KAMPALA (Reuters) - As Ugandan MPs debate anti-gay legislation and world Christian leaders weigh in, the gay community in Kampala awaits a bill it says will only formalise the persecution it feels every day.
“I have been arrested by police a number of times, often on flimsy charges just because of my homosexual lifestyle,” said David Kato, who lives as an openly gay man in Kampala.
“The prospect of living under this law is scary. Certainly all my life and plans will be ruined because once it’s passed I will immediately have to flee the country,” Kato said. “Obviously if I don’t I will be arrested and imprisoned.”
While Uganda has become a favourite of western governments for its reforms and economic growth since 1986, rights groups have criticised President Yoweri Museveni for cracking down on opposition, media and civil society.
The president has been quoted in local media saying homosexuality is a Western import, joining continental religious leaders who believe it is un-African.
The draft Anti-Homosexuality Bill is part of a growing campaign against gays in Uganda, rights groups say. Critics say the aim is to divert attention from corruption and other political issues ahead of the 2011 national vote.
But the bill’s author, ruling party member David Bahati, says the legislation promotes family values. “Homosexuality is not part of the human rights we believe in,” he said.
The act will criminalise anyone “who acts as an accomplice or attempts to promote or in any way abets homosexuality”, and a person in authority who “aids, abets, councils or procures another to engage in acts of homosexuality”.
Political observers expect the private members’ bill, which prescribes the death penalty for “serial offenders” and those who commit “aggravated homosexuality”, to pass with little opposition and some minor changes.
Activists say the bill will heap misery on a community already suffering in an intolerant culture.
“The government needs to focus on changing people’s attitude rather than concentrate their efforts on persecuting people who are already shunned and mistreated by society,” said Ugandan gay rights activist Val Kalende.
“Wherever I have turned for a job, people have shunned me because of my public gay rights advocacy image. I got estranged from my family,” Kalende said.
“Uganda’s biggest problem is ignorance which is breeding intolerance and prejudice in society,” she said. “We must be allowed... to expose those harassing us.”
Some activists see the move as another sign of the growing impact of U.S. evangelicals and anti-gay campaigners in Uganda.
The proposal has caused a storm in Western nations, where protests have been held and religious leaders from the United States to Europe have weighed in on the issue.
Now analysts see the issue as further dividing African and western Christians, as attitudes in some African countries have hardened against same-sex unions and seem to resonate with voters, while western communities are increasingly tolerant.
But donors — who fund about a third of the economy — may be in a position to influence a softening of the bill.
Likely changes could include modifying the death penalty to life imprisonment, altering clauses nullifying international treaties, conventions and protocols that contradict the act, and removing a section about extradition.
There is some urgency in resisting the bill, analysts say, as Uganda moves to join the league of oil producers, when Western nations may be less inclined to fight them.
The bill is currently with Parliament’s Committee on Legal and Parliamentary affairs. They are scheduled to begin public hearings on it when members return from their Christmas break.