Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Uganda’s homosexual debate has gone viral but only one voice is being heard. Does it speak for you?

Ugandans are well familiar with Western popular culture. Television shows like Gossip Girl and Desperate Housewives find their way onto television screens in Ugandan homes; Christopher Nolan’s Inception is in Ugandan theatres, and CNN and the BBC World Service are never more than a channel click away.

But what does the West know of Ugandan popular culture? Stories of riots, elections and international conferences are ubiquitous, but they rarely provide any insight into Ugandan culture itself – that is, into the sort of things that the people of Uganda find funny, surprising, outrageous, or important.

Recently, however, Westerners have been learning more than usual about Ugandan culture. The reason for this is a YouTube video named “EAT DA POO POO,” which has been spreading virally over the internet. The video documents a series of anti-gay tirades by Ugandan Pastor, Dr. Martin Ssempa. Armed with explicit visual aids, Ssempa argues that what homosexuals do in the privacy of their bedrooms is simply far too disgusting to be protected by the law. Homosexual men, he claims, lick each other’s anuses like, “ice cream and even poo poo comes out...This one smears the poo poo all over the other one’s face.”

To date, the video has almost three million hits on YouTube, has spawned an auto-tune remix with some four-hundred-thousand hits, and is listed on Ebaum’s World, a popular archive of internet curiosities.

Westerners watch this video because they find Ssempa’s antics comical, but what few of them realize is how un-comical his views are to many native Ugandans. Homosexuality is outlawed in as many as thirty-eight African countries, including Uganda. In Mauritania, Nigeria, and neighbouring Sudan, it is currently punishable by death. And Ugandan MP David Bahati’s recent effort to push through a comprehensive “Anti Homosexuality Bill” – which would include capital punishment for “aggravated” offences – has received considerable popular support.

With Bahati’s bill still under consideration in parliament, Uganda is one of the few African countries to currently be on the verge of tightening its regulation against homosexuals. Already under Uganda’s Penal Code Act of 1950, those who engage in the “unnatural offence” of gay sex may be imprisoned for life, and those who merely attempt to do so can be imprisoned for up to seven years. But this new piece of legislation expands on the current law to include lengthy prison sentences for anyone who as much as “promotes,” funds, disseminates, or provides a venue for homosexual activities, as well as anyone who fails to publicly disclose their knowledge of a homosexual offense.

With six African countries having decriminalized homosexuality as recently as 2008, nd with South Africa having become the fifth country in the world to recognize same-sex marriage in 2006, why is Uganda moving in the opposite direction?

The short answer is that in contrast to other African nations, powerful people in Uganda have taken collective initiative on anti-gay legislation. In an interview with The Independent, MP David Bahati cited his membership in a Ugandan chapter of “The Fellowship” or “The Family”, a U.S.-based Christian political organization, as the key impetus behind the new bill. Every Thursday the members of the local division of The Fellowship, which include a close circle of Ugandan MPs and religious leaders (led by Ssempa), meet to discuss “how to use godly principles to influence public policy.” About a year and a half ago, Bahati reveals, it was decided in one such meeting that the legal framework as it stands was incapable of addressing the urgency of the problem of homosexuality in Uganda. Bahati was chosen and happily volunteered to be at the forefront of developing new legislation. Bahati, the 2009 “Anti Homosexuality Bill” is both a personal and political imperative. It is personal because he is convinced that homosexuality is a sin and that “sin must be fought:” “Though I love homosexuals, I hate the sin in them. I believe that they can be rehabilitated, that they can be counselled and come back to normality.” On the political front, he says, the bill is critical to stop homosexuality from taking over the world. “As a country, Uganda should be able to really provide leadership at this time when the world needs leadership.”

