Life’s No Play, but Certain Characters’ Voices Are Heard Loud and Clear in Uganda
By Julius Kaggwa
This week a British playwright and producers will stage a play exploring homosexuality in Uganda in the hopes that the work can “normalize the gay character” in our country. A positive societal response to the play is much-needed, so let’s hope the authorities don’t view the performance as a promotion of homosexuality and decide to “stage” a show of their own, one in which a police squadron shows up to disperse, detain, or even assault people publicly advocating for equality. We face enough problems with the coming and going of the infamous Anti-Homosexuality bill—we need positive vibes for gay Ugandans and their supporters.
During Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to Kampala, I had the opportunity to meet her when she presented the State Department’s 2011 human rights defender award to me and my colleagues. I was previously recognized by Human Rights First, and my good friends Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera and Frank Mugisha recently received, separately, the Martin Ennals and the RFK human rights awards. This recognition by the U.S. Department of State and other international organizations brings much-needed visibility to the fundamental rights issues we are seeking to advance.
Secretary Clinton’s message to us was as follows: “I’ve said before it is critical for all Ugandans—the government and citizens alike—to speak out against discrimination, harassment, and intimidation of anyone. That’s true no matter where they come from, what they believe, or whom they love. And no one has been a stronger champion than all of you. You’ve been organized, disciplined, and savvy. You have marshaled the evidence and made the arguments using the rights enshrined in Uganda’s constitution and in international law. And by doing so, you are a model for others and an inspiration to the world.”
She spoke of the need to combat intolerance in her meetings with President Museveni and other Ugandan officials who have fallen far short in their duty to protect all Ugandans – including LGBTI Ugandans – from violence and severe discrimination.
Why is it necessary for Secretary Clinton to raise this?
This year Ugandan authorities have intensified their crackdown on LGBTI organizations and civil society groups. One minister announced that he would seek to ban at least 38 nongovernmental organizations he claims are promoting gay rights. Our country’s first-ever gay pride festival, which took place the day after our meeting with Secretary Clinton, was stormed by police who tried to arrest everyone and briefly detained several activists. For the past few years the legislature has been considering a bill that would severely increase the punishments for same-sex consensual relations. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill is now famous and has been an urgent and ongoing concern for many Ugandans, while drawing significant government resources and attention away from pertinent economic, environmental, and human rights challenges facing our country.
We are trying to influence our own government, but we need all the help we can get. In recent years, I’ve met with senior American policymakers—including President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and various congressional leaders—who recognized the precarious position of LGBTI individuals and gay rights activists in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa and who continue to speak out on our behalf. Increasingly, new vital voices are joining this international campaign. Last week, a group of 46 American Christian leaders issued an open letter expressing solidarity with LGBTI Ugandans in the face of “increased bigotry and hatred.” Signers included former U.S. Ambassador to Uganda and the Vatican Thomas P. Melady, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good Rich Cizik, and Sojourners President Jim Wallis.
The letter noted that, “Regardless of the diverse theological views of our religious traditions regarding the morality of homosexuality, the criminalization of homosexuality, along with the violence and discrimination against LGBT people that inevitably follows, is incompatible with the teachings of our faith.”
My own civic and Christian faith remains strong and unyielding despite the rhetorical assault coming from our own political and faith leaders who seek to undermine our human rights. Although changes in these attitudes must ultimately come from Ugandans, the support we receive from American political and faith leaders is important. It gives us strength and hope.