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Uganda is a critical U.S. ally in the East and Central Africa. But human rights advocates have long criticized its government and media outlets for fostering a hostile — and sometimes deadly — environment for gay Ugandans. Kojo talks to a leading LGBT activist about gay rights and U.S. relations in Africa.
- Julius Kaggwa Ugandan LGBTI and civil society activist; Director of Support Initiative for People With Atypical Sex Development in Uganda
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the head of one of the largest and most influential human rights organizations in the world joins us in studio. We'll talk with Amnesty International U.S.A.'s Director Suzanne Nossel.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, why gay rights could drive a wedge between the United States and one of its most critical allies in East and Central Africa. Uganda is on the cusp of passing legislation that could spell out life prison sentences for hundreds of thousands of LGBTI citizens.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a debate so heated that at one point versions of the proposal called for the death penalty as punishment for some homosexual acts. Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda. Foreign pressure is mounting on Uganda's president to refuse to sign the bill, but the response so far from the United States has been relatively muted.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd the issue is awkwardly threatening a relationship in which the United States has been relying on Uganda as a partner for blunting the rise of militant groups in places like Somalia and the relationship in which the international community has been counting on Uganda as a key player in the fight against AIDS.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore what this debate looks like inside Uganda and how it's shaping politics outside of the country is Julius Kaggwa. He is a Ugandan LGBTI rights activist. He's the director of Support Initiative for People with Atypical Sex Development in Uganda.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJulius Kaggwa, thank you for joining us.
MR. JULIUS KAGGWAYou're welcome.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join this conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Julius Kaggwa, this proposal is known internationally as the 'kill the gays bill' because a previous version of it called for imposing the death penalty as punishment for certain homosexual acts.
NNAMDIBut before we get into the legislative debate here, perhaps we should talk about the culture in Uganda that has made this kind of legislation possible. You have testified here in Washington before that what you describe as gender variance has led to everything from you being fired from jobs to your home being set on fire, to your dentist asking if there were witches in your family.
NNAMDIHow would you describe the culture that these lawmakers are reflecting when they set out to write bills that target sexual minorities and members of the LGBTI communities? How much of this is tradition? How much of it is religion? How much of it is just plain bias?
KAGGWAI think it's a combination of all the three that you mentioned. First of all, the Ugandan society is a very conservative society and by conservative, I mean, specifically about sexual issues. Sex is taboo. It's not something that we talk about openly and so anything that is either deviant or exploratory or even just unconventional raises eyebrows.
KAGGWAAnd so when we talk about same-sex love, it touches on what we would call traditional values where we believe a man should marry a woman or several women, but then whatever happens within that kind of engagement is something that is restricted to the bedroom. It is not spoken about in broad daylight.
KAGGWASo when we come out to talk about the right for someone to love whoever they love, it becomes a contentious issue. Then we have religious influence. We're a very Christian country, if you know what I mean. We have -- we're very evangelical. We're called a Christian country.
KAGGWAAnd so we have these deep-set cultures, which are Christian where you have matrimony and all of these sacraments unseen and the whole issue around morality playing into our daily lives.
KAGGWAAnd then you just have plain, what I would call, just political opportunism, you know, where we have votes, what people believe in versus what is popular and politicians wanting, you know, to have votes and all of that. So it is really an intersection of all of the things that you have mentioned that come into play.
NNAMDIIt's important to know that under current law in Uganda, homosexuality is already illegal, correct?
NNAMDIWhere's the impetus to push this current bill, however, coming from? You mentioned political opportunism but it's also been reported that Christian leaders in Uganda have been pressuring the speaker of parliament to pass this bill as a Christmas gift and...
NNAMDI...I have read in the past where some of those Christian leaders are not necessarily Ugandan.
KAGGWAAbsolutely, the penal code that was in place criminalized homosexuality, but it was not very specific. It had 'acts against the order of nature' and that could mean anything. What this bill, the proponents of this bill, are suggesting is that that penal code is not tough enough. They need -- they are seeking to tighten the punishment for same-sex love.
KAGGWABut where all of this is coming from, I think, is based in religious extremism. It all started with a notion that there was a gay agenda that was coming from the West. That is where this whole thing started, way back in 2009. And we have been fighting.
KAGGWAYou know, I am here specifically to participate in the human rights summit organized by Human Rights First and part of what I'm here to talk about is to explore farther what kind of help, what kind of voices are we looking for from the United States and from partners outside Uganda, including faith leaders.
KAGGWAAnd Human Rights First and us on the ground, they have been, you know, looking at issues around impunity, impunity around violence, on violent acts towards LGBTI in villages, which is what this bill is actually proposing. We're talking about the death penalty.
KAGGWAWe're talking about other forms of violence, but what is actually happening on the ground is hatred that is being incited by using religious platforms on pulpits by projecting gay love or same-sex love or gender variance as, first of all, sinful, as a vehicle of immorality to corrupt and destroy the young generation or the children of Uganda and also equating same-sex love with sodomy, which is not the case.
