The call from the BBC in London came at 7:30 Monday morning. They wanted to know if I could be a guest on the BBC World Service News radio talk show World Have Your Say to discuss Barack Obama’s public and pointed condemnation of a proposed Ugandan measure that would harden the African nation’s already tough criminal penalties against homosexuality.
Ugandan law already bans sex between men. The new bill, passed by the Ugandan parliament in December and likely to be signed into law by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, would increase criminal penalties for homosexual activity. Under the new proposal, sentences could range from 14 years in prison for a first conviction to life imprisonment for so-called aggravated homosexuality. One version of the bill even called for the death penalty. Criminal penalties were also threatened for people who do not report homosexual activity.
President Obama’s swift negative reaction included a sharp warning that passage of the measure could harm relations between the east African nation and the U.S. So far, there has been no reported official response to President Obama’s criticism. But his open condemnation has prompted widespread responses from angry Ugandans who say that Obama should stop meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. On the BBC radio talk show, several Ugandans phoned in to angrily express their unhappiness with Obama. One Ugandan caller said that Obama was trying to “blackmail” the Ugandan government into backing down on what many Ugandans see as a moral issue by threatening to withhold economic aid. “Homosexuality is a vice,” the caller said.
Others said they did not care that the new law could result in the loss of U.S. assistance. Dealing with what many Ugandans view as the scourge of homosexuality and protecting their children from the influence of gays and lesbians is, several said on the show, far more important than economic aid from the United States, which, in their words, most Ugandans never see. According to a BBC report, the U.S. is one of Uganda’s largest foreign aid donors, and in 2011 a small group of American troops helped the Ugandan military fight the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army.
Another Ugandan caller suggested that Obama had seized on this issue in Uganda to deflect attention away from his failed policies in Syria. The argument that the president was not trying to make some anti-Ugandan power play but was acting out of concern for the basic human rights of Ugandan citizens who happen to be gay or lesbian, just as he did with the Russians and other nations, fell on deaf ears.
And what became very clear is that in Uganda and other parts of Africa, ignorance and fear are the ruling emotions when it comes to the issue of homosexuality, much the way it once was in this country. The Obama administration believes that the new Ugandan law will only fuel attitudes that have already led to widespread violence, including the deaths of LGBT Ugandans.
President Museveni originally refused to sign the legislation when it passed parliament in December. But according to news reports, he is being pressured by the governing body, which is reacting to the extremist attitudes of anti-gay Ugandans. Much of the anti-gay fervor has been fueled by evangelical Christian ministries in Africa. Government spokesman Ofwono Opondo said that a team of Ugandan scientists has told the president in a new report on homosexuality that he requested that “there is no definitive gene responsible for homosexuality” and that this means “homosexuality is not a disease but merely an abnormal behaviour which may be learned through experiences in life.”
As a result, Museveni is expected to sign the anti-gay bill into law.
To be sure, homophobia is not yet a thing of the past in the U.S. Many in this country still believe that homosexuality is an immoral defect of character, if not a mortal sin, that ought to be punished. And despite new federal and state laws that recognize same-sex unions and extend workplace benefits to LGBT couples, some communities and states—including Kansas—continue to propose laws that would discriminate against LGBT people.
The Ugandan callers, who also said that President Obama is “out of touch with Africa,” reminded me of a time not so long ago when African Americans were among some of the worst homophobes. While African Americans rarely engaged in active verbal or physical gay bashing, growing up in poor black communities on the South Side of Chicago, I distinctly remember the stigma that black people placed on gay men and women.
Terms like “sissy” and “dyke” were commonplace, and otherwise upstanding, churchgoing Christian people whispered about homosexuality as if it were some kind of birth defect. LGBT relatives were hidden away and treated almost like lepers. More than a few times I was warned, “You need to stay away from that boy; he’s a sissy.”
Listening to the visceral reactions of Ugandan callers on that BBC radio program made it very clear that in Uganda, until people can be properly educated about homosexuality, rational argument about human rights for members of the LGBT community will continue to fall on fearful, deaf ears.
Sylvester Monroe is a Los Angeles-based journalist who contributes to several national publications. He is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.