Beyond the international outcry: is Uganda as homophobic as they say?

Before David Bahati, Idi Amin was certainly the most infamous Ugandan abroad. It seems he might be in for some competition. Since tabling the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in 2009, the Ndorwa West MP has been vilified around the world.

Monday November 28 2011

Mourners at David Kato’s funeral. The death of Kato, a gay rights activist, put Uganda in the spotlight .

Mourners at David Kato’s funeral. The death of Kato, a gay rights activist, put Uganda in the spotlight . FILE PHOTOS  


Val Kalende, a Ugandan gay rights activist now based in Canada, says the fight against the existing penal code provision was hard enough. Now, Bahati’s Bill complicates everything. “The future for gay rights in Uganda is definitely decriminalisation of homosexuality. To rid ourselves of the laws our colonial masters imposed on us,” she said. “But of course, the biggest threat to change is fear and ignorance.”

Their struggle, says Kalende, is not being pushed by the West but by trying to achieve basic human rights. “When we began our movement about 10 years ago, our goal was not to demand for special treatment. We are demanding for the same rights that every Ugandan citizen enjoys,” she says.

“In the future when my children enrol in school I don’t want them to be bullied simply because their mother is a gay rights activist. I want to apply for a job and know that I will be evaluated not on the basis of my sexual orientation but on how qualified I am. This was our vision and it is the environment that we want to create in Uganda.”

Another Ugandan gay rights activist, Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, was one of dozens ‘outed’ by the local tabloid last year – her photo and details published under a banner calling for gays to be hanged, warning of the threats they pose to children. She has been physically attacked for her broadcasts against homophobia in the country.
“For every human rights violation that happens in Uganda, we need Ugandans to stand up and say enough is enough,” she says. “At the end of the day Uganda is not alone, we operate in a global village.”

Not everyone shares her views. A 27-year-old second-hand clothes seller in Kireka who identified herself as Mama Sara says she does not care if the Bill scares foreign visitors. “Let them remain in their countries, after all they are the same people who are promoting homosexuality.”

How the coutry has been branded
Judith Adong, a playwright, has written a work on the challenges homosexuals in Uganda face and the lengths they undergo to hide their orientation. Titled Just Me, You and The Silence, it was recently read in New York and performed at the Royal Court’s Theatre in London. In both cities, the reaction to her nationality was similar.

“Before, when people heard that I’m from Uganda it used to be, ‘Oh, so you’re from Idi Amin’s country.’ Now it’s ‘You’re the people who want to kill homosexuals,’” she says.
Ms Adong says she believes Ugandans who support the Bill don’t understand its full implications. “

Many of them (gay Ugandans) are afraid to come out because they would put their friends and families in danger. If the law is passed, the police will want to know why their families and friends did not report them before,” she says.

Obbo Ogule, a 30-year-old boda boda rider, agrees that there were components to the Bill of which he was not aware. He says while he doesn’t support homosexuality, he firmly disagrees with the death penalty for homosexuality, as well as the provision that criminalises a “failure to disclose the offense” – which includes families, even doctors and lawyers.

According to a middle-aged American tourist the Daily Monitor spoke to in Kampala, the Bill will deprive Uganda of what she said was a lucrative and sizeable tourist market. “Homosexuals should stay away from this country if it passes a Bill that says they should be killed. It doesn’t make sense to come to a country where you’ll be forced to move discreetly or face death if you’re arrested,” she said.

But Julia Mayershorn, from Britain, says if it was a matter of visiting countries where the population is comfortable with their sexual life, then for gay tourists, “Middle East and Africa destinations are more or less limited to South Africa and Israel.”

Kalende believes the commenters on Lonely Planet are blowing things out of proportion. “What such people want to do is to place gay rights ahead of other human rights and they are the reason African countries are still overly homophobic. If people want Uganda to be boycotted because of homophobia then they should make the same noise when opposition leaders and journalists have their rights abused by the State.”

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