Ugandan gays battle for equality
Kampala – Pastor Solomon Male is worried. “Failed morals” in Uganda need urgent correcting, he says, arguing emphatically that gays and lesbians are responsible for much social delinquency.
“Homosexuality is a danger. First those engaged in it have no gender or social identity. It leads to childlessness. Many people think it is a small problem but it’s a big problem. It’s tragic,” the Christian pastor says.
He and other Ugandan crusaders against same-sex relationships – mostly Pentecostal church leaders – are gearing up for a new fight as gay rights activists embark on a house-to-house canvass to push for equality and to fight negative stereotypes.
Ugandan legislators nearly passed a bill in parliament earlier this year that would have made some homosexual sex punishable by death. Even heterosexuals would be jailed if they failed to report everyone they knew who was gay to the authorities.
The bill was defeated when human rights activists abroad created an uproar and foreign donors threatened to withdraw funds.
With the bill off the table for now, gay activists decided to strike and, in late August, they launched their campaign, hanging posters and handed out pamphlets with images depicting the harassment of their members.
Vocal gay community
The discrimination often starts with high profile members of society, including church leaders and government officials. The activists say this four-month programme should help humanise gays in the eyes of their communities.
“We are carrying on with our advocacy programme to different people and groups; lawyers, the police, legislators and the public, to make our voices heard and to challenge the existing homophobia,” says Dennis Wamala from the group Sexual Minorities Uganda.
However, Male, heading an organisation called the National Coalition Against Homosexuality and Sexual Abuses in Uganda, is concerned by the newly vocal gay community and is fighting back.
“We are carrying out our own campaigns to undo their lies. We are using seminars, summons and other fora to do this effectively,” he told the German Press Agency dpa.
The furore around the bill that would have banned homosexuality touched off a chain reaction that the conservatives are struggling to understand: hitherto unknown gay activists and their pressure groups have surfaced with a demand for rights and identity.
Problems for the gay community were compounded when, early this year, well-known gay activist David Kato was murdered under unclear circumstances. His name and those of other gays were mentioned in a tabloid newspaper with the headline “Hang Them,” just before his death.
The Ugandan public is divided, with some saying sexual relations and relationships in general are a private affair, while others fear society will suffer if gays are able to make their identity public.
“It should be someone’s right to engage in homosexuality as long as one does it out of one’s free will. The law should not bother those people at all because the two partners are consenting adults,” says university student Ricky Galiwango.
“Society should look at homosexuality as a normal relationship between two adults,” he added.
But a Kampala businesswoman, Ester Sekajja, 38, disagrees. She told dpa that “in our culture, it is immoral to practice homosexuality and even to mention it is a taboo. The law against the practice is welcome”.
Though same-sex relationships and intercourse are illegal under the country’s colonial penal code and punishable by a 14-year sentence, no one has been tried for the crime. However, human rights campaigners say gays are already being harassed and even tortured by police, though not officially.
And although the government has washed its hands of the proposed bill, which would make the laws tougher, it can be brought before parliament again by private members. This worries the gay activists.
“Our people are still living in constant fear. They are not yet out fully in public because the bill could be brought up again. It is still the property of parliament,” activist Wamala says.
“But we are using all means to fight it and protect our people through our legal clinic which offers free services. We are finding our people wherever they are and telling them they have their rights,” he added.