By Melanie Nathan, August 31, 2014.
This week I am interviewing, publicly, a member of the Ugandan Parliament with a Town Hall dialogue to follow. The Honorable Nabilah Naggayi Sempala has agreed to speak to us in San Francisco at a forum, hosted by The San Francisco Africa leadership Institute (SFALI). After years observing and writing about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda, helping to provide safe-shelter for LGBT people, interacting with a wide array of Ugandans, including activists and parliamentarians, as well as noting the recent TIME interview with the human rights lawyer, who led the defeat of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda’s Constitutional Court, it becomes increasingly clear that the West must set a different course in response to the issue and possible future legislation.
In 2009 Ugandan Member of Parliament, David Bahati, introduced a private member bill, The Anti-Homosexuality Bill (AHA), dubbed “The Kill the Gays Bill,” which was signed into law in December, 2013. The controversial Bill, described by President Obama as “odious,” was assented to by President Yoweri Museveni, on February 24, 2014, without the death penalty, but with harsh prison terms of up to life in prison for so called “aggravated homosexuality.” The introduction of the Bill followed at the heels of a distinctive export to Uganda of a brand of Christianity from the United States of America, by radical right winger Scott Lively and others, who called for the eradication of homosexuals to thwart the so called “homosexual agenda,’ through instilling fear into a Ugandan populace ripe for scapegoating, while citing myth and lies about homosexuality.
After so many years of political play, soon after the Bill passed, Red Pepper magazine, the most widely read newspaper in East Africa published and outed “Uganda’s Top 200 Homos.” The Ugandan community rallied in the tens of thousands, packing a stadium, to present an award and give thanks to the President for signing the popular legislation. This caused many LGBT people to report incidents described by human rights defenders as persecutory, such as banishment from families, evictions, firings, assaults and even threats of mob violence.
The LGBT community in Uganda fought back and the Constitutional Court struck down the Anti-Homosexuality Act, declaring it invalid, citing that the Speaker of the House, Rebecca Kadaga, had failed to establish a quorum when the Bill was voted upon. The Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the Act in relation to the human rights arguments brought by the Petitioners, creating the possibility for its reintroduction into the Ugandan Parliament. And indeed that is precisely what could happen, as politicians signed a petition for its reintroduction shortly thereafter.
Hon. Nabilah Naggayi is one of the parliamentarians who signed this petition to reinstate the legislation. She informed me of her cynicism in doing so, and of her request to introduce an amendment that would include men who sodomized their wives in the punitive measures of a new bill. Hon. Naggayi asserts that she is not one of the homophobic MP’s, but rather one who has been repressed and isolated. She conveys her importance in Parliament, given the patriarchy and her fight for the critical marriage Bill which will help women and children, who are severely marginalized in Uganda. As a member of the opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change, (FDC,) and not the party of Yoweri Museveni, who has led Uganda for almost 30 years, Hon. Sempala has not had an easy time keeping her seat in Parliament. It is an important seat, noting that Uganda’s Parliament has 375 seats of which only 34 represent the FDC party and of the just over 112 women, only 11 are from the FDC.
When I read the interview by TIME with the human rights lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo, who represented the Petitioners in the court case that succeeded in invalidating the AHA, I was struck by the similar sentiment he expressed when comparing it to my conversation with Hon. Naggayi and it served to endorse the notion that we must be willing to dialogue for a better understanding.
Both Opiyo and Hon. Naggayi express that in their opinion it may not be helpful to continue to isolate the LGBTI issue as an issue separated from the confluence of human rights issues in the Ugandan context. It seems that this sentiment may unlock revised responses by us in the West:
TIME TO ODIYO:-
What role does the American government play in all of this? Can the American government in any way step in, interject?
The people who advocated for the AHA were motivated by, financed by, American evangelicals. It’s an American group driving this debate at home. This debate was not a popular debate. It was not an issue in Uganda because people in Uganda are struggling about food, employment, medical care, access to medical services, education—these are the things that occupy the people in my village, in my town. Not homosexuality—that was a non-issue. This issue was put in the national debate because of the influence of the American evangelical movement. The Americans brought this to our country they’ve got to sort themselves out back home, here, to ensure that the radical American preachers don’t spread hatred across the world.
Secondly, I think that the American government must understand that their response to this issue in Uganda at some point escalated this debate and shifted the narrative of this debate from being a human rights issue to a new colonial attempt by Americans to impose their values on Ugandans. The politicians are very quick to pounce on that. The debate shifted to America versus Uganda, not about Ugandan people who face discrimination every day. The American government can redefine this narrative by given(ing) prominence to local leaders. This is a Ugandan problem. Ugandans must find the solution to it.
When do you think gays, lesbians, transgendered people will be completely safe in Uganda? How long do you think that will take?
That is difficult to tell, precisely because the sense of homophobia, the sense of discrimination is so deeply entrenched. It’s going to be a long journey that will require patience; that will require deliberate actions on the part of both sides of the debate. But ultimately it’s going to take the commitment of the politicians and the leaders to reshape the narrative and the debate in our country. There has to be an honest debate within the faith community on this matter. In much the same way that they’re having an honest debate about the rights of women—that debate must come out. As long as the leaders are playing by the popular sentiment and not enforcing the values and obligations that signed up to do in their various human rights instruments this matter will still be delayed. It’s a long, long way to go. I can’t put a number to it but I think that it’s going to be a long walk and a difficult one at that.
It is so important, sooner than later, to engage in dialogue with Ugandans on all sides of this issue, for a better understanding of the impact of our global responses. I am so grateful that Hon. Naggayi, a politician who has made some compromises we may consider wrong, is willing to talk and answer our questions for all to hear. I truly hope that the LGBT community and the human rights community of San Francisco will see the critical importance in this discussion. We have an opportunity to listen and learn.
It is time to extend the conversation beyond the predictable handful of people who have dominated the discussion until now. It is my hope at SFALI that in the near future we will hear from an array of African people, who hopefully can travel to the U.S. to speak to and engage interested audiences, to include government, politicians, lawyers, academics, journalists, human rights defenders and activists.
READ TIME ARTICLE INTERVIEW HERE