Homophobia is Defeated but Not Yet Deterred: Next Steps in the Struggle for Equality in Uganda and Beyond

Reports from Uganda this week suggest that the notorious “Anti-Homosexuality” bill, which has been pending in the country’s parliament since last year, may finally be quashed.  The head of a special committee that was set up by the President to investigate the proposal announced the committee’s recommendation that the bill should be withdrawn from parliament.  This is welcome news, even if many human rights activists are justifiably concerned that the bill could be revived at a later date, when the rest of the world is not paying as close attention.  But for now, following an unprecedented campaign of condemnation that was led at every step by Uganda’s own civil society movement and amplified by governments and civil society leaders the world over, it looks like this sad effort is finally about to tossed on the junk heap of intolerance, where it belongs.

The “kill the gays bill,” as it came to be known in many circles, represented one of the most pernicious assaults on LGBT rights in any country anywhere, with provisions that would have instated the death penalty as punishment for same-sex relationships, while requiring every Ugandan to turn suspected homosexuals over to the authorities.  It was breathtaking in its unrelenting intolerance.  But even if the reports are true and the President of Uganda has decided that the bill’s popularity is outweighed by its potential cost to Uganda’s reputation and foreign aid, the bill’s proponents show no sign of giving up.  To the contrary, they remain committed to an agenda of hate, and they are still being encouraged in that campaign by religious bigots from the United States.  Earlier this month, U.S. evangelist and anti-gay crusader Lou Engel was in Uganda encouraging the bill’s passage.  He called Uganda “ground zero” in the global crusade against civil liberties for LGBT individuals.  And so it is.  But while the dust has yet to settle over that distant ground, it appears that homophobia and transphobia have been temporarily defeated, even if the proponents of intolerance have hardly been deterred.

This is an important time to take stock of where we are, and where we need to go.  Even with the defeat of the kill the gays bill, homosexual conduct still remains criminalized in Uganda.  The existence of the law continues to provide cover—and encouragement—to the police and the public, often even to family members, to harass, extort and commit violence against the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens.  That intolerance is amplified in the media, and it seems to be spreading to other regions of Africa, with the help of religious bigots from various faith traditions.  The human rights landscape is bleak, but the struggle continues and the human rights community is more united than ever.

There is more good news to be found in the campaign itself.  The campaign against the bill was waged and won by Ugandans for Ugandans.  They requested and directed outside pressure, but they were very much in charge of the timing and tactics of the international campaign against the bill. Indeed, there is an impressive coalition website in Uganda, www.ugandans4rights.org, to help coordinate the struggle against the bill and the larger movement for LGBT equality in the country.  Moreover, after responding so forcefully to the request for international solidarity, the Obama Administration and leaders from both political parties in the U.S. Congress have pledged to carry on, declaring that the effort must now shift to broader legal reform, including total decriminalization of consensual conduct in Uganda and elsewhere.

Decriminalization has emerged as a leading human rights priority of the Obama Administration, and Secretary Clinton is one of the most outspoken proponents of this new doctrine.  In the 2003 case of Lawrence v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a homosexual sodomy law in Texas, stating that sometimes “laws once thought necessary and proper serve only to oppress.”  As a matter of foreign policy, the Obama Administration, with Secretary Clinton on the diplomatic offensive, now makes this same argument on the world stage.  In an odd way, a handful of religious bigots in the United States and Uganda provided the necessary clarity to help crystallize this new foreign policy doctrine.

In Uganda, the United States is flexing its diplomatic muscle.  We are defeating intolerance, we are formulating policy, and we are assembling a new diplomatic toolkit to confront these sensitive human rights issues.  But much more remains to be done to help build a human rights culture.  As we continue to address these human rights struggles in Uganda, while also meeting them head on in other countries and different diplomatic contexts, we must do so with the humility of our own national shortcomings and the understanding that tolerance alone is not enough.  It is relatively easy to stand in opposition to ludicrous laws in other countries.  It is another matter altogether to commit ourselves and our human rights policy to building global equality.  This will require a new investment of development assistance to prioritize the rights and needs of LGBT communities abroad, including through broad-based legal reform.  As the dust settles on ground zero, we see that the arc of justice is indeed long, but as it bends it takes on a refracted hue.

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