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Uganda activists stand up to hate - Two human rights gatherings in Kampala
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Uganda activists stand up to hate - Two human rights gatherings in Kampala

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

In spite of a proposed law that would sentence them to death, Uganda's LGBT community struck back at homophobia at a pair of conferences held this month.

At a human rights forum held February 19 in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, Makau Mutua - chair of the Human Rights Commission in neighboring Kenya - challenged Ugandan legislators over their proposed Anti-Homosexual Bill.

The forum, entitled "Human Rights and Sexual Orientation," was organized by students and staff from Kampala University in Uganda's capital. It was sponsored by the Ford Foundation.

The invitation-only audience of 80 was made up of students, academics, NGO officials, and politicians.

Uganda parliament member Otto Odonga told the gathering that human rights are secondary to public order.

"Human rights are not sacrosanct," Odonga said. "Private parts do not belong in the anus. We will not accept this kind of deviant behavior in our society."

Mutua immediately challenged him.

"I am baffled by the kind of hatred you spew against Gay people," Mutua said, "including your desire to be a hangman. Would you apply to be a hangman if the person to be hanged were your son?"

When Odonga nodded yes, Mutua said, "There is something deeply wrong with you."

Mutua, a Harvard-educated lawyer, went on to compare Odonga's arguments against Gay rights to those made by racists in the American South.

"The kind of speech you made against Gay people was the kind of speech that white segregationists were making all over America," he said. "Those arguments are classic. They have been reproduced in every era by every segment of society. You didn't invent them."

"It's important that we all try to expose ourselves to knowledge, to keep on growing," Mutua added. "People who express extremist views are, in my view, always the ones who have read the least."

Another Ugandan politico, MP Christopher Kibanzanga, angrily spoke out against Bisexuals.

"Who are Bisexuals?" he exclaimed. "What do they do? Has it just been imported into Africa?"

Rubaramira Ruranga, director of NGENT, a local HIV/AIDS organization, disputed the idea that homosexuality and Bisexuality are somehow un-African.

"When I was young," he told the gathering, "I saw men having sex with men in my small village, out in the bush, as we went hunting."

"Anal sex is not only practiced by homosexuals but also by heterosexuals," he added.

Solome Nakawesi-Kimbugwe, director of the feminist organization Akina Mama wa Africa Foundation, said that Uganda - one of the world's poorest countries - should prioritize economic issues.

"Let's put our priorities where our problems are," she said. "As Ugandans, what we want are laws that are relevant. Homosexuality is not a problem for us."

At another conference on Valentine's Day, more than 100 LGBT Ugandans packed a hotel conference room in Kampala to talk about the anti-Gay legislation that threatens them.

The conference, titled "Standing on the Side of Love: Re-imagining Valentine's Day," was organized under tight security because organizers feared it might be infiltrated and disrupted by anti-Gay thugs or government agents.

The time and location were announced only at the last minute, and only by word of mouth.

Since Gays in Uganda are often accused of trying to seduce minors, organizers also tried to keep out anyone under the age of 18. Most of the 100 people in attendance were Gay men in their 20s, though there were also about 20 young women.

Everyone who came was offered a red T-shirt with a rainbow heart on the front, and rainbow flags were displayed prominently around the room. Attendance was free.

The event was sponsored by the Austria Foundation, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Uganda, and Spectrum Uganda, a local LGBT organization.

Many of the speakers at the one-day event were pastors, including an Anglican bishop from Uganda, and two Unitarian ministers from the United States.

The biggest cheer of the afternoon came when Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, a Unitarian preacher from Oklahoma, said, "You can be a good person and be a Gay or Lesbian person. Please know you will reach the promised land. God bless Uganda!"

Activists encouraged the group to become politically active.

"Let's resist bad laws being propagated," Spectrum Uganda President Sam Ganaafa told the crowd. "If it passes, our lives will never be the same again. I encourage you all to talk, raise issues and be courageous."

A petition was passed around the room for people to sign.

"There were many people I didn't know here," said Lesbian Warry Ssenfuka, "many people I've never seen. It takes time to collect all these people together like this, and it encourages unity."

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picture: Makau Mutua
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