Ugandan President Signs Anti-Gay Bill Into Law

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a harsh anti-gay bill into law today, coming down on the side of discrimination after weeks of equivocation over the legislation. The law will send first-time offenders to prison for 14 years and perpetrators of "aggravated homosexuality" to prison for life.

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Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a harsh anti-gay bill into law today, coming down on the side of discrimination after weeks of equivocation over the legislation. The law will send first-time "offenders" — that means, consenting adults who engage in homosexual sex — to prison for 14 years and perpetrators of "aggravated homosexuality" (repeated consensual gay sex, gay sex acts involving a minor or disabled person, or sex with an HIV-positive partner) to prison for life. In an apparently un-ironic explanation for his decision to sign the bill, Museveni said "we Africans never seek to impose our view on others," referring to Western threats to cut off aid to the country if it passes the bill.

Museveni contemplated the bill for some time, linking his position to various bogus scientific theories. In January, he announced that he wouldn't sign the bill, because he believed that (while deplorable) homosexuality is not a choice — and so harsh legislation would be ineffective. (Also, it was technically already illegal, though the penalties were not as severe.) The presdient said that he had commissioned a scientific study to determine whether there is a homosexuality gene that would support his case. About two weeks ago, he announced that he had changed his mind and will sign the bill, because the study determined that homosexuality is a social behavior, not a genetic trait.

Gay Ugandan asylum-seeker demonstrates in Boston. REUTERS

Uganda's Ministry of Information and National Guidance posted the president's statement on his decision on Facebook. He described his three main problems with homosexuality:

When, eventually, I concentrated my mind on it, I distilled three problems:
1. those who were promoting homo-sexuality and recruiting normal people into it;
2. as a consequence of No. 1 above, many of those recruited were doing so for mercenary reasons – to get money – in effect homosexual prostitutes; these mercenary homosexual prostitutes had to be punished; 
3. homosexuals exhibiting themselves; Africans are
flabbergasted by exhibitionism of sexual acts – whether heterosexual or otherwise and for good reason. Why do you exhibit your sexual conduct? Are you short of opportunity for privacy - where you can kiss, fondle (kukirigiita, kwagaaga) etc.? Are we interested in seeing your sexual acts – we the Public? I am not able to understand the logic of the Western Culture. However, we Africans always keep our opinions to ourselves and never seek to impose our point of view on the others. If only they could let us alone. 

He added a note on the dangers of oral sex:

Since Western societies do not appreciate politeness, let me take this opportunity to warn our people publicly about the wrong practices indulged in and promoted by some of the outsiders. One of them is “oral sex”. Our youth should reject this because God designed the human being most appropriately for pleasurable, sustainable and healthy sex. Some of the traditional styles are very pleasurable and healthy. The mouth is not engineered for that purpose except kissing. Besides, it is very unhealthy. 

The bill follows a similar one signed into law in Nigeria last month, and a recent statement by Gambian President Yahya Jammeh comparing gay people to "malaria-causing mosquitoes." According to the Guardian, 36 out of 55 African countries have criminalized homosexuality, and some of them dole out death sentences for the perceived crime.

Washington, one of the country's main donors, said previously it would have to review U.S. ties to Uganda if the bill is passed, and Museveni's decision was decried by rights groups and activists internationally and within the country. Some see the move as a simply a way to maintain his political power.

But Museveni's party and the majority of  Ugandans support the bill. Anti-gay feelings were largely proliferated by Western evangelical missionaries, who helped spread fears of gay people in the region. A three-day conference conference held by Western anti-gay groups in Uganda is credited with inspiring the first version of the "jail the gays" bill, then called the "kill the gays" bill for its inclusion of the death penalty as a possible punishment. According to some experts, homophobia in Uganda is a colonial relic, imposed by both recent and long-ago missionaries. Human rights activist Peter Tatchell told the Guadian:

Prior to western colonization, there are no records of any African laws against homosexuality... The real import into Africa was not homosexuality but homophobia.... The colonial narratives of racism and homophobia are very closely intertwined. It's one of the great tragedies of Africa that so many people have internalized the homophobia of that colonial oppression and now proclaim it as their own authentic African tradition.

Uganda-based LGBTQ groups say part of the problem is that Museveni does not have contact with out gay individuals. Activist Pepe Julian Onziema told the Associated Press that "the president is making this decision because he has never met an openly gay person. That disappoints me." He added, "It's a gloomy day not just for the gay community in Uganda but for all Ugandans who care about human rights because this law will affect everybody." In addition to mandating severe punishments for homosexual activity, the bill criminalizes failure to report someone for breaking the new law.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.