Fear grows among Uganda’s gay community over death penalty draft law

The Times of London
Kampala, Uganda

There was a time in Kampala when gay men would meet for furtive one-night stands, even if they were prevented from forming lasting relationships in a country where homophobia is rife.

“You would just have sex, then disappear. We were secretive out of fear,” said Peter, 39. At one point, things had begun changing for the better. “You could know where a guy lived and hung out; you could start to form relationships, something more permanent,” he said. “Then along comes this Bill that wants to kill us.”

Homosexuality has always been illegal in Uganda, but draft legislation introduced by a born-again Christian parliamentarian proposing the death penalty for gay sex, under certain conditions, has upped the ante. Peter is again living in fear.

Anti-gay sentiment is on the rise in many parts of Africa. In a bellwether case, a gay couple face trial for “unnatural practices” in Malawi; in Kenya, police arrested guests at what is claimed to have been a gay wedding last week — supposedly to protect them from an angry mob. “They are proposing a witch-hunt,” said Peter. “That Bill could put me to death, or in prison, in many ways. They want to legislate us out of existence.”

The draft law proposes the death penalty for having gay sex with anyone under 18, if infected with HIV/Aids, or with someone who is disabled — or for being what the Bill terms “a serial offender”. Gay sex between consenting adults would lead to a life sentence.

It also calls for prison sentences for those “promoting homosexuality” — which could be interpreted to mean any human rights groups — and for anyone failing to report a homosexual act to the authorities.

Pentecostal pastors across Uganda have exploited widespread moral conservatism to raise fear and anger against homosexuals. At the forefront is Martin Ssempa, the chairman of the inter-religious National Pastors Task Force against Homosexuality in Uganda. This week, 2,000 men, women and children joined his march in Jinja, a town 50 miles (80km) east of the capital. They waved banners, said prayers and quoted passages from the Bible. Other mass demonstrations are planned in coming weeks, although a “Million Man March” due to take place in the capital was cancelled when police refused to grant permission.

At a press conference this week, Mr Ssempa displayed pictures of explicit gay porn downloaded from the internet. “You see what these homosexuals do!” declared the pastor, working himself into a frenzy of disgust at the slideshow that he had prepared. His performance was condemned by gay rights groups who accuse him of equating homosexuality with paedophilia and perverse sexual practices.

When The Times met Mr Ssempa, he was wearing a “Ugandans against sodomy” badge and a broad smile. “Western civilisation has been taken over by homosexual activists,” he said. “This is a culture clash and a battle.” He described the Bill as “best practice” in an attempt to halt “predatory homosexuals”.

International condemnation has been vocal. President Obama described the draft law as odious and some donor countries have threatened to withhold aid.

President Museveni of Uganda seems increasingly embarrassed by the debate and it appears likely that the death penalty clause will be dropped. For gay Ugandans, however, the hatred that has been stirred up will not be easily forgotten.