Uganda's anti-gay bill back on parliament's agenda

As the country's parliament prepares to return, lawmakers will again be considering an anti-gay bill that once included a death penalty provision.

How exactly did Uganda become a country where homophobia is so severe that Parliament once considered a bill to execute gay people?

While the narrative involves a deeply religious population and the influence of American evangelical pastors, experts also point to a more sinister cause: government corruption and poverty, and politicians who want to cover it all up by distracting the population.

Today, parliamentary forces say they have dropped the death penalty provision from the so-called "Kill the Gays" bill.  "Aggravated homosexuality" — defined as engaging in homosexual activity with a minor, being a serial offender or committing a sexual act while HIV-positive — is still punishable by life in prison in Uganda. A clause in the bill also imparts a three-year jail sentence on a witness for failing to report a homosexual act within 24 hours.

Laws governing same-sex relations in Uganda are nothing new. Anti-sodomy laws have been in place since the British colonial era, and those caught engaging in homosexual acts receive up to 14 years in prison. Human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch have long complained that Ugandan police arbitrarily detain and torture men and women they suspect of being homosexual.

While certainly no bastion of tolerance, Uganda has been more militantly anti-gay in the past five years than it had been before. In 1999, two same-sex couples were even married in the capital Kampala in 1999. Around that time, however, President Yoweri Museveni cracked down on public displays of homosexuality. While devoutly Christian, Museveni, experts say, had another motive to begin arresting gays and outlawing same-sex relations. He was attempting to, they say, shield Ugandans' eyes from rampant government corruption and poverty and give them an issue to unite around: a manufactured hatred of gays.

"Anytime there's a huge scandal and they want to distract international community and their citizens they bring out the anti-sexuality bill," Roger Ross Williams, maker of the film "God Loves Uganda," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month, told MSN News.

"When they bring this up the public gets worked up," Williams said. "Then anti-gay pastors throw themselves into the frenzy. It becomes a real distraction for the real issues in Uganda like poverty and corruption."

When introduced in 2009 by lawmaker David Bahati, the "Kill the Gays" bill was wildly popular with Ugandans who were influenced by  American Christian missions in the country.  While many came to provide vital services like orphanages and food banks, other missionaries saw the country as the perfect place to preach anti-gay views.

"The West has been in a decline." Lou Engle, senior leader at the International House of Prayer, said in a New York Times op-doc about missionary activity in Uganda. "I think Africa is the firepot of spiritual renewal and revival."

American evangelical ministers like Engle flooded Uganda during the 2000s. One in particular, Scott Lively, who's now being sued by the prominent gay rights group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) led a multi-day lecture series titled "Seminar on Exposing the Homosexual Agenda." In their suit, SMUG claims Lively's teachings incited violence and persecution against gays in Uganda. While Lively admits to holding the lectures, he says he never called for violence or persecution.

His and others missionaries' words had a catalyzing effect on the deeply religious Ugandan population. Thousands attended and applauded Lively's sermons, and local ministers were invigorated by his teachings. Ugandan anti-gay preachers were also given funds by many American evangelical groups.

The Ugandan media also got in on the fervor. One tabloid, Rolling Stone, with no relation to the American music publication, published the names and addresses of gay rights activists to shame them. David Kato, considered a father of the Ugandan gay rights movement, was among those named by Rolling Stone. He was killed in 2011. Police say it was a robbery gone wrong, but Ugandan activists believe they're lying.

Despite the bill's popularity with the Ugandan public, it has flagged in parliament since its 2009 introduction. Experts say that's because Uganda and its leaders, specifically President Museveni, know what's at stake internationally if the bill were to pass. It's likely Uganda would lose hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid—which it desperately needs to pay government employees—if it were to pass the bill into law. Reeling, Uganda has already lost funding from Ireland, Denmark and a host of other countries after being found complicit in siphoning relief funds from victims of Joseph Kony's genocide in the North of the country. Germany, according to Al-Jazeera, has withdrawn its foreign aid to Uganda due to the anti-homosexuality bill.

As parliament reconvenes this month, Ugandan politicians, as has become typical, have begun to speak publicly about their desire to pass the law once and for all. This, Williams says, is just posturing. He doubts it will go anywhere. Too much, internationally, is on the line for Museveni. In the end, even if parliament passes the bill, Museveni would have to sign it into effect, which many, including Williams, doubt he will do.

"Ugandans are talking about human sexuality and issues around GLBT rights in a way they hadn’t before," Williams told MSN News. "This has brought everything to the forefront."

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