Proposed Uganda Law: If You See A Homosexual, Call The Police

The Ugandan Parliament is considering a bill that would increase penalties for homosexuality, in some cases making it punishable by death. Host Michel Martin talks to NPR's East Africa Correspondent Gwen Thompkins about reaction to the anti-gay bill, what its passage could mean for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in Uganda and the contested role a group of American Evangelical pastors have played in drumming up support for the bill

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, health care, immigration and of course we have to talk about Tiger Woods - the Barbershop guys are coming up later in the program. But first Faith Matters. We want to talk more about that proposed legislation in Uganda that seeks to stigmatize homosexuality through the legal system. As we have previously reported, homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda but in October of this year, a Ugandan lawmaker named David Bahati proposed legislation that would increase penalties for homosexual conduct, including a death sentence for gays who have sex with a minor.

It would also impose harsh penalties on a much broader range of activities including failing to report gay people to police. Previously we heard on this program from a gay rights activist in Uganda about what he thinks will happen if this legislation passes. In a few minutes we will hear from an American Christian evangelical leader who many people believe played a role in advancing the legislation. We will hear what he has to say about that.

But now we hear more about the bill from NPR's East Africa correspondent Gwen Thompkins. She is in Uganda. She interviewed David Bahati who is the lead sponsor. And he told Gwen, he hopes this bill becomes a model for other countries.

Mr. DAVID BAHATI (Member of Parliament, Uganda): Once this bill passes through, you're going to see country by country learning from this, continent by continent. It's a crucial time and a crucial bill not only in Uganda but in the world.

MARTIN: More now from Gwen Thompkins who is in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Hello, Gwen.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Hi, Michel, how are you?

MARTIN: I'm very well. This bill sounds so shocking to American ears and I would like to ask what chance does it stand of becoming law?

THOMPKINS: Well, you know, I spoke with David Bahati, the lawmaker who wrote the bill, a few hours ago, and he said he expected the bill to be debated in February. People who support the bill, like Bahati, for instance, and the nation's ethics and integrity minister, they say that the nation is behind them, the government is behind them and so they say they are very confident that the bill is going to pass. But as opponents of the bill have become more vocal, and that means like some legal minds here in Uganda, as well as, you know, the international community, Bahati and his allies are stressing now more than ever that the bill is a draft and it's subject to change.

MARTIN: Why is this happening now? We've reported that homosexuality has been illegal in Uganda since the colonial era as it is in many other countries in Africa, but why does he feel this need to introduce this kind of legislation at this time?

THOMPKINS: That's a very good question, Michel. But, you know, it seems as if the bill has been a long time coming. In terms of the international media, we saw it as a finished product, the bill itself, and it was so surprising that everyone thought oh, this is something new and different. But the truth of the matter is that Uganda's Ethics and Integrity Minister, a fellow called Nsaba Buturo, has been promising an anti-homosexuality bill to the public for months, and evangelical ministers in Uganda have become more and more vocal about homosexuality.

But I think that the turning point really came in 2007, because that's when, you know, a gay activist group that's called Sexual Minorities Uganda, and a lesbian activist group called Freedom and Roam Uganda, both held campaigns introducing themselves and the issues of homosexuality, you know, to Ugandans. What they did was, they fanned out across the country, and they left literature in different places, you know, in bars and, you know, at different establishments, you know what I mean, that gave their contact information and talked about some issues about lesbianism. Half of the reaction they say was, you know, fairly positive. People calling them and saying, you know, I believe I might be lesbian, but I am trapped in the rural areas. But the other half of their response was extraordinarily negative you see? And so, you know, this effort on the part of gay people in Uganda to sensitize other Ugandans to their sexual orientation backfired in a way in that it seemed to, you know, to frighten and anger many Ugandans, who believe that by saying hello, I exist, they believe that that message was a promotion of, you know, gay life.

MARTIN: And we will speak in a few minutes with Scott Lively. He is one of the three American evangelical leaders who visited Uganda in March of this year, and spoke with some members of the Ugandan parliament about the legislation. We will be speaking with him in a minute, just to get his perception of what his role in this whole situation was and is.

But I would like to get your sense of what you think the role of these American Christian ministers was in promoting or advancing this legislation? What are you hearing?

THOMPKINS: Scott Lively's philosophies have been deeply internalized here. Among those who are proponents of the law, and for people in who are listening to these public dialogues on homosexuality and they are hearing Scott Lively's words being reiterated by, you know, Ugandan evangelicals and others, who are proponents of the bill, then they believe it to be gospel. They believe it to be scientific fact, what they are listening to.

MARTIN: Finally, I wanted to ask: Uganda has been noted for its aggressive efforts to address HIV/AIDS. I mean that the president, the health ministers, also have got a lot of international attention for their aggressive approach to confronting AIDS unlike some other African leaders, and I wonder whether - and I think of course it has to be said that HIV/AIDS affects both heterosexuals and homosexuals in Uganda as it now does around the world. But is there a concern that this legislation will somehow interfere with ongoing efforts to fight the epidemic? Is that a concern of health professionals? Are they concerned about this?

THOMPKINS: That is a huge concern Michel. It is a huge concern, because this bill criminalizes anyone, who does not report a gay person within 24 hours. This is going to dissuade anyone who works in the health care profession in Uganda from wanting to help anyone who is gay. And it is also going to dissuade gay people from seeking treatment, seeking help, seeking testing, because they know that ultimately you walk down that path and you're going to end up outing yourself, and the next thing you know, that could land you in jail.

MARTIN: NPR's Gwen Thompkins is in Kampala, Uganda reporting on this story. We thank you so much for joining us.

THOMPKINS: Thank you, Michel.

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