Categories: National

U.S. Congress moves against anti-gay Uganda bill

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who’s supporting a resolution condemning a harshly anti-gay Uganda bill, said the measure is ‘appalling and I want to convey that.’ (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

Lawmakers in both chambers of Congress last week introduced resolutions condemning a harshly anti-gay bill pending in Uganda.

In the Senate, the sponsor of the resolution is Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), chair of the Foreign Relations African Affairs subcommittee. The sponsor of the resolution in the House is Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Homosexual acts are already illegal in Uganda, but the African nation’s pending legislation would, among other things, institute the death penalty in some cases for LGBT people and require citizens to report LGBT people to the police.

In a statement, Berman said passage of the Uganda bill could interfere with efforts to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country.

“The proposed Ugandan bill not only threatens human rights, it also reverses so many of the gains that Uganda has made in the fight against HIV/AIDS,” he said. “This issue has united leaders of different political and religious views in Uganda and worldwide in one common belief in the rights of all human beings regardless of sexual orientation.”

The Senate resolution goes further than the House measure, calling for repeal of the criminalization of homosexuality in other countries and urging the State Department to closely monitor human rights abuses against LGBT people abroad.

Both resolutions enjoy considerable support from lawmakers of both parties. More than three-dozen House members joined to introduce the House measure, including gay Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), as well as Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) has signed on in support.

Lynne Weil, spokesperson for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the panel would make a decision on how to proceed with the resolution in the coming weeks.

For the Senate resolution, a politically diverse group of lawmakers are co-sponsors. In addition to Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), original co-sponsors included Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).

Collins told DC Agenda she was interested in co-sponsoring the Senate resolution because of the draconian nature of Uganda’s bill.

“This is an appalling proposal in Uganda, which suggests the death penalty for homosexual acts,” she said. “I think it’s self-evident that I would think that that’s appalling and I want to convey that.”

Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, said bipartisan support for the resolution shows the tremendous attention that Uganda’s bill has received from human rights advocates.

“Senators from across the ideological divide are expressing that this is a significant human rights issue and an issue that the U.S. government takes seriously,” he said.

Bromley said the resolutions are “not simply symbolic” and have a chance of passing in both chambers of Congress.

On Monday, another lawmaker expressed opposition to Uganda’s bill during a demonstration outside the Uganda mission to the United Nations in New York City, according to Human Rights First.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said in a statement that the “officially sanctioned bigotry” in the legislation is “profoundly disturbing.”

“It constitutes a gross violation of the universal values of individual liberty and human rights,” she said. “Such a measure goes far beyond ugliness and ignorance: it is hate in its rawest form, and it has no place in the laws of any nation.”

Maloney was joined at the demonstration by about two dozen other participants, including members of Human Rights First, Immigration Equality, the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Watch. The lawmaker called on Ugandan officials to meet with human rights groups to discuss the widespread opposition to the bill.

Paul LeGendre, director of the Fighting Discrimination Program at Human Rights Watch, said during the demonstration that Uganda’s bill “represents one of the harshest discriminatory measures ever proposed in any country.”

“This bill would have disastrous effects for gay men and women in Uganda, would aggravate an already alarming trend of criminalization of homosexuality across Africa, and could spur Ugandan homosexuals to flee this persecution by attempting to seek refuge outside of the country,” he said. “The international community must continue to voice its concern to the Ugandan authorities until the text of this bill is shredded and removed from consideration.”

The path for the legislation in Uganda parliament remains in question. Bromley said he’s “been hearing different stories” about the timeline for the bill, but that it’s likely to come up for debate in the next few weeks.

“To be honest, my suspicion is that the president of Uganda would like to see this legislation disappear and so my hope is that they will sort of stretch out the consideration so that eventually the interest dies down a bit, and then, perhaps they can move from it,” he said.

Obama, Clinton stand against Uganda bill

In related news, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated their opposition last week to the Uganda legislation in remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in D.C.

Clinton said she contacted Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to directly express U.S. concerns about the anti-gay legislation.

“I recently called President Museveni, whom I have known through the prayer breakfast, and expressed the strongest concerns about a law being considered in the parliament of Uganda,” she said.

Obama called the Uganda measure an “odious” bill in remarks that more broadly drew attention to LGBT issues.

“We may disagree about gay marriage, but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are — whether it’s here in the United States or, as Hillary mentioned, more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda,” he said.

Obama and Clinton’s participation at the National Prayer Breakfast was somewhat controversial because the evangelical Christian group staging the event, known as “The Family,” has ties to Ugandan officials. David Mahati, the author of the anti-gay bill in the country’s parliament, attended past National Prayer Breakfasts, but didn’t attend this year’s event.

LGBT activists praised Obama and Clinton for their remarks. Wayne Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out, commended Obama for “having the courage to confront those responsible for the heinous anti-gay bill in Uganda.”

Besen helped to coordinate the American Prayer Hour, protest events involving pro-LGBT religious leaders intended to counter the National Prayer Breakfast. The counter-event took place in 20 cities across the country.

“We hope that the president’s laudable stand makes it clear to Family members in the United States and Uganda that the world is watching,” Besen said in a statement. “Religion can no longer be used to justify bigotry, intolerance and persecution anywhere on the face of the Earth.”

Bromley also said Obama and Clinton’s decision to speak out against the Uganda legislation during the National Prayer Breakfast was a “very positive” move because of the religious nature of the event.

“I think clearly there were some religious voices behind the bill in Uganda, so we thought it was incredibly powerful that the president and first lady attended the breakfast, spoke from a personal perspective about religion and how this bill from any religious perspective just is unacceptable,” Bromley said.

But according to the French news agency Agence France-Presse, Uganda’s Ethics Minister James Buturo responded angrily to Obama and Clinton for speaking out against the Uganda bill.

“Somebody should tell President Obama that the parliament is doing its legislative duty in the interest of the people of Uganda,” Buturo was quoted as saying. “We cannot tell the Senate what to do. We cannot tell Congress what to do. So why do they feel that they can tell us what we should do in the interest of our people?”