Wednesday 10 March 2010

Winning the battle for gay rights in Uganda

The anti-gay bill before Uganda's Parliament has galvanised international outrage.

The backbench bill proposes to strengthen the current colonial era prohibition on homosexuality in Uganda proposing some of the most draconian anti-gay measures anywhere, introducing the death penalty for repeat offenders who would be charged with "aggravated homosexuality" for two offences.

Chris Blattman of Yale, reporting on a recent trip to Uganda, argues that the 'backlash' bill has been an own goal:

It’s hard to find a news story that fails to mention Uganda’s conservative and religious culture, solidly anti-homosexual. It’s impossible to find one that suggests Uganda is a gay African’s best hope. But that may just be true.

Homophobia is real and widespread. Yet Uganda boasts a vibrant gay rights movement, and nowhere else in Africa have I seen a more open and public debate. Gay men and women tell their stories in the newspapers; protests and legal battles get fair and often favorable coverage in the press. Every single editorial board of every major newspaper is solidly behind the gay rights movement.

The anti-homosexuality bill, simply put, is a backlash. A backlash from a group that, in the long run, is losing the battle of ideas


Like most countries, Uganda remains a terrible and difficult place to be gay. But far from a losing war, Uganda is the front line in the battle for gay rights.

I think they are winning.

It is a hopeful counterblast. However, Blattman also links a Time magazine profile of one Ugandan gay activist, Scarlett Lion, in a piece which reports newspaper polls showing 95% support for the Bill. (Though is not made clear if these are proper opinion polls, or self-selecting surveys).

In the UK, Steve Cockburn of the Labour Campaign for International Development writes for Progress with information and resources, including highlighting the Avaaz petition, with 475,000 signatures at time of writing

Both domestic and international campaigns against the bill have had an significant impact.

The government and other parliamentarians now fear the impact on Uganda's international reputation. President Museveni describes it as "a foreign policy issue" and told his party conference that:

“The Prime Minister of Canada came to see me and what was he talking about? Gays. Prime Minister Gordon Brown came to see me and what was he talking about? Gays. Mrs Clinton rang me. What was she talking about? Gays. There was a rally in New York of 300,000 homosexuals. Now, I would want to challenge you members of Parliament, how many of you, other than me, have had a rally of 300,000 people?

It seems likely that at least the death penalty will be dropped from the Bill, though campaigning continues against the bill's draconian provisions. which would criminalise not just all individual gay men and women, but also doctors who treat gay AIDs patients, newspapers which support gay rights, NGOs working with gay people, and indeed anybody in any position of authority with gay friends or acquaintances who does not report them. A YouTube video captures this campaigning point, arguing that nobody is safe from the Bill's draconian provisions.

Several leading US evangelicals and anti-gay rights 'pro-family' activists have played a key role in galvanising fears of homosexuality in Uganda, though those involved now express regret and distaste for some of the Bill's provisions, even though Scott Lively having proudly blogged last year that their visit had been described as "“a nuclear bomb against the gay agenda in Uganda.”

Blattman stresses too both how recently and how quickly conventional opinion in western countries changed on homosexuality, with the American Psychiatric Association dropping its definition of homosexuality as a disease in 1973.

And a new piece in Foreign Policy magazine highlights the battle for gay rights in Uganda, Malawi, Pakistan and Turkey.

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