KAGGWASo this is the kind of thing that we're dealing with on the ground. A lot of hatred is being passed to the, you know, the lay person, telling them this is an outcry. Gay people are after your children and do whatever it takes. Whatever it takes will include banning people, killing people, doing whatever, you know, whatever you have to do.
NNAMDIThis suggests to me that you're not only talking about legislation, that you're fighting against. Here, you seem to be operating in a culture in which the very safety of individuals who happen to be members of the LGBTI community is threatened. How safe or unsafe is day-to-day life in Uganda for someone such as yourself?
KAGGWAAbsolutely. Right now, as I speak, it is nothing to be desired. It's nothing to be desired. What this bill is going to aggravate is the fact that someone cannot be safe on the street or in the village. The moment there is that kind of law or legislation in parliament or on the books of Ugandan laws, it means that there's no chance of redress in case acts of violence have been committed.
KAGGWAThat then means that the lives of people are in other people's, you know, hands. Anything can happen on the street and nobody will be held accountable.
KAGGWAAnd so that is the situation really. For an activist like myself and others, if something happens, I could, you know, be the victim of a hate crime, but I also have the option to probably run into an embassy and seek...
KAGGWA…you know, some kind of protection. But then lots of numerous LGBTI individuals on the ground who don't even know that there's that kind of option, you know, who'll be at the mercy of either religious fanatics or...
NNAMDIJulius Kaggwa is our guest. He is a Ugandan LGBTI rights activist. He's the director of Support Initiative for People with Atypical Sex Development in Uganda, the acronym being SIPD. You can call us at 800-433-8850 if you have questions or comments for Julius Kaggwa. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
NNAMDIJulius Kaggwa, how does the internal pressure in Uganda to advance this bill compare with the external or international pressure to stop it? Some foreign governments are threatening to cut aid off to Uganda. Is that being taken seriously?
KAGGWAYes. I personally and I think several of my other colleagues have sought to disagree with that because cutting aid goes, you know, a lot farther than just this LGBTI issue. And also, we have been seeking to not isolate the rights for LGBTI individuals from other rights, not to make these very, you know, special rights, per se.
KAGGWAGiven that sexuality is an integral part of human life, if aid for HIV programs, for example, or education programs, for example, is cut, a lot of young people, a lot of variable people like us, you know, will be penalized because of that. What we think should be done is get more voices. And why I'm here actually is to encourage anybody, religious leaders, people out there, American citizens out there who are willing.
KAGGWAI am speaking tomorrow at a panel at the human rights summit, if they could.
NNAMDIThe Human Rights First, 2012 human rights summit...
NNAMDI...agenda is taking place here in Washington today and tomorrow at the Knight Conference Center at the Newseum. Please continue.
KAGGWAAbsolutely. I just want to elaborate what it means, what this bill really means and why we need to keep interested in this and what kind of engagement we are looking for or seeking for from outside. Internally, like you rightfully mentioned, the speaker of parliament has been petitioned by faith leaders to give them this bill as a Christmas gift and she has actually promised to deliver it to them as a Christmas gift.
KAGGWAThat, you know, just that gesture in itself is frightening, you know, to pose this bill as a gift is frightening. What does that mean? The pressure internally is strong and we think that if it is up for debate before the Ugandan parliament, it will pass.
NNAMDIWhat, at this point, would you like to see the most out of President Obama and out of the United States? You say if this bill comes up for debate, it would pass. What can you see preventing this bill from coming up for debate?
KAGGWAWe just would like -- I think the president has done this already. The Secretary of State has spoken out already. We have had several partners, Human Rights First, (word?). Many people have spoken out. But we would like this to go -- sustaining these voices, to keep the bill from being tabled because really whatever it is proposing is already on the law books.
KAGGWAWe need to repeal those laws. There is nothing new that this bill is proposing. If anything, what it is doing is a witch-hunting kind of thing that it is putting forward. So we need the president of the United States, members of Congress, organizations, faith leaders particularly -- the role of faith leaders in this country to speak against this bill being tabled. We don't want it to be tabled. We want it off the shelf.
NNAMDIIt's been said that the crackdown on gays in Uganda is like a ticking time bomb underneath America's strategic relationship with Uganda, one that's getting stronger as situations have grown increasingly unstable in places like Somalia How do you think this issue will affect the future of the relationship between the U.S. and Uganda?
KAGGWAIt's hard to say because the strange thing, the irony here is there's a lot of support from the U.S. to stop the bill right from the top executive to just normal Americans. On the other side there's a lot of support from America to pass the bill, you know. A lot of the funds that are going into the evangelical churches, the messages of hate trickling down churches right into the villages where we can't even go as human rights activists is coming -- most of it is coming from America. We have American evangelicals holding crusades, you know, endlessly.
