RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Lawmakers in Uganda are considering a bill intended to remove gay people from society. It has strong support in the government and among Uganda's evangelicals, though supporters say homosexuality comes from the Western world. Few in Uganda are willing to speak out against the measure. Those who do are labeled gay.
ARI SHAPIRO, host:
If the bill passes, Uganda will withdraw from international treaties that recognize the rights of gay people, and that's just the beginning. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls the bill a very serious potential violation of human rights.
NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports. And as a warning to parents, this story has mature content.
GWEN THOMPKINS: Here, in the lobby of Uganda's parliament building, there's an installation showing the potentially disastrous effects of climate change. And the sign says: The choices, actions and agreements made now will determine which future becomes reality. Whoever wrote that might well have been describing the political climate of the country.
Ugandans may soon have a choice to make. Homosexuality has been illegal here for more than 100 years. But today, lawmakers are considering legislation that would go further. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009 would impose seven-year jail sentences on consenting adults who engage in gay sex. It would give life sentences to people in same-sex marriages. It was extradite gay Ugandans living abroad and prosecute them.
David Bahati wrote the bill. He says Uganda is at a defining moment.
Mr. DAVID BAHATI (Writer, Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009): You are either anti-homosexual, or you're for homosexuals, because there's no middle point. Anybody who does not believe that homosexuality is a crime is a sympathizer.
THOMPKINS: Bahati is a first-term lawmaker, and this is the first bill he's ever written. He calls it a very wonderful piece of legislation. Bahati says he can't imagine a Uganda in which gay people live freely, because the possibility is too horrible to consider. And he says if Western aid to Uganda hinges on gay rights, then the West can keep its money.
Bahati's bill would impose the death penalty on adults who have gay sex with minors or who communicate HIV via gay sex. And it would jail anyone who fails to report gay activity to police within 24 hours.
Would you turn in your brother if you felt like he was engaging in homosexual activity?
Mr. BAHATI: I would actually arrest him myself and take him to police.
Mr. BAHATI: Yeah.
THOMPKINS: And why?
Mr. BAHATI: Because I know it's not good for society.
THOMPKINS: The bill is popular. Even Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, has linked gay practices to Western influence. Sylvia Tamale couldn't disagree more.
Professor SYLVIA TAMALE (Law, Author): Homosexuality or same-sex attractions have been part and parcel of African communities time immemorial. But the terms homosexuality, gay, lesbian, those are relatively new. And those are terms that many Africans attracted to people of the same sex never use or never identify with.
THOMPKINS: Tamale teaches law at Kampala's top university. She's writing a book on sexual orientations in Africa, and she's one of the few people here who has publicly criticized the bill.
Prof. TAMALE: There's no doubt about the fact that the majority of Ugandans are for the bill. Many of them are already - have already blocked their minds. All they hear is homosexuality and they don't want to know. They don't want to understand. All they see is anal sex, period.
THOMPKINS: If the bill becomes law, a coalition of lawyers and activists will try to kill it in court. Human rights lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuzi thinks that U.S. evangelicals may be behind the bill.
Mr. LADISLAUS RWAKAFUZI (Lawyer): It's difficult to tell from looking at this bill to say whether it is homegrown or foreign. The people who are anti-gay, they are also supported by the Christian right from the U.S. It could be possible that there is some external influence.
THOMPKINS: U.S. evangelicals have long enjoyed a close relationship with top Ugandan leaders. And in March, three of the evangelicals attended a conference here on how to turn gay people straight. California minister Scott Lively was a key speaker.
Stephen Langa heads the group that sponsored the event. He often quotes Lively's teachings when claiming how rich Westerners are paying children here to have gay sex. Langa says a lot of people need to be in jail.
Mr. STEPHEN LANGA (Family Life Network): Providing literature, writing books about it, standing up and saying it is okay - you should be arrested. Even if you are not in the act, you should be arrested. That's what they are saying. And so anybody who tries to promote it should be arrested. So, that's why we need a stronger law.
THOMPKINS: But Scott Lively has called Uganda's bill too harsh. And Pastor Rick Warren, whose ministry extends to Uganda, says he condemns the bill.
And yet, they're not the only Americans active in Uganda. A U.S. evangelical group called The Family reportedly includes U.S. lawmakers who have shown great interest in Ugandan affairs. The bill's proponents are reluctant to talk about whether The Family supports them in any way.
Stephen Langa initially denied that he'd ever heard of The Family. Then he said that wealthy enemies have long associated him with the group. But he refused to talk about how much money his organization has.
How big is your budget?
Mr. LANGA: Well, I won't say that.
THOMPKINS: You're willing to talk about anal sex with me and you can't...
(Soundbite of laughter)
THOMPKINS: ...tell me how much your budget is?
(Soundbite of laughter)
THOMPKINS: Supporters say that the bill is by Ugandans and for Ugandans.
But Val Kalende is Ugandan, and the bill is meant to eradicate her from society. Kalende is a lesbian activist, and she says if there are rich Western promoters of homosexuality in Uganda, she'd like to meet them. As a volunteer, she says she can barely make her rent.
Ms. VAL KALENDE (Activist): They think that our lives are all about having sex, sex, sex, sex. They don't see it as a sexual orientation.
THOMPKINS: Kalende says the bill could roll back HIV/AIDS treatment in the country and push gay Ugandans deeper underground.
But gay Ugandans won't be the only people down there. Erias Lukwago is a first-term lawmaker. He says he doesn't like the bill, but he says can't afford to disagree with it in parliament.
Mr. ERIAS LUKWAGO (Lawmaker): I'm telling you I cannot. I fear even the reaction of the society to be associated with the gays - highly stigmatized, ostracized. Even for this interview alone, it might be perceived that the gay community is paying me.
THOMPKINS: Until the political climate changes in Uganda, Lukwago says he's keeping his mouth shut.
Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Kampala.
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SHAPIRO: This is NPR News.