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Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has agreed to sign a brutally oppressive Anti Homosexuality Bill into law, after pressure within and outside his party. Prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people has grown to dangerous proportions and already some have fled abroad to safety.
Gay sex is already criminalised in Uganda but the bill makes it easier to lock up LGBT people, in some cases for life. Heterosexual human rights activists and health professionals who care about the welfare of gay and lesbian people are also targeted, including those trying to stop the spread of HIV. A law of this kind also offers rich pickings to extortionists, and unscrupulous people who want to smear political, business or professional rivals.
For various reasons, politicians and faith leaders, including evangelists from (and discredited in) the USA, have intensified prejudice, spreading false claims that homosexuality is spread by gays and lesbians who ‘recruit’ others, especially the young, and pose a serious threat to society. It is also supposedly linked to the West, though same-sex love is found in all cultures.
Museveni has played his own part in promoting prejudice, a useful diversion from potential political dissent. However, as in other societies under pressure, scapegoating minorities can have a powerful emotional appeal. Hostility has now reached levels which are hard to control.
The bill was passed by parliament at the end of 2013. But after human rights supporters at home and abroad, and international partners and donors, condemned the bill, the president indicated that he was reluctant to sign, expressing the view that homosexuality was a biological "abnormality".
According to a news report in the Ugandan Observer in late January, he was confronted and booed by rowdy members of his party (National Resistance Movement) at a caucus meeting. In response to pressure from them and others, including religious leaders, he set up a panel of doctors and scientists to advise on whether gays were born or made.
A letter from doctors, researchers and academics, backed by 14 organisations and 77 individuals internationally, stated that “Homosexuality is not a pathology, an abnormality, a mental disorder, or an illness — it is a variant of sexual behaviour found in people around the world.” They warned that the bill would damage public health. This appeared as a Ugandan newspaper advertisement too. Signatories included former vice president of Uganda Speciosa Wandira Kazibwe, a surgeon with a PhD in global health from Harvard.
Over two hundred researchers and mental health professionals from around the world also wrote a letter, explaining that “From a scientific perspective, the causes of homosexuality are only partially understood” but “there are neural, cognitive and personality differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals which appear to have at least some basis in biology.” They also explained that “While it is possible that some self-reports of modest change are true, science does not support the idea that sexuality is changeable for most people.”
However the panel was unwilling to let evidence get in the way of prejudice. BuzzFeed reported being told by MP Chris Baryomunsi that “Speaking as a medical doctor … homosexuality is just deviant behavior. It can be learned, and it can be unlearned.”
While those who have promoted this bill have sometimes claimed to be acting in the name of Christianity, the values they promote are far removed from those of the good news of Christ. They are not even in line with what the Bible says literally: it repeatedly condemns false witness, for instance.
In Matthew 25, indeed, Christ tells those gathered for judgement, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me... whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” This would indicate that those who hunt down their brothers and sisters, seeking to have them jailed or worse, are inflicting this cruelty on Christ.
In the Gospel accounts, Roman governor Pontius Pilate tries in vain to avoid condemning Jesus by passing the responsibility on to others and hoping they will let him go. Museveni’s efforts to get off the hook appear to have failed and he has given way to the pressure.
The Ugandan government will undoubtedly come under further international pressure. Meanwhile sizeable numbers of desperate Ugandans as well as Nigerians now seem likely to seek refuge abroad.
© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality, theology and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.Tweet