Ask an Expert: Is Uganda About to Start Executing Gays?

The reports of a possible death penalty for gays in Uganda are horrific. But since I don't know anything about Ugandan politics, I asked Andrew Rice, a friend who wrote a book about Uganda, if he could add some context.

Andrew Rice lived in Uganda between 2002 and 2004 and frequently writes about Africa for publications like The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic and The Economist. This year he published his first book, The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget which is about a son seeking justice for his father's murder in 1972 and an examination of that nation's attempts to balance reconciliation and peace after Idi Amin's terrible reign. It's really quite an excellent read and I recommend you go to his website to buy yourself a copy. Here is what Andrew had to say:

When it comes to these issues, Uganda—and pretty much every Sub-Saharan African country I've visited—is somewhat like what the United States was, circa 1960: There's a decent-sized gay community in Kampala—and bars and so forth—but it's hidden behind a lot of secrecy and code. In Ethiopia, for instance, a journalist friend of mine who's written about gay issues there told me that when two men spot each other across a room and want to flirt, they often each pull out a tube of ChapStick and start twirling it between their fingers. It all seemed incomprehensible, even to him as an Ethiopian, but I guess that's the point of having codes. The secrecy is necessary because, as in the pre-Stonewall US, homosexual activity is against the law throughout much of Sub-Saharan Africa. However, these laws are enforced pretty erratically in most places—basically, in order to get arrested, you have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and even then, because of police corruption, a little bribe can make the whole thing go away.

Mainstream African attitudes toward gays are a weird (and quite familiar) mix of stone-cold homophobia and prurient fascination. You'll often hear it said in these political debates that homosexuality is a "foreign import" to Uganda, as if it were something that didn't exist before European colonialists arrived. We can be certain this isn't true—for one thing, there are ancient words for "gay" in African languages—but it's a perception that's taken hold, and it's certainly reinforced by the fact that most of the openly gay people in African cities tend to be European and American workers in the embassies, NGOs, and so on. So, when African politicians talk about "fighting the spread" of homosexuality, it's a way of appealing to anti-imperial sentiments as well as religious ones. Because they're so dependent on foreign aid, African countries are constantly being told what they should think by westerners, on everything from human rights to international trade. Bashing gays is a way for populist politicians to fight back with little consequence, because their constituents don't like gay sex (at least openly) and because most of the groups that are giving out aid (Western governments, foundations, charities) are disinclined to make fair treatment of gay people a condition of their assistance, on the general principle of bigger-fish-to-fry. If Uganda starts executing gay people (which I doubt will happen, for reasons I'll explain below) that could of course change.

But back to the other half of the equation: the prurient fascination. As much as they claim to be repulsed by the idea of homosexuality, Ugandans are constantly devouring stories about gay life, via their media. The newspapers are full of pictures of gay marriages in San Francisco and gay pride parades in Germany. Probably once every six months someone does an intrepid investigative report about the existence of gay bars in Kampala. I was constantly asked questions about how I felt about gay people because the impression Ugandans got from reading the newspapers was that straight people in the United States were being overwhelmed by a wave of gay militancy. This was certainly reinforced by another strong and growing force in Ugandan (and African) society: the evangelical movement. American and African televangelists play 24-hours a day on a Ugandan broadcast TV channel, and the First Lady — also a member of parliament and a big time born-again — has people like Joyce Meyer and Benny Hinn (household names in Uganda) up to the presidential mansion. The evangelists spread the message that America is on the road to perdition and Africa is a last bastion of Christian morality, etc. It's significant that the sponsor of this bill, David Bahati, put it forward after an international conference attended by several American "ex-gay" ministry leaders.

This would be a good time to mention that it's not ignorant or uneducated sectors of the Ugandan political class who are putting forward these proposals. In fact, the evangelicals tend to be among the most sophisticated and well-traveled members of the population. (Bahati's wikipedia page says he has a masters degree from the University of Wales in Cardiff.) The born-again movement has been very adept at making converts in the universities and among Ugandans who live in Europe or the US as students. One reason why this issue is so difficult to deal with is that the politicians who are most homophobic are often simultaneously the people who are most courageous on other "moral" stances that we want to encourage. For instance, when I lived in Uganda, one of the country's foremost anti-corruption crusaders and women's rights activists, a government minister named Miria Matembe, made a proposal to confine all gay people to a deserted island in Lake Victoria. There are also of course many Ugandans who have been exposed to Western culture and hold tolerant views. But my impression is that the trend is very much in the other direction—the evangelicals are in the ascendancy.

So, about this specific proposal: I am not there, so I can't say for certain, but my sense is that it is extremely unlikely that there will be mass executions of gay people in Uganda any time soon. (I know—that's setting the bar for tolerance rather