Uganda Update

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On our way back from the airport, Clare Byarugaba, co-coordinator of the Civil Society Coalition for Human Rights and Constitutional Law (CSHRCL), her friend Josh and I talk about the anti homosexuality bill. Clare is mentally exhausted with the ‘mind-fuck’ of checking parliament’s order papers every day, and pessimistic. ‘Hope and gay rights in Uganda is like expecting corruption in Uganda to end. It will never end. The population is behind the bill, and MPs go with the majority.’

Josh has taken a week off from his job as a social worker because ‘the praying is killing. Every morning and evening devotion has to be about the anti homosexuality bill, and all negative things about gays. I feel so bad on a daily basis.’ The US mission he works at employs over 5000 people. One of his colleagues was recently sacked when information leaflets about LGBTI issues were found on his desk.

After settling at Josh’s, I meet up with Morgan, Bad Black and Joseph, friends I made in August whilst covering the country’s first Gay Pride. They are terrified about the consequences of the bill passing. They have recently been chased out of the one room house they all shared in the Bwaise slum and want to leave the country. The police believe them to be ‘recruiting’ young people into homosexuality.

Recruitment and addiction

The day before I leave Uganda, Bahati grants me an interview and I ask him what evidence of recruitment has been taken to the Legal Affairs Committee. ‘We have enough information about how our society works,’ he says. ‘Family is between man and woman. Anything beyond that should be outlawed. Most of the research we have we live it. My mum was with my dad. I know the bible and the qu’ran are against homosexuality. When an anal organ is used for things that are not meant for it then it is hazardous. I don’t need to be taught anything beyond that.’

At a Sunday morning service Pastor Martin Ssempa brings a mother and son to the front of his congregation at his Makerere University campus church and explains how the boy (of around 9) has been raped and now has to wear diapers. He tells his listeners how he gets emails from Germany asking for African boys, and says ‘African boys are being sodomised. I don’t want to kill gays, I want to protect our children.’ He calls Archbishop Desmond Tutu an ‘idiota’, and the congregation laughs, ‘You cannot be an anointed man of god and practise sodomy’ he preaches.

Pastor Solomon Male believes homosexuality is an addiction, but is against the bill, because there are already laws in place which criminalise homosexuality effectively. ‘No miracle will be performed with this bill,’ he says. ‘We have so many sexual rape cases that are not convicted…as long as the systems are stinking rotten and dead corrupt we’ll never get anywhere.’ He is vitriolic in his criticism of Bahati and government. He runs corrective clinics and offers medicinal and psychological ‘cures’ for homosexuality. He says ‘I don’t hate the people. I hate homosexuality. I’m interested in welfare for all.’

Access to health care

A press conference is called on ‘Black Monday’ by The Centre for Health, Human Rights and Development who have filed an urgent appeal to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health; ‘We are gravely concerned that this bill if passed, would do grievous harm to the health of all Ugandans.’ The press release from the Centre tells us that the rate of HIV/ AIDS in men sleeping with men in Kampala is around twice the national average of 7.3%.

Pepe Julian Onziema,spokesperson for Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), tells the conference that 16% of men who sleep with men are married to women and living with their marriage partners. The bill’s first tabling in 2009 led to an increase in homelessness of sex workers, and an increase in domestic violence within sham marriages. ‘The spaces for people to be who they are is very very small. If we had kept quiet about HIV like the government wants us to be quiet about LGBTI where would we be? Any form of advocacy will be criminalised.’ He tells the press, ‘As long as you are being abused you won’t ask about the road that is bad, but if the bill is passed advocacy will not stop.’

Jeff Ogwaro, Clare’s counterpart at CSCHRCL says the bill ‘Will drive everyone underground. If I am gay and you are my doctor or HIV counsellor you should report me to the law.’

At Reach Out Mbuya, a catholic organisation which aims to curb the spread of HIV infection among the less privileged members of society Executive Director Dr Stella Alamo Talisuna tells me, ‘As health workers we have our own ethical codes which are so so old. They bind us to confidentiality. The bill will conflict with these existing codes. [Bahati] needs to understand the magnitude of the issues. He needs to talk to these groups. But I will continue to provide health care to the most vulnerable populations.’

In interview, Bahati responded to the issue of access to essential health care, ‘They are putting things upside down. The evidence is there. HIV /AIDS is now more prevalent in the people who have same sex than in heterosexuals. Why? Because of the facts. Anal organs were not created for what they are using them for. So stopping them, stopping this practise, is straight away stopping the rate of HIV. We want this behaviour to stop, the health hazards that come with it, the dangers that come with it. How can you do something in private and then form a pressure group to talk about it?’

Space for debate

The bill went from being number one on the order papers to drooping much further down this week as President Museveni called for ‘urgent parliamentary business’ to be dealt with. Parliament is now in recess until February 5th. The irony of the bill being brought out so frequently is that conversation around sex and sexuality is made possible.

Pepe says pro-LGBTI space ‘is minimised because ordinary people have been told we are rapists and paedophiles. But recent surveys showed a drop in people’s support for the bill from 99% to 76%. If the delay in passing the bill continues, it will be down to 50% before long. There’s some opportunity that within all this mess people are waking up to the fact that the issue is not homosexuality. People want to put food on their table. It’s allowing debate in a language people understand.’

Over breakfast, talk of the issue continues. And with a smile Josh says, ‘I’m looking forward to going to jail. I’ve never had group sex.’

Vice Magazine published the full interview I did with Bahati – you can read it here