These are challenging times for LGBT people and their allies in Uganda. Fanned by anti-gay rhetoric from American evangelicals working in the country, Ugandan politicians are trying to resume debate on the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill first introduced in 2009, just as Republican presidential candidates are bringing anti-gay rhetoric to the primary campaign.
Although homosexual acts by both men and women are already illegal in Uganda and punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment, this bill seeks to step up enforcement and increase penalties against gays and lesbians and their straight allies. “Repeat offenders” would be subject to the death penalty. Individuals and companies promoting LGBT rights would be penalized. Ugandan citizens would be required to report any homosexual activity within 24 hours or face a maximum penalty of three years imprisonment. Ugandan citizens living abroad would be subject to extradition for having same-sex relations outside of the country. Similar sanctions would apply to HIV-positive people.
One of the leaders in the fight against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is Rev. Mark Kiyimba, minister in exile of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Kiyimba, a straight ally, has been forced to leave Uganda because of threats against his life. He has received numerous death threats and was brought in for police questioning for “recruiting homosexuals at his church.” The minister is currently touring the United States speaking out against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and the American evangelical pastors who support it. He has left his wife and child behind in Uganda, but plans to return to them soon.
As part of his tour, Kiyimba will be speaking at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Silver Spring Tuesday, Jan. 17 at 7:30 p.m. Senior minister Rev. Elizabeth Lerner Maclay is proud to host.
“Rev. Mark Kiyimba is one of the most courageous, compassionate and visionary religious leaders in the world today,” Maclay says. “The peril he and his congregation are facing remind us why equal rights and protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people are essential the world over — including here in Maryland. We’re sure a lot of people will want to hear about the remarkable work he and his congregation are doing in the face of incredible danger.”
Kiyimba and Maclay are quick to point out that the Ugandan bill has strong links to American politics and the effort to export the American culture wars to Africa, where it is finding fertile soil, especially in conservative sub-Saharan countries. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill was introduced in October 2009 on the heels of a two-day conference led by American pastors Scott Lively, Don Schmierer and Caleb Lee Brundidge who asserted that homosexuality is a direct threat to the cohesion of African families. Lively, a former state director for Focus on the Family, said the conference, which was attended by thousands, including prominent Ugandan politicians, was like “a nuclear bomb against the gay agenda in Uganda.”
In response to this, Kiyimba said there is a moral obligation for his church to oppose the anti-gay bill.
“Because the bill was started by evangelicals,” he says during a Blade interview this week, “we thought it necessary for our church to counter those negative attitudes. We must do everything we can to stop this bill.” He organized an LGBT conference in Kampala that was attended by about 200 activists and his church hosted an event called “Standing on the Side of Love: Reimaging Valentine’s Day” last February. Kiyimba also founded the New Life Children’s Home and the New Life Primary School, an orphanage and school for children who have lost parents to AIDS or who themselves are HIV positive.
Kiyimba, who has a strong record as an advocate for both women’s rights and gay rights, feels it is important for progressive evangelicals to stand against the hate-filled rhetoric of some American right-wing pastors.
“It was started by Focus on the Family,” he says. “They started spreading hate among the people here. They are the ones who started it by coming to Uganda and holding seminars and workshops and telling people that homosexuality cannot be healed and telling people that there is a homosexual agenda to destroy the family and that the government needs to do something — that governments all over the world need to take a strong stand against homosexuality.”
Kiyimba also noted that there are links between the debate on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda and the Republican primaries. “Politicians such as Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum are linked to the American evangelical pastors who went to Uganda. There is no difference. They use the same language to discuss homosexuality and the traditional family, but in Uganda they are calling to kill the gay people.”
The timing of Kiyimba’s talk in Silver Spring is noteworthy because it comes right before the one-year anniversary of the murder of Ugandan activist David Kato. Since the bill was introduced, Ugandan media have issued calls for harsher punishments for “immoral” behavior. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have reported an increase in detention and torture of those suspected of having homosexual relations, and one newspaper published a list of Uganda’s 100 “top” gays and lesbians, along with their photos and addresses, and the command “hang them.” Many on the list have been threatened, beaten and ostracized. One of them, David Kato, Uganda’s most prominent gay activist, was found bludgeoned to death last January. Police investigating the crime have called it a robbery.
Asked why American gays and lesbians and their allies should be concerned about the fight in Uganda, Kiyimba says, “People should join us and understand that we are a global village now. We are all one. If I am hurt, at the end of the day, you are also hurt. We want our friends in the West to take some responsibility to speak to the government here and in Uganda so that they can have an open mind on homosexuality. It is not a vice that people choose. We need to have an international voice to speak for those voiceless people in Uganda,”
Maclay shares two more reasons why locals should attend Kiyimba’s talk. First, she notes, “We need to pay attention — stay informed, talk to our legislators, write letters to the editor, contribute funds. This is an opportunity for people in the area to learn first-hand about the situation in Uganda. We are dealing with the same issues here, issues of respect and safety, in very different, but still very significant ways.”
But more importantly, she adds, our attention to the issue could help save Kiyimba’s life. “He is going back to Uganda at the end of the month. He can be kept safe by our awareness and concern. American input has a big impact on Ugandan society. It can be an impact that spreads hatred and intolerance or we can turn it around and reach out with compassion and respect. It is my absolute belief we can turn it around. It is my great hope that our care for him and his congregation and the children they care for will keep him safe.”