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Wikileaks and the truth of Uganda’s anti-gay law

 Street News Service 31 October 2019

After all the uproar and howls of international outrage, what exactly happened to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill that catapulted Uganda into the international spotlight? Did it die a silent death? Or was it shelved, to wait for another opportune time? (849 Words) - By Joseph Opio

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Uganda's anti-gay rights activists march. Photo: Joseph Opio

To the uninitiated, Uganda is just another banana republic undistinguishable from the other banana republics that litter the vast continent that's Africa. Yet, two years ago, on October 14, 2009, this tiny landlocked East African country sprung to global notoriety when its Parliament tabled a Bill that sought to criminalize same sex relationships.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill was brought before Parliament by Ndorwa West MP David Bahati as a private Members Bill and it drew shrieks of protests from local human rights activists and the international community.

These shrieks grew even shriller when in January 2011, David Kato Kisule, a prominent local gay rights activist, was found bludgeoned to death in what activists feared was a hate-crime since his photograph had been published in local tabloid that encouraged the outing of gay and lesbian people within the country.

However, surprisingly for many people in Uganda, Kato's death was the last time the Anti-Homosexuality Bill made headlines.

And more than two years since it was tabled, the Bill has not only failed to get passed but it has fallen off the radar and also drifted out of the national conscious.

So, what exactly happened to the infamous Bill?

It's a known fact that Cabinet early this year threw out the Bill on the advice of its legal minds who argued that it was unnecessary since government had a number of laws criminalizing homosexuality anyway. Yet, according to recently-leaked diplomatic cables from the whistleblower website, Wikileaks, that seems to be only part of the whole story.

Wikileaks' suggests that the Bill might have suffered a stillbirth due to severe international pressure. In leaked cables, the website reveals that Museveni, while in a meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Affairs Johnnie Carson on October 24, 2019, said Uganda is not interested in a "war with homosexuals" and agreed that the proposed legislation went "too far."

In yet another meeting between Foreign Affairs minister, Sam Kutesa and US Embassy officials, the minister said the bill would die a natural death, while Nsaba Buturo, the Bill's most vocal advocate within the cabinet, appeared to have succumbed when he started campaigning for a watered-down version.

The local gay community has been too busy celebrating the demise of the Bill to care about the murky details.

But even then, many within its closeted circles were surprised by Wikileaks' revelation that while Bahati was the face of the Bill, its real architect was actually the First Lady, Janet Museveni.

Described as "a very extreme woman" in the leaked cables by a trusted adviser, Mrs. Museveni has never made a secret of her Christian beliefs, embracing them instead as a badge of honour.

As a result, revelations linking her to the Bill should not be surprising. What shocks the gay community is the fact that her husband, Yoweri, felt it politically expedient to kill off a Bill so personal to his wife in order to relieve pressure from the international community.

It's this international pressure and support that the gay community in Uganda subsists on and one that many within the community insist is essential if gay rights are to actually remain a realistic aspiration rather than an unachievable mirage.

Val Kalende, a vocal gay rights activist who heads the Board at Freedom and Roam Uganda, is adamant that unless international human rights watchdogs sustain the pressure on the Ugandan government, the Bill might actually make a return in an even more vicious form.

"The people who were behind this Bill are very radical and extreme," she says matter-of-factly. "You don't expect such people to simply take the silent death of the Bill lying down. These are people, who inspired by US evangelicals, have sowed seeds of hatred towards minorities."

She continues: "The Ugandan Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Community is depicted as a bunch of subhuman entities that are unworthy of life. And these messages of hate are actually propagated by important and influential members of the government plus opinion leaders from across the religious spectrum. So, while we applaud the pressure the international community brought to bear when this atrocious Bill was tabled, we also urge this pressure to be kept up if our rights are to be won and protected eventually."

Kalende also contends that while the death of the Bill might have denied the government a legal basis to persecute the minorities, it hasn't put an end to the persecution that existed in the first place.

"The Ugandan Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Community still lives under the same cloak of fear it lived in before this issue became international. The same old stigma and persecution remains. The death of this Bill only denied this present persecution legal justification."

To Kalende, while the particular battle of the Bill appears won for now, the struggle goes on as the war is still far from decided. Yet, despite that grim fact, Kalende views each such victory as one more firm step towards a future that will see Ugandan minorities accorded the same basic rights enjoyed by their counterparts in more tolerant cultures.

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