Uganda’s ambassador to the United States blasted the head of the United Negro College Fund for sending him an “incendiary” letter last week asking him to discuss an anti-homosexuality bill introduced in the Uganda Parliament in his scheduled speech at a Martin Luther King Day event sponsored by the Fund.
Ambassador Perezi K. Kamunanwire responded to that letter by withdrawing as keynote speaker at the King Day event, held Monday morning in Greenbelt, Md. In his own letter, he said United Negro College Fund president and CEO, Michael L. Lomax, “blindsided and startled” him with Lomax’s Jan. 12 letter raising the issue of the anti-homosexuality bill.
In addition, Kamunanwire claims in the letter that the Ugandan Parliament is not planning to reconsider a bill that would impose the death penalty for homosexual acts.
The ambassador, a former college professor who has taught at U.S. universities, said in his letter that he had been invited to speak on education-related issues at the King Day event.
Lomax said in his letter to Kamunanwire that he raised the issue of reports of anti-gay persecution in Uganda after receiving an inquiry from the Washington Blade and others asking why his organization invited a Ugandan official to speak at a King Day commemoration.
“Following a brief telephone conversation with Dr. Lomax in which I expressed concern that changing the topic would distract from our shared commitment to honor Dr. King’s legacy and advance the discussion of education equality, it was clear from his discourteous and insulting tone that I was no longer welcome,” Kamunanwire said in a Jan. 15 letter to William F. Stasior, chairman of the board of directors of the United Negro College Fund.
Kamunanwire sent a copy of his letter to Stasior to the Blade along with an email message expressing concern about the Blade’s story reporting he had withdrawn abruptly as a speaker for the King Day event. The Blade story cited a press release from the United Negro College Fund announcing Kamunanwire’s withdrawal as speaker.
“My staff at the Embassy of the Republic of Uganda, and members of the Ugandan American community, brought your article to my attention,” he said in his email to the Blade. “In an effort to clarify my decision to withdraw as keynote speaker from the UNCF’s 29th Anniversary Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast fundraiser, I am sharing a letter which was sent to the chair of the UNCF board,” he said.
“This will be my only statement on the matter, as I withdrew my name so as not to distract from the importance of the King holiday and education equality,” he said. “It is my hope that the Washington Blade will report this matter fairly.”
Lomax and a spokesperson for the United Negro College Fund didn’t immediately respond to calls from the Blade seeking their response to Kamunanwire’s criticism of Lomax.
In his Jan. 12 letter to Kamunanwire, Lomax said, “We are dismayed at present polices in Uganda (and in many other African nations) criminalizing sexual orientation, and we view with alarm the draconian penalties, including the death penalty, that the Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill would impose if passed.”
Kamunanwire replied in his letter to UNCF board chair Stasior that Lomax’s assumptions that Uganda’s existing laws and policies result in anti-gay persecution were false.
“It is important to note that Uganda does not have such policies,” he said, adding that the bill in question was introduced by a single member of the Uganda Parliament and was never officially debated or passed.
“[A]nd contrary to popular belief, it is not being reconsidered,” Kamunanwire said in his letter. “This has been explained to the U.S. government, Department of State, and several other concerned parties to their satisfaction,” he said.
The New York Times and international human rights activists reported in October that the Uganda Parliament voted to reopen a debate on the anti-homosexuality bill, which was first introduced in 2009. Some of the activists cited a report by Uganda’s Daily Mail newspaper as saying that Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga confirmed that the bill had been sent to several committees for consideration last October and could be brought to a vote.
A spokesperson for the State Department couldn’t be reached for comment early Monday to verify Kamunanwire’s assertion that U.S. officials were satisfied that the anti-homosexuality bill was not being taken up again. President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton expressed concern last year over reports of anti-gay persecution in Uganda following the murder of a prominent Ugandan gay rights activist in the activist’s home.
“As is the case with several members of the British Commonwealth, the outdated anti-sodomy laws in the Ugandan penal code were inherited from our British colonizers,” Kamunanwire said in his letter, in referring to existing law in Uganda.
“Quite similarly, there are dormant anti-sodomy laws on the books in fourteen U.S. states, including Virginia where the UNCF makes its home,” he said.
Kamunanwire was referring to a decision by legislatures in some states to leave their sodomy laws on the books following the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence vs. Texas, which overturned state sodomy laws that criminalized sodomy between consenting adults in private. Legal experts have said the state sodomy laws remaining on the books cannot be enforced under the Supreme Court ruling.