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For LGBT Ugandan Activists an Uncertain Future


"Who would want to live in a place where everyone hates you?" Frank Mugisha, the chairman of Sexual Minorities Uganda, recently asked me. "Who wants to live in a place where you cannot easily do your shopping? Where you think, Am I going to survive today? Am I going to get arrested today? Or beaten? Who wants to live in a place where your friends have alienated you? Who wants to live such a life?"

But in spite of the police harassment, the attacks from local media (he was identified in a Ugandan tabloid as a "Top Homo"), the death threats on his mobile phone, and the attempted blackmail, Mugisha and other activists are determined to stay and work for change in a country where the already criminalized gay population is being threatened.

If you've watched the news lately, you know why: The Anti-Homosexuality Bill has received significant attention in international press, where it is often called the "kill the gays" bill. Not only do "serial offenders" face execution, those who fail to report gays and lesbians to the police face incarceration.

Mugisha's resolve is astounding, given one simple fact: "I could be the first person to be sentenced to life in prison if this law is passed." He added calmly, "Uganda has some of the worst prisons in the world."

Another person who, while frightened of what the law will do to the country, refuses to be intimidated we'll call John (not his real name), a physician who also works for an international HIV/AIDS organization. "If the bill passes," he said, "I will be supposed to do things that I, frankly, will not do. Damn the bill! I will be supposed to report any person who comes to me and tells me about homosexual contact within 24 hours on pain of a fine and three years in prison myself."

John is equally indignant with the bill's potentially devastating effects on HIV prevention and services.

"The doctors' consultation room will become a trap," he said. "Instead of a place where a gay person -- or any patient -- can get treatment." There is little available information in the country about how gay men can protect themselves from HIV. Even though he is a doctor, John received no training about the health needs of gay people. What he knows has come solely from the Internet. "Giving out water-based lubricant will be criminal, as it could be seen as 'promotion of homosexuality.' How will it be possible then, to tackle HIV prevention amongst gay men?

"Oh, I had forgotten," he said with a grim laugh. "They will all be in prison, or on death row."

But perhaps this is the intention of the lawmakers? John described the Anti-Homosexuality Bill's potential effect as "simply genocidal."

Evangelicals and political leaders in the United States who distanced themselves from the legislation early on are only now beginning to take note. Pastor Rick Warren, who in a December appearance on NBC's Meet the Press declined to condemn the bill, has now called it "un-Christian." Members of the conservative group known as the Family with significant ties to Ugandan politicians have spoken out against a bill being presented to parliament as a "family values" issue.

"'Family values' is an American concept," John said. "It is distinctly not Ugandan. According to my upbringing, I am supposed to protect my brothers and sisters with my life. When [Anti-Homosexuality Bill author] David Bahati was asked on the radio whether he would report to the police a brother who was homosexual, he said he would arrest him himself and take him to the police, even though he knew that his brother would be convicted to life imprisonment or death by hanging. My idea of family values is to protect my brothers with my life. The claims that this terrible bill protects 'family values' are laughable."

However, homophobia is widespread among the general population of Uganda -- particularly in rural areas -- and Mugisha sees the bill as cheap electioneering in a country due to go to the polls in 2011. "It's not only about framing someone as gay. We still have big drugs problems, people with no electricity, and unemployment at over 40%. While they are busy talking about the bill, it covers up the real issues."

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