Uganda is only one of two African countries where life in prison is punishment for homosexuality. The recent media attention brought about by the October 2009 proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda has incited protest around the world. If passed, the bill would initiate the death sentence for repeat offenders and the HIV-positive.
However, of the 38 African countries where homosexuality is outlawed, four of them authorize the death penalty. Uganda would become one of 5 if the bill passes.
Some might argue that life in prison is on par with the death penalty. Yet many of the countries in which it is enforced are under the direction of unstable governments. A regime change might grant imprisoned homosexuals freedom and their rights. Yet, when regimes and times change things becoming “better” is not always a guarantee.
Although Uganda is not undergoing internal conflicts the proposed bill is a prime example of the future not always getting better for sexual minorities. Our own Proposition 8 is another example of things retrograding.
On the African continent there are 11 countries where homosexuality is tolerated. Off the continent, Reunion does permit equilateral LGBT Rights. Yet this is not necessarily the vox populi as the island nation is an overseas territory of France.
The nearby Seychelles Islands and Mauritius for instance forbid homosexuality. Currently, however, there is some debate on the ban in Mauritius, via UN intercession.
South Africa, which allows gays full freedoms is the only country on the continent to do so. But perhaps this is owed to the liberal stance of the Anglican Communion and spiritual leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
“I have spoken against the injustice of apartheid, and racism, where people were penalized for something about which they could do nothing, their ethnicity. I therefore could not keep quiet, it was impossible, when people were hounded for something they did not choose, their sexual orientation.”
A Bishop of Sudan, however, led a split from the Anglican Communion in reaction to what he regards as the denomination’s failure to condemn homosexuality. Sudan is a predominantly Islamic country. Under Sharia law, homosexuals may be whipped for the first offense, by the third offense they are killed.
Demographically Uganda is interesting in its decision to advocate the death penalty for homosexuality. In terms of religion 84% identify as Christians, the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches claim most of the congregants. Islam, which is largely consistent with the death penalty as a punishment for homosexuality, is not as major a part of the population.
Why then is Uganda going forward to strengthen their ban on homosexuality? The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, announced in October 2009, does not seem to fit in a primarily Christian country. Homosexuality may not be desirable by Christians but execution and life imprisonment is certainly not a standard reaction.
When Christian leaders – even conservative Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church —are speaking out against Uganda’s proposed bill, clearly intercession must prevent its ratification.
However, Uganda’s 14-year sentence for homosexual misconduct actually stems from its once being under British Colonial control. The sentence is the same one that sent Oscar Wilde to jail at the turn of the last century.
“In a lot of instances the legislation you see is derived from colonial legislation. Especially countries under the British sodomy laws,” Ryan Thoreson, of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission said.
Francophone countries were governed under Napoleonic Code, which by 1791 had decriminalized sodomy. Countries where there is a lot of Evangelistic Christian presence, like Uganda, also wish to suppress LGBT rights.
It is interesting to look at the countries bordering Uganda in terms of religion. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania are all predominantly Christian. Sudan, however, has since 1983 operated under Islamic law. They are the only country bordering Uganda where execution is penalization for homosexuality.
The influence of other countries does not seem to be the modus operandi for the Anti-Homosexual Bill. Neither does AIDS, which due to openness about the disease has proved beneficial in keeping numbers of the infected down in Uganda. However, if the bill passes people testing positive will be executed to—ostensibly—prevent the spread of the disease.
“The UN HIV envoy has stated passing this bill into legislation would be really detrimental to the way HIV is treated in the country,” added Thoreson.
Oddly, Rwanda with no specific laws against homosexuality, almost took influence from Uganda. However their proposed version of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill did not gain favor in December 2009. Tharcisse Karugarama, Rwanda Minister of Justice, spoke words similar to Archbishop Tutu.
“The government I serve and speak for…cannot and will not in any way criminalize homosexuality; sexual orientation is a private matter and each individual has his or her own orientation - this is not a State matter at all,” said Karugarama.
The Equality Forum is the largest annual national and international GLBT civil rights forum in North America. They chose Africa as their focus this year.
“Each year our board selects a country or region to be highlighted at the annual Equality Forum. With the importance of Africa and GLBT rights and challenges from a progressive South Africa to a repressive Uganda, our board felt it was important to focus on Africa at Equality Forum 2010,” said Malcolm Lazin, Equality Forum’s Executive Director.
“We are our brother and sister’s keepers. Particularly in countries that are regressive, it is important that we let those regimes know that the world is watching, concerned and committed to holding regimes accountable,” said Lazin.
While we can only hope the situation in Uganda is not placed into legislation the attention it has received from the world community is proof that gay rights are human rights and as such, should not be violated.