However, the genesis of this new bill cannot be explained solely by the raw initiative of Bahati and The Fellowship. In order to have any chance of passing into law, the bill needs considerable support from parliamentarians, other members of government, and ideally from the public. According to Bahati, it has all of these. Despite strong international pressure to shelve the bill, including threats by some Western governments to cut off aid to Uganda should it finally pass, Bahati believes that the “government supports what I’m doing.” The cause of legislative hesitation over the bill so far, he believes, is strictly political; key government officials remain caught between whether to “stand for what is right, or to compromise and get donor money.” Moreover, for its part, 95% of the population of Uganda, according to Bahati, believes that “homosexuality is a sin and shouldn’t be supported.” A public petition in support of the bill has already gathered four million signatures. Even foreign governments like Canada, which have been very active in expressing criticism of the bill, secretly support it, claims Bahati: “Deep in their hearts, [Canadians] don’t support homosexuality.”

In Kampala, opinions about homosexuality vary: Aida, who owns an inconspicuous hair salon in central Kampala, supports the new bill and claims that homosexuality, “is not part of African culture...It’s a disease and you kill a disease.” At Masala Chat House restaurant, Manager Joseph Onen Bakiti says that he would not fire an employee if he or she was discovered to be a homosexual, but he still believes that all homosexuals should be jailed. If a police officer were found out to be a homosexual, by contrast, not only would they be immediately fired and prosecuted for the crime, they would be subject to additional punitive action under the Police Force’s disciplinary code, explains Uganda Police Force’s Deputy Public Relations Officer Ssekate Vicent.

Others in Uganda believe that the new proposed legislation is excessively cruel despite homosexuality’s unseemliness. Solomon Webalealaari, a civil rights lawyer based in Kampala, does not believe that homosexuality should be criminalized, but notes that many Ugandans who agree with him are afraid to publicly voice their opinion, lest they be stigmatized or branded as un-African, un-Christian, and pro-Gay.

The fact that tolerant views of this sort have been marginalized in Ugandan public culture is a testament to the vehemence and popularity of Ssempa’s campaign. Ssempa and his associates present homophobia in general, and support for anti-gay legislation in particular, as standards of membership in Uganda’s Afro-Christian majority. 84 percent of Ugandans are Christian and according to gay rights activist, Major Rubaramira Ruranga, it is precisely by branding support for the recent bill as an essential aspect of what it means to be a committed Christian in Uganda that the anti-gay lobby has achieved such success.

Major Ruranga argues that, in contrast to Western society, Ugandan society places intense value on communal attachment, even when this comes at the expense of individual expression. As a result, he says, “religion has become more of a culture than a faith.” Instead of promoting sincere belief, the religious establishment promotes outward conformity to standards adhered to by the larger group. In the case of Uganda’s Christian community, Ruranga suggests, the hatred of gays has become one of these unquestioned group standards.

But it was not always so. According to Ruranga, the anti-gay movement in Uganda only gained traction in the 1990s in large part as a reaction to a perceivable rise in gay pride, activism, and the unprecedented occurrence of public disclosures of homosexuality in the Ugandan media. The religious establishment decided this was dangerous and instigated a backlash. It is not clear how much of a role the U.S. based Fellowship had in fomenting that backlash, but what is certain is that it is now fully supportive of it. According to Bahati, one American Pentecostal friend recently lamented to him that “I wish we [in the U.S.] had done what you are doing thirty years ago; we would be much better off.”

What quickly becomes clear from speaking to ordinary Ugandans is that, in fact, they are not all convinced that they would be better off if Bahati’s proposed bill were signed into law. Their reasons are wide ranging, but in some instances, like that of Rafaella, a law student at Makerere University, one of them is the recognition that, “all crimes are sins, but not all sins are crimes.” Yet the constant sense of shame with which Uganda’s gay community is currently made to live is already punishment in its own right.

Others have mentioned that the current law is too far-reaching. For instance, because the bill allocates prison sentences to anyone who fails to report a known homosexual offence, even a parent who discovers that their own son or daughter is gay, but for obvious reasons fails to publicly report this, could be thrown in jail for up to three years.

One rarely hears such reservations and concerns voiced in the mass media. If the country and the world is ever going to see that Ssempa does not represent all Ugandans, and that “EAT DA POO POO” provides only the slimmest window into Ugandan culture, this will have to change and Uganda’s more tolerant and level-headed voices will have to bravely speak up.

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