Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009

"You need to understand what really goes on in 'their' bedrooms. Let me show you," Pastor Martin Ssempa announced as he turned on a projector and showed a picture he "had found on the internet" of two men engaged in mutual masturbation.

This occurred at a meeting I recently attended that the Uganda Human Rights Commission hosted to understand people's views regarding the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009. (The Commission is an independent government body tasked with informing parliament about the human rights implications of proposed laws.) For those of you who don’t know, Member of Parliament ("MP") David Bahati has proposed this bill to punish many acts and omissions related to homosexuality, including performing homosexual acts, promoting homosexuality, and failing to report homosexuality. Probably even saying the word "homosexual" without a menacing tone will be grounds for punishment under this law, if enacted. Specifically, any homosexual act is punishable by life imprisonment, not “up to” life imprisonment; the punishment is simply "life imprisonment." Promoting homosexuality, which could mean anything, can land you in jail for a minimum of 5 years while not reporting that someone else is gay carries a penalty of 3 years imprisonment. The bill also levies hefty fines on those who promote or fail to report homosexuality ($50,000 USD for promoting, up to $6,000 USD for failing to report).

Uganda, interestingly, is a country where people of the same sex often walk down the street holding hands, where people of the same sex grab and rub each others' hands mid-conversation to add a physical dimension to the discussion. These are normal Ugandan idiosyncrasies, and nobody thinks of them as sexual. But that might change. If this law passes, people might start reporting to the police that they saw one man rubbing another's hand in the middle of a conversation. Let the witch hunt begin...

From what I can gather, this bill is pure politics. Most Ugandans are scared of homosexuality; they think it is weird and gross and a sin and must (and somehow can) be stopped. Most Ugandans also wholeheartedly believe that “the homosexuals” are recruiting straight people to perform homosexual acts. You hear countless stories here of people being offered money to engage in gay sex. The promoters of the bill claim to have verifiable statistics; they even brought a man to the meeting who had been raped by his male school teacher when he was a kid but has now been “cured” and is straight. He described how he engaged in these gay acts with his headmaster and only later learned that gay acts were wrong and became straight. No, he wasn’t gay; he was raped by a sick pedophile, but to this man, and to Pastor Martin Ssempa who brought this man to speak, the crime was not pedophilia; it was homosexuality.

The one nice thing about the "cured" man’s speech was that he was against the automatic life sentence and the death penalty in the bill (the punishment is death for having gay sex with someone under the age of 14, engaging in gay sex with your child, giving someone HIV during gay sex, having gay sex with someone who has a disability, or being a repeat offender) because then people like him would have ended up in jail without the chance at reform. Another “former homosexual” echoed those comments, angry that the bill did not contain a provision encouraging reformation of gays. “You don’t heal someone by harming them,” he said. "For example, you are not curing someone’s headache by smashing his head with a hammer. Loving, caring, and respecting individual rights is the only way to cure people.” Better than nothing, I guess.

When challenged at the meeting about the so-called “mass recruitment” of homosexuals, Pastor Martin Ssempa, the godfather of this bill, simply restated this odd idea without providing any of the objective statistics he claimed to have and moved on to his graphic pictures. He went into his tirade about what “goes on in ‘their’ bedrooms,” showing us four different images that he found on the internet of two men engaged in sexual acts: one of mutual masturbation (as I mentioned earlier), one of anal licking (“anal licking, anal licking, anal licking” – he seemed to really like that phrase), one of a man putting a plastic object in another’s butt (“the more pain, the more pleasure for them”), and one of fisting. His best line was, “where do we draw the line, when the fist is halfway inside the other man’s anus or all the way in?” I am not making this up.

Many other MPs and community leaders also spoke out against homosexuality and in favor of the bill. Other than Ssempa's, MP Isha Otto Amiza's comments stand out most in my mind. MP Amiza began his angry rant by noting that he would “try to control the level of emotions in me.” He certainly doesn’t get an A for effort. He “was surprised to hear Obama, an American president, with African blood, to say he was opposed to the bill.” He then pounded his fist on the table and explained to the crowd, “homosexuality is inhuman, unnatural, devilic, goes against the principles of humanity and nature. It is devilic. It should be fought relentlessly by god-fearing persons, by Christians. I would go an extra mile and ask the Muslims in Uganda to impose a Sharia on homosexuality.” I’m not sure he used the term “sharia” exactly right. Also, is "devilic" a word?

There were some bright spots, some courageous men and women who stood up and spoke out against the bill. Some maintained it was a human rights issue; others said homosexuality was a vice or disgusted them but imprisoning people for being gay (or performing gay acts) and for not reporting on people they “suspect” are gay is a harsh, cruel, and pointless law.

A university professor challenged Ssempa's use of homosexual internet pornography, noting without emotion that Ssempa easily could have found the exact same pictures where the actors were a heterosexual couple. The most eloquent of that group, however, was a retired army major. He simply said, “what is this bill about? Anal sex? If so, well heterosexual couples have a lot of anal sex too; why aren’t we banning them from doing it? Is it about procreation, about the continuation of the African community, the African family, as many of you have claimed? Well, then we must prohibit people from becoming priests and nuns because they too are not procreating, they are not continuing the African family.” I liked this guy. He was smart.

When it was Bahati’s turn to speak (the sponsor of the bill and the man whose name here is more associated with the bill than anyone else), the room fell silent. But Bahati just laughed. He kind of giggled about the bill and about the consequences. He seemed to think it was all a joke. He had no passion about the bill, the way Ssempa and Amiza did. He simply seemed to love the limelight. This is why I believe, as Bob Dylan would say, that Bahati is only a pawn in Ssempa and the religious right’s game. Elections are in early 2011. Bahati is getting an unbelievable amount of publicity out of this bill, which is resonating with the average Ugandan. Most Ugandans have no idea what the bill says; they just think it is against homosexuality, and so they are in favor of the bill. Politically, Bahati is benefitting immensely, but he doesn’t seem to have any real, gut-felt conviction about it, the way others did. I really think for him it is politics; for the others, it is religion and hate.

Voice of America, the U.S. government's official media service, speculated that the religious right in America are the real drafters of this bill. Yesterday, the New York Times confirmed it. In Uganda, however, it is Pastor Martin Ssempa, the man I keep coming back to and the man who set up a “task force to respond to the bully pulpit of Gordon Brown and Obama,” who is the real force behind the bill. He even defended the bill and compared it to American laws in a letter to Obama and Brown that he handed out at the meeting (on his website, Ssempa posted the letter he sent to Rick Warren, which is similar, but not identical to the one he addressed to Obama).

After displaying his pornographic pictures, Ssempa told the crowd at the meeting that although people describe the separation of church and state as a hallmark of modern government, it is not modern; it is Western. And Africa is not the West; in Africa, “you cannot separate God from the law” because “for the African, homosexuality is unacceptable. It violates all four types of laws.” The Law of Nature (“it is only natural for a man and woman to be together”), the Law of Culture and Ancestors (“this did not exist in the past in Uganda”), the Law of Our Faith – Muslim or Christian (Avner comment: umm...those also didn’t exist in the past in Uganda), and the Law of the Land (“the penal code"). “You cannot say all sins are equal. You can sin but possibly only break some of the 4 types of laws, not all 4. Homosexuality violates all 4. Get educated.” Ssempa then said that he had heard that aid money from the West would dry up if the bill passes. But he didn’t care: “We would rather die in dignity and honor” than fail to pass this bill. “Africa,” you see, “is leading the way from darkness into renaissance.”

A few moments later, the chairman took the microphone and said that “the temperature in the room was getting too high,” and so the meeting would end 3 hours early. It’s a shame because I would have enjoyed hearing some more from Ssempa and his clan. I was enjoying his crusade away from the “darkness” of “anal licking” and “fisting” and “the more pain the more pleasure” and into the “renaissance” of mandatory reporting, bans on free speech and free association, and life imprisonment for consensual sexual acts.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Avner, thanks a lot for posting this. There's a video that focuses on this very issue, and has a lot of choice footage of Ssemba railing against homosexuality. I agree that a lot of it is about hate and I think also power for him. I think the Evangelicals who are largely responsible came to Kampala in the spring of 2009, so pretty much after Robbie and I left things started to heat up. It's a sad, ridiculous movement that seems unlikely to change momentum in the near future.