Last year, Uganda was thrusted into the international spotlight over proposed legislation that would make homosexuality punishable by death. Fortunately, strong international outrage forced the government to backtrack. And yet, the government continues to push a vigorous agenda against civil rights for gay people. Unfortunately, they have been able to count on religious leaders and mob violence to frighten and intimidate gay citizens.
Despite the atmosphere of violence and intimidation, gays and lesbians are slowly speaking up to demand equal rights. Two weeks ago, the community of Entebbe, on the shores of beautiful Lake Victoria, was the site of a small, slightly clandestine Pride Weekend -- the first-ever held in Uganda. Although only 50 people came, that's still a remarkable turnout for Uganda. The police shut the event down after a few hours on Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo's orders but nonetheless, it can be considered a milestone event.
That's not all that's happening, either. This weekend, the The River and the Mountain, a play about a gay man who is killed by a machete-wielding crowd, will be performed at MishMash, a local Ugandan café and arts bar. The bar stepped forward offering its space after local theatres refused to air the play for fear of reprisals.
These small acts of courage are taking place against a backdrop of virulent hatred and fear. The tabloids of Uganda, most notably Rolling Stone (not affiliated with the music magazine) and Red Pepper, thrive on spreading messages of hysteria with regards to the 'gay epidemic'. Rolling Stone published a list of 100 'homos' and called for them to be hanged. David Kato, a prominent Ugandan gay rights activist, was one on the list and he was brutally beaten to death with a hammer shortly after.
The truly depressing fact is that this hatred continues to be fostered by religious leaders. Pope Benedict's claim that gay marriage would "threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself" has serious implications in Uganda where local preachers have taken up the call with much enthusiasm and often with bizarre results. Martin Ssempa, the pastor at Makerere Community Church in Kampala, shows shown gay pornography during services in order to prove "what homosexuals do." His congregation includes prominent MP David Bahati, the sponsor of the death-penalty bill.
American Evangelicals play a major role in pushing an anti-Gay agenda. Rapt audiences hear the messages of people like Scott Lively who wrote a book called 7 Steps to Recruit-Proof Your Child . As well, Lou Engle, an American preacher, has railed against the "spirit of lawlessness" that homosexuality causes and called for "martyrs" to stop the "homosexual agenda". Uganda is not alone in this. In South Africa, for instance, lesbians live in fear of "corrective" rape, where sexual violence is promoted as a way of changing sexual orientation. Homosexuality is banned in over 38 countries and at least 13 have the death penalty.
No one should have to live in fear of 'corrective rapes' or lynch mobs. There are those who decry LGTBQ as abnormal and 'not natural' but it's hate and ugly violence that are abnormal and not natural. If gay marriage threatens human dignity, then what of those who rape lesbians in a vengeful bid to 'assert' their masculinity and dominance? The Church must recognize that their rhetoric may be controversial and damaging in Europe of North America but here, such language becomes much more dangerous.
North Americans have a role to play. In challenging religious and political bigotry, they can create the space needed so that Ugandan's gay community can assert themselves. David Kato was not afraid to speak up for equal rights. He believed in a world where gay people can live in safety and dignity. His death has not silenced a new generation of gay people in Uganda. Change is happening -- and we all have a stake in supporting the efforts for a more inclusive world.