KAGGWASo there is that kind of catch-22 situation that we're in and that's something that I think Americans also ought to reflect upon in regard to their -- to your strong belief in human rights and the value and dignity of human life. It doesn't really matter if somebody loves someone of the same sex. What does it mean? If you travel and come to a country like mine to promote hate towards a situation that you don't even lived in, you don't even know what it means for that person in the village, what is going to happen once you board the plane and come back here.
KAGGWAThat's something that we really need to address and say, there are real human lives at stake here.
NNAMDIPlease put on your headphones. I'm about to go to the telephones. We will start with Matt in Rockville, Md. Matt, you're on the air go ahead, please.
MATTThank you, Kojo. I love your show. A quick comment and a question and I'll take my answer off the air. First, I thought it was so ironic your guest mentioned that in Uganda, there's -- people are loathe to discuss what goes on inside the bedroom. But it doesn't sound like people are loathe to discuss what non-heterosexuals do in the bedroom. I mean, there's, you know, real and imagined sexual activity. That seems to be something that’s freely discussed. So I guess that's an observation.
MATTBut my question was, it was my understanding that faith leaders in the United States, specifically the religious right in the United States were actually instrumental in some of the early efforts to pass antigay laws in Uganda. Spent a lot of money, had a lot of people on the ground.
NNAMDII think that's just one of the points that Julius Kaggwa was making, but I'll ask him to expand on that some more. Our caller says that from the very beginning, so to speak, of the passage of these laws that faith groups in the United States were involved.
KAGGWAAbsolutely. And this is what I was pointing at and saying how do we handle a situation where a lot of what we're dealing with actually originated from faith leaders here. And our appeal right now is to get faith leaders in this country to kind of step back on that and realize what the actions mean for common people on the ground. What crime is there in being who you really are? Fine, if there are sinful issues that they need to deal with, as Ugandans we have a lot more of those than just homosexuality.
NNAMDIWhich somebody here wants to bring up. So allow Diane in Falls Church, Va. to speak. Diane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANEYeah, we lived in Uganda from '97 to 2000 and so this was beginning to be an issue then. And Ugandans are wonderful people, but they have been so manipulated by these people who -- Ugandans also don't have a total picture of who are these people in the American Christian scene. They are a minority -- an ugly minority. But this issue is so fraught with hypocrisy. The AIDS did not come to Uganda by heterosexual -- by homosexuality. It came through heterosexual transport from another coast.
DIANEAnd the person most likely to deflower, as they say, a young girl in Uganda is probably her schoolmaster who will say, your parents don't have money for fees so let's play sex. I mean, there's just -- they're looking so wrong at where is the source of evil. Whatever you want to think about homosexuality, it is certainly not where the threat comes to Ugandans' use. And this crazy idea of a homosexual agenda is just -- you know, they have to -- Uganda church, which I tried to attend, really needs to understand that this is a really wiggy far out group that should not be dictating how Uganda treats an issue that's always been part of their life and they've handled it very well in their own way.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. I want to get Benjamin on this conversation also because we're running out of time. Benjamin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENJAMINYes, thank you, Kojo. My issues, I just want to know what is the endgame Dr. Kaggwa has in this agenda? Particularly, what is the ethical distinction of their action and what are the cultural contexts that they're using to (word?) their struggle in Uganda?
NNAMDII'll allow Julius Kaggwa to answer that question, but the action we're discussing is the action that is being taken by the legislature in Uganda. What Julius Kaggwa is talking about is how they should respond to that action. Do I take it to mean that you favor the action that the legislature is taking and therefore want to know his ethical justification for opposing it?
BENJAMINI favor the legislation. I favor the legislation.
NNAMDIHe favors the legislation essentially. What do you say to this gentleman about why you are opposing it? What is your ethical position?
KAGGWAI think what I'm opposing from the start is hate, the promotion of hate. In Uganda, we have child abuse and sacrifice. We have maternal infant mortality. We have lack of medicines, we have child labor, we have rape of children, we have land issues, we have corruption. We have people that have nowhere to sleep. We have lots of things that are affecting us as a people.
KAGGWANow if homosexuality is affecting some people I do not -- I cannot stand here and say it should not affect them. But what I'm against is legislating against people to be killed simply because you think what they're doing is immoral. When murderers are being let off, when child rapists are being let off, I think there's a double standard in that notion. Telling parents to, you know, kind of handle their children because they think they're gay. And if they don't they are liable to be imprisoned. I think there's a huge double standard on that.
KAGGWAThe whole issue of legislating human love whether or not you agree on how it is done is what I'm opposing. Creating fear in people simply because of who they are, whether or not you believe in what they're doing or agree with what they're doing is not Christian, in my opinion, is not even African in my opinion.
NNAMDIBenjamin, thank you very much for your call. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Julius Kaggwa, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIJulius Kaggwa is a Ugandan LGBTI rights activist. He's the director of support initiative for people with atypical sex development in Uganda. He is in town attending the human rights first 2012 human rights summit agenda taking place in Washington here today and tomorrow at the Knight Conference Center at the Museum. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking with the executive director of Amnesty International USA, Suzanne Nossel. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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