Ugandans can't stop talking about the very thing many argue should be taboo: homosexuality. On Oct. 14, Ugandan Parliamentarian David Bahati introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, an effort, he says, to protect Ugandan families from what he terms the "creeping evil" of homosexuality. It's not the first attempt by an African country to outlaw homosexuality, but it may well be the most extreme. Included in the draft text are not only condemnations of same-sex relations, but a new crime that carries the death penalty, and a criminal sentence for having sex while HIV positive. Human rights advocates say it's illegal, not to mention an outrage. Gay activists say they will live in fear even more than they do now. But the vast majority of Ugandans, sadly, may agree with the law; a 2007 poll found that 95 percent of those surveyed strongly opposed legalizing same-sex relations, period.
Why homosexuality has become such an explosive issue in Uganda has to do, in part, with the complex set of social issues wrapped up in it. These include the erosion of the nuclear family, the influx of global culture, and an epidemic of a HIV/AIDS, whose treatment forces individuals and families to break every social taboo. Most importantly, Ugandans are extremely religious, with more than 94 percent saying religion was important in their lives in a 2008 survey by Afrobarometer. And from the country's varied branches of Christianity to its sizable Muslim community, no one preaches tolerance of gay rights.
"This bill is really a summation of an aspiration of Ugandans who believe the traditional family needs to be protected from foreign and internal threats," Bahati, a jovial former accountant who looks much younger than his 35 years, told me. In an interview last week in his small office inside the Ugandan parliamentary complex, Bahati explained that he was not trying to cause controversy by introducing the new bill, though he has received dozens of phone calls from journalists and donors, and even a few threats. "We have our own values as much as we respect the values of others, and we think that homosexuality is not a right."
Homosexuality has always been illegal in Uganda. The Penal Code, drawn heavily from British colonial laws, bans "carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature," with a possible penalty of life imprisonment. Still, the issue has rarely been a high priority of enforcement for police or the government. Arrests are uncommon, and prosecutions almost nonexistent, in large part because the standard of proof requires authorities to catch offenders in the act.
Bahati's bill would make such arrests and prosecutions easier, something critics warn could be used to falsely accuse rivals or enemies, but proponents say is necessary to give the current ban teeth. In addition to outlawing "any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex" with penalties up to life imprisonment, the proposed bill criminalizes attempted homosexuality, the aiding and abetting of homosexuality, and promotion of homosexuality -- each carrying a possible prison sentence of seven years. Failure to disclose an offense is also punishable by a fine and three years in prison. And anyone with knowledge of crimes committed is obligated to report them to the authorities within 24 hours. The legislation also creates a new category of offense, "aggravated homosexuality," which is punishable with death. The latter crime would include having homosexual sex with a minor or someone with a disability or having homosexual sex while HIV positive (the bill makes no distinction about whether offenders must be knowingly infected to qualify.)
If homosexuality were legalized, Bahati says, "Our moral fiber will just be torn down. Society will just be in chaos. You'll see men marrying men, which is contrary to what we believe in."