February 24, 2011
KAMPALA, Uganda — In this staunchly anti-homosexual country, Allen Mutebi has gotten used to moving – five times within the last two years to be exact.
“They suspect. They talk. Threats are made. I move on,” shrugs Mutebi (not his real name).
But following the killing of prominent gay rights activist David Kato two weeks ago, Mutebi plans to make one final move – out of Uganda.
“What happened to Kato will happen to more and more people,” he predicts.
The motive behind Kato’s murder is still under investigation, with police officials saying it did not relate to Kato’s sexuality, and gay and lesbian activists suspecting it did.
Either way, Kato’s death has put the national spotlight squarely on the subject of homosexuality.
In contrast, however, to some high-profile murders of sexual minorities elsewhere – Matthew Shepard in the US, for instance – which became watersheds for greater tolerance, Kato’s death has reinforced anti-homosexual attitudes here.
The Sunday after Kato’s slaying, a prominent pastor, Martin Ssempa, told his congregation of mostly university students that Kato had tricked his “victims” into getting drunk before molesting them and fleeing into the night.
Ssempa has been a leading voice against gays and lesbians here, framing homosexuality as a western import designed to corrupt African culture, and going so far as to show gay pornography in his church. (The Denver-based Rev. Rick Warren had once found common cause with Ssempa but has since distanced himself from the firebrand.)
But in the wake of Kato’s death, it’s no longer just the radicals who are thundering against homosexuality.
An Anglican priest at Kato’s funeral shocked hundreds in attendance when he opined, “The world has gone crazy … you cannot start admiring a fellow man.”
Mutebi, who was recently forced to resign from his job at a dental clinic because of his homosexuality, says former friends have threatened to have him killed following Kato’s slaying.
And Kato’s former colleague at the rights group, Freedom and Roam Uganda, Kasha Jacqueline, says she has switched off her phone amid an uptick in death threats. “We’ve never been safe but the threats are growing,” she said.
But, she said, outlets that could typically be counted on to protect the rights of minorities have been profoundly absent amid the rising homophobia.
The Uganda Human Rights Commission issued a quarter-page letter urging the police to quickly investigate the matter but beyond that has found no compelling reason to change its approach according to the changing circumstances. “We don’t want to single out a group,” said commission chief Med S. K. Kaggwa. “When you start identifying with one group, you stop doing your job.”
The mass media, too, have done little to curb the spread of homophobia. The leading anti-establishment daily, the Monitor, relegated news of Kato’s slaying to a sliver at the bottom of Page 1. Uganda’s top tabloid, the Red Pepper, referred to Kato as a “sodomy champ,” and last Thursday supplemented news of him with that of a lesbian “recruiter,” though the paper failed to explain what was mean by recruiting.
Parliamentarian David Bahati, who is sponsoring an anti-homosexual bill that if passed in present form would make it a crime for a landlord to offer housing to a homosexual and for parent not to report a homosexual child to the authorities, is encouraged by the national unity on display.
“Kato’s murder is bringing the national debate back to where it belongs,” he said. “Kato worked hard to destroy the lives of our children and families.”
Kato’s enemies accuse the activist of using alcohol and money to obtain sex. His defenders say the claims are unfounded and being used to portray all homosexuals as part of an evil plot.
Bahati says Uganda must not waver in the face of international condemnation and scoffs at western notions of advancement in gay rights.
“The Western world has been blackmailed by money and the media to support homosexuality,” he said. “Uganda is providing global leadership to get back on course.”
His anti-homosexual bill appeared to stall last year amid international pressure and scrutiny by the Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs.
But with several revisions — including a greater emphasis on rehabilitation for the “sinner” – Bahati expects the bill to pass with flying colors, shortly after presidential elections later this month. Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, and in more than 30 other African countries.
Bahati brushes off criticism of his bill by pointing out that “God is the author. I am just an instrument.”
The crisis in Uganda as some see it is not anti-homosexual sentiment per se – firmly rooted as it is in this highly religious society – but in an unwillingness among spiritual and political leaders to urge their followers to draw a distinction between opposing homosexuality and pursuing violence in the name of that opposition.
Kato had his eye dislodged from its socket and his arm broken and underwent numerous threats because of his sexuality.
Last year, a weekly tabloid, Rolling Stone (no affiliation with the American music magazine), published the names and photos of alleged homosexuals, next to a banner that read “hang them,” which led to the alleged, including Kato, being singled out and threatened.
Still, few if any prominent leaders spoke out against the publication, though a Ugandan court did rule that Rolling Stone’s actions threatened the safety of gays and lesbians and ordered the magazine to
pay $650 in damages.
The office of President Yoweri Museveni, perhaps worried about losing votes, has been largely silent amid these developments. It issued no statements regarding Kato’s death, even as international leaders, ranging from President Barack Obama and the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, did.
One spiritual institution in Uganda that has called for equal rights to gays and lesbians is the Unitarian Universalist Church. The church’s leader, Rev.Mark Kiyimba, has holding a conference next week to promote greater understanding of the gay community. He opposes street demonstrations and other confrontational forms of activism, which he says will just politicize the issue and incite backlash against homosexuals, favoring what he calls “community engagement” to encourage tolerance.
Pastor Moses Solomon Male, who heads the National Coalition Against Homosexuality an Sexual Abuse in Uganda (NCAHSAU) and showed a stand of “solidarity” with Rolling Stone for outing “active homosexuals” in Uganda during its court case in November, says he now is concerned that the anti-homosexual cause
is failing to make an important distinction.
“Wanting to make a contribution [toward ending homosexuality in Uganda] is one
thing; how to do it is another,” he said.
Male (pronounced mal-eh) says he favors a strong emphasis on treatment to convert homosexuals to a heterosexual lifestyle and has proposed extensive changes to the anti-homosexuality to reflect that desire. He says he would also urge Ugandans “to be calm and not beat them,” but unfortunately, he said, he does not have enough resources at the moment to convey that message. ~ IG
* A shortened version of this piece ran with AOL News on February 12, 2011, and while I don’t normally post my reportage on BreakLines, the omitted parts included here may be of interest to some of you.