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Ugandan gay activists score reprieve

The chilling Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill was due to be read on Wednesday 11 May. First it was postponed until 13 May, with no reason given, but in the end the Bill, which contemplated the death sentence for gay people, was quietly dropped. It is now floating somewhere in the minds of the Bill’s mastermind, Ugandan MP David Bahati, and his followers. 

What is to be said? That it may or may not be resurrected during the next parliamentary session, but eventually, one of the most vile anti-human rights legislation did not make it. That the US evangelical allies of Bahati and the ‘unGodly’ pastor Martin Ssempre have been largely silent since the Bill was first made public. That Ugandan people are too busy uprising against the government of Museveni to think very much about the Bill, which was not even mentioned in any Ugandan newspaper. The silence was deafening.  

Exactly one week after the Bill was abandoned, a special memorial ceremony was held in London for Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato, who was murdered on 26 January this year. Two days before the Bill was due to be heard, international petitioners Care2 and Avaaz put up a campaign and received 1.6 million signatures to stop it (although there were no reports of last minute phone calls from Barack Obama or Ban Ki Moon, nothing from Desmond Tutu or anyone else, for that matter). Meanwhile in Uganda, the Bill’s supporters gathered some two million signatures.

I’m sure Queer Africans and their allies are grateful for this global outcry. But victory doesn’t happen in a moment – there’s always a backstory, sometimes invisible, but it is there : we should also not forget the tireless work by Ugandan and other African activists over the past three years.

The implications of the scrapping of the AHB are significant in that it could be said that ultimately, there isn’t the stomach for such legislation outside of a religious fringe. The present Walk to Work campaign and anti-government protests against rising prices and unemployment is very much at the center for most Ugandans.

For all its negativity, the AHB has at least brought the discussion of sexuality to the forefront of Ugandan consciousness: LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) issues have been discussed in Parliament and in churches, and the tabloids have outed LGBTI individuals repeatedly. People have been arrested, beaten and harassed, yet today there is a LGBTI bar in Kampala; it operates freely with no hassle as of yet. 

This speaks to some of the contradictions between Bahati and Ssempre’s manic religious bigotry and the reality of everyday life in Kampala. Queers live in fear, but still manage to negotiate their lives.  

To put Uganda in context, I recently visited a center in Kingston, Jamaica; with its range of activities, it offers a safe space for LGBTI people. However, neither the organizers nor the members felt it was safe to be out. I also spoke to a gay man from Latvia and a lesbian from Moldova, who said it was not only impossible to be out in their countries, but there were no spaces or services for LGBTI people.   

In conclusion, there is every possibility that the failure of the AHB in Uganda will act as a deterrent to other countries in the region and beyond from introducing similar legislation. There is still a great deal of work to be done on decriminalization; however, countries such as South Africa, the US and the UK tell us that transformational change of the kind which provides security and rights to LGBTIQ people is not based on laws alone.  

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