Features | Uganda clamps down on homosexuality
Following recent moves by the Ugandan government to enforce legislation against homosexuality, LS talks to Dr Kevin Ward about what this means for those living in the country and the ways in which we can provide support from Leeds.
The situation for LGBT individuals living in Uganda is a delicate one. Legislation which is already in place means it is illegal to engage in same sex relationships, whilst a proposed bill which could make existing laws all the more resilient is currently moving through parliament.
With these facts in mind Amnesty International are embarking on a campaign designed to raise awareness of issues concerning sexuality in Uganda and ultimately protest against the new laws which could be passed and enforced. LS spoke to Dr Kevin Ward, a Theology and Religious Studies lecturer with vast academic knowledge concerning issues of sexuality in Africa and who has first hand experience of living in Uganda as someone who identifies as gay.
The origins of the current legislation go back to the British antisodomy laws enforced from the 1920s. The discriminatory laws which are currently in place are actually rooted in British colonialism. Dr Ward explains, however, that despite the existence of these laws, until recently, they were never heavily enforced. “The present law is that if you are convicted of a crime against the order of nature, which usually implies that there is some evidence of anal penetration, then you can be sentenced to 14 years in prison”, he says. “As far as I understand however no one was ever prosecuted under those laws and I think they were meant largely for westerners, for British people, rather than the local population.”
However, the potential introduction of a new bill which has been nicknamed the ‘Kill the Gays’ bill would make the situation much more problematic for those in Uganda who identify as LGBT. The new legislation was proposed by politician David Bahati and although it lies dormant at present it may come into action in the future.
Dr Ward told us: “this new proposed legislation would vastly extend the law meaning that just touching someone in a way that can be interpreted as a sexual act would put you under the law and also it would be a requirement that family members who realise this is happening to inform the police. If they don’t then they are subject to criminal prosecution.” Therefore, this new legislation would make it much easier to prosecute individuals and, ultimately, more difficult for someone persecuted to demonstrate their innocence.
Another extremely regressive alteration to the legislation would be the introduction of the death penalty for repeat ‘offenders’ and those involved with sexual relations with minors. “The legislation is definitely unjust and the government should be thinking of appealing existing legislation not extending its scope,” Dr Ward asserts. If this law were to be set in motion it would be huge step backwards in terms of LGBT rights in Uganda.
However, Dr Ward sheds some light on the way in which attitudes to sexuality have changed in Uganda over the years, explaining that the situation for homosexuals living in Uganda was not always as difficult as it is today. “I happen to be gay myself and I lived in Uganda at a time when being gay was not as sensitive an issue as it would be now”, he says. “When I went in the 70s and the 80s people were not hyper-sensitive to the gay issue. Now there’s this feeling that a kind of international gay conspiracy is targeting Uganda and particularly going into schools to subvert young people to become homosexual. It was a much more relaxed atmosphere then.”
Although, when his own sexuality was discovered Dr Ward was dismissed from his job as a college lecturer in the Anglican training college in Mukono, Uganda, he does not blame this on homophobic attitudes in the country. He rather attributes it to the conservatism of the particular church with which he was involved and asserts that the society has become homophobic two decades later.
The issue of sexuality has become something which both the churches and the government are concerned about. There is, to some extent, a paranoid attitude, under the guise that homosexuality is a western phenomenon which Africa was free of, or at least which Africa has never endorsed.
Dr Ward blames this changing ideology in Uganda primarily on the Anglican controversies surrounding the 1998 Lambeth conference which initiated debate on issues of sexuality. Dr Ward claims: “that was the beginning of the national discussions on these issues. The fact that conservatives, particularly in the American church, wanted to look for allies in what they saw as conservative churches in Africa and Asia. I think that was when the issue began to be discussed in Uganda for the first time. I mean not to say that the Ugandans were in favour of homosexuality before that but it was just not something that they thought was a major issue to discuss.”
He is also eager to emphasise that Uganda is not an intrinsically homophobic country where society is concerned, but rather homophobic attitudes are imparted from the top down. He explains: “it’s something which has come not from the ordinary people but something which has been passed down from authority figures who have been stirring people to become inflamed on this issue.” He thus blames figures of authority for the homophobic reputation Uganda has gained.
Although a situation to be lamented, this fact does provide cause for some hope that the future for LGBT people living in Uganda may be a more positive one than the current situation. “The positive thing is that there is a brave group of LGBT Ugandans who are genuinely people who want to stand up for human rights, who want to be allowed to live in Uganda as gay and lesbian people, transgender people. So there is an increasingly articulate and vocal group in Ugandan society which need supporting. They’re not going to just disappear and one would hope that the society will come to be more tolerant.”
He also has hope that even further into the future homophobic legislation will also see a marked alteration. “One would hope that the government will kill the bill so that at least things don’t get worse and gradually human rights organisations will put pressure to relax and to abolish to existing laws.”
So the question is, what can we do to help? Dr Ward emphasises the fact that this is a complex question. “I still think it’s important that we keep it visible as an issue but I think we’ve got to be fairly understanding that the way these issues present themselves in countries like Uganda are somewhat different from in our society,” he explains. “There is still conservatism, particularly in the churches, about sexual matters and still a reluctance to talk about issues openly in the way that we are commonly doing so. I think it’s all part of a sensitivity to the ‘other’.”
“While we do not want, at all, to relax on the fact that we must defend lesbian and gay people in Uganda sometimes it can be counter productive to try and force Uganda to act in ways it doesn’t want to.” The balance between supporting LGBT rights without seeming to impose Western values is a delicate one.
The Leeds University branch of Amnesty International is taking steps to help raise awareness of these issues in Uganda. Gavin Kelleher, an AI representative says: “we recognise the influence of British colonialism in the creation of these laws in Uganda so we are targeting the British high commission of Uganda to remind them of the laws the British left behind and the social injustices this has caused. We want this to contribute to the British high commission making LGBT rights in Uganda a precondition for continuing financial aid, as well as providing Uganda with the support and resources that they need to repeal both their laws and the social stigma of LGBT people”.
The campaigners will be doing various things including embarking on a picture petition entitled Love is a Human Right utilising Twitter to promote this. They will be in Leeds University Union from Wednesday 20 to Friday 22 November collecting pictures for this. Alongside this they will be selling Krispy Kreme donuts to raise money for grass roots charities in Uganda that provide safe spaces for LGT individuals, as well as helping them access health care which they are otherwise denied because of their sexuality. Dr Ward will be speaking at 6pm, Monday November 25 in the Baines Wing, LT 2.34. There will also be a short documentary extract screened as well as the opportunity to hear East African society share their perspective on the issues. Be sure to attend this event and look out for Amnesty International in the Union during these times so you can play your part in the campaign. Hopefully the combined efforts of organisations such as AI, grass roots charities in Uganda and LGBT rights activists will indeed help to ‘kill the bill’ and move towards equality for LGBT people living in Uganda.