Tough times for gays in Uganda
20 Oct 2010
In the days since it was published, at least four gay Ugandans on the list have been attacked and many others are in hiding, according to rights activist Julian Onziema. One person named in the story had stones thrown at his house by neighbours.
A lawmaker in this conservative African country introduced a bill a year ago that would have imposed the death penalty for some homosexual acts and life in prison for others. An international uproar ensued, and the bill was quietly shelved.
But gays in Uganda say they have faced a year of harassment and attacks since the bill's introduction.
The legislation was drawn up following a visit by leaders of US conservative Christian ministries that promote therapy they say allows gays to become heterosexual.
“Before the introduction of the bill in parliament most people did not mind about our activities. But since then, we are harassed by many people who hate homosexuality,” said Patrick Ndede, 27. “The publicity the bill got made many people come to know about us and they started mistreating us.”
More than 20 homosexuals have been attacked over the last year in Uganda, and an additional 17 have been arrested and are in prison, said Frank Mugisha, the chairperson of Sexual Minorities Uganda. Those numbers are up from the same period two years ago, when about 10 homosexuals were attacked, he said.
The bill became political poison after the international condemnation. Many Christian leaders have denounced it, and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signalled to legislators that they should not take it up.
Four members of parliament contacted by The Associated Press for this article declined to comment, and instead referred queries to David Bahati, the parliamentarian who introduced the bill. Bahati did not answer repeated calls on Tuesday.
Homophobia is rife in many African countries. Homosexuality is punishable by death or imprisonment in Nigeria. In South Africa, the only African nation to recognise gay marriage, some gangs carry out so-called “corrective” rapes on lesbians.
Solomon Male, a pastor and the head of a group of clergy in Uganda, said he is glad the anti-homosexual bill has not yet passed, but said there needs to be an investigation to find out “why homosexuality is increasing in the country”.
The October 9 article in a Ugandan newspaper called Rolling Stone (not the American magazine) came out five days before the one-year anniversary of the controversial legislation. The article claimed that an unknown but deadly disease was attacking homosexuals in Uganda, and said that gays were recruiting 1 million children by raiding schools, a common smear used in Uganda.
After the newspaper hit the streets, the government Media Council ordered the newspaper to cease publishing - not because of the newspaper's content, but rather that the newspaper had not registered with the government. After it completes the paperwork, Rolling Stone will be free to publish again, said Paul Mukasa, secretary of the Media Council.
That decision has angered the gay community further. Onziema said a lawsuit against Rolling Stone is in the works, and that she believes the publication has submitted its registration and plans to publish again.
“Such kind of media should not be allowed in Uganda. It is creating violence and calling for genocide of sex minorities,” said Mugisha. “The law enforcers and government should come out and protect sex minorities from such media.”
Rolling Stone does not have a large following in Uganda, a country of 32 million where about 85 percent of people are Christian and 12 percent are Muslim. The newspaper published its first edition on August 23. It publishes about 2 000 copies, but a single newspaper in Uganda is often read by 10 more people.
The paper's managing editor, Giles Muhame, said the article was “in the public interest”.
“We felt there was need for society to know that such characters exist amongst them. Some of them recruit young children into homosexuality, which is bad and needs to be exposed,” he said. “They take advantage of poverty to recruit Ugandans. In brief we did so because homosexuality is illegal, unacceptable and insults our traditional lifestyle.”
Members of the gay community named in the article faced harassment from friends and neighbours. Onziema said the proposed bill already has led to evictions from apartments, intimidation on the street, unlawful arrests and physical assault.
“We are an endangered species within our country,” said Nelly Kabali, 31. “We are looked at as if we are outcasts. One time I was in a night club with a friend when someone who knew me pointed at me shouting 'There is a gay!' People wanted to beat me up but I was saved by a bouncer who led me out.”
By Godfrey Olukya and Jason Straziuso