT person and not informing on your tenant to authorities.
“It’s trying to make it impossible for people to have private lives,” says Jessica Stern, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, based in New York.
“If you’re perceived to be LGBT, no one’s going to rent to you, for fear of their own criminal responsibility,” she adds. “So if this law is enacted in its current form, it’s basically a homelessness sentence for LGBT Ugandans.”
The bill was composed with the help of American evangelical leaders who have close ties to the authors and promoters of the bill in Uganda.
“There are these factions of the evangelical community in the U.S. that believe they’ve more or less lost the fight against the homosexual agenda,” says Malika Zouhali Worrall, who co-directed the documentary Call Me Kuchu. Kuchu is a word for “queer” in Uganda. “Therefore they’re trying to pre-empt it in other countries.”
A Controversy For Years
When the bill was first introduced in 2009, it was dubbed the “Kill the Gays Bill” because of its death penalty provision. That was later removed, but it galvanized the LGBT community in Uganda, which mobilized international support and took on a cautious public role in Uganda.
Members of the community launched lawsuits fighting discrimination. Despite persecution and homophobic attacks, people kept speaking out. They even celebrated Pride Day with discreet but joyous gatherings this summer. Now those well-known activists could be thrown in prison.
“We’ve been betrayed. This is not a place we can call home,” says activist John Wambere. He says the Ugandan LGBT community is discussing how to best approach Museveni, who has yet to sign the bill into law.
They’re also trying to figure out how to stay safe in a country where mob attacks are commonplace. Wambere says that just a few weeks ago he heard some people on his street talking about him.
“They were like, ‘These are the people when the law passes, we shall deal with them,’ ” Wambere said.
The bill puts Museveni in a bind. Western countries have threatened to withhold financial aid if the bill goes through. But the bill has wide public support in the country.
Frederick Golooba Mutebi, a columnist for the newspaper The East African, says it will be easier for the president to reject a second bill passed in Parliament on Friday. That measure outlaws miniskirts and other “suggestive” clothing.
“So I think since he has two things, he may trade one for the other one. And I can see him blocking the law against miniskirts and not the one against homosexuality,” says Mutebi.
Both laws were celebrated today in some Ugandan newspaper editorials as “Christmas gifts” to the country.