NPR Story
6:47 am
Sun August 4, 2013

Activists Fight Uganda's Anti-Gay Bill

Originally published on Sun August 4, 2013 11:39 am

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Uganda, local activists have been fighting a bill that might be one of the most punitive and anti-gay measures in the world. It's actually called the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, and that's just one vote away from becoming law.

NPR's Gregory Warner is in Kampala. Welcome to the program, Greg.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, it's Gay Pride Week in many countries around the world. How is it being marked in Uganda, especially in light of this pending legislation?

WARNER: Oh, well, Pride Week is being celebrated here in Uganda although, first of all, you have to obtain the address from somebody in the know, because this is not a publicized event. If you get the address, you'll drive about 30 minutes outside the center of Kampala to a rented hall. And there are, as I did on Friday night, you'll find close to 100 people - some of them cross-dressing as Nigerian tribal chiefs and Maasai warriors and Ugandan brides and, look, they're having a big dance party.

What you're not going to see in Uganda is a public march downtown Kampala Street, the main street, waving rainbow flags with a bunch of local media present. And that was a conscious decision from the organizers to stay out of the limelight, in part for security reasons. But in part also so they can fit in with conservative African society.

Here's one of the Pride Week organizers, Pepe Julian Onziema.

PEPE JULIAN ONZIEMA: People are conscious of not attracting any kind of violence. You know, I mean we want to be accepted. At the same time, we want to be ourselves.

WARNER: But I did notice that if the LGBT community was pulling back from provocation, then so is the government this year. Last year at Pride, police came in, they arrested the organizers. This year, police not only knew about the event, they even sent a few officers to watch.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about this pending bill, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. What is the likelihood of this actually becoming law?

WARNER: Well, look, this bill was first brought to parliament in 2011. It then expired without getting a vote. It then came back in November of 2012. You know, as for whether it will actually pass - given that the West has promised to yank back a ton of foreign aid money if it does - many people doubt that President Museveni, who is a lot of things, but probably not a homophobe, would willingly commit that kind of economic suicide.

At the same time, Museveni has been the target of a lot of internal protests this year against corruption in his regime and lack of democracy. And any time those protests games steam, activists tell me that the looming threat of homosexuals conveniently pops up as the hot topic of discussion. So under that reasoning the law is still very much a threat, but maybe only as a kind of nuclear option for the government.

MARTIN: I understand the government has also removed a death penalty provision from that legislation.

WARNER: Right. The death penalty provision was removed and some people know this as the Kill the Gays Bill. But however, the bill still has really harsh punishments for homosexuality, as well as for the crime of not informing authorities that someone you know is gay. So just staying mum can get you three years in the slammer, and that applies to anyone - landlords, teachers, friends or family.

MARTIN: So in the wake of all of that, you've talked to a lot of people who are involved this movement. What is life like as an LGBT person in Uganda these days?

WARNER: Being LGBT in Uganda can get you expelled from school. It can get you fired from your job, kicked out of your family, beaten up on the street, and even killed in some cases. But at the same time, nothing is simple especially intolerance. I heard this remarkable story from a tour guide who was forcibly outed by one of the tabloids here. They published his picture. Immediately, he lost 75 percent of his clients, got death threats, but at the same time, started having more open conversations with some of the remaining 25 percent who didn't leave him.

And then, meanwhile, and this is the craziest part, he gets a call from the Ugandan tourist board. And they forward him like a dozen angry emails from Westerners saying, you know, I'll never visit Uganda, I'll take my tourist money elsewhere because of your proposed bill. And a guy from the board asked him, like, can you respond to these emails? And now the same man is running gay safaris in Uganda and with every new driver he hires he's teaching tolerance.

So this is a week where the Ugandan LGBT community celebrating Pride, it was a fun kind of secret party, very meaningful for the people involved. But I think the bigger story here is that there's this hard work being done every day in Uganda by ordinary people just to build acceptance.

MARTIN: NPR's Gregory Warner in Kampala. Thanks so much, Greg.

WARNER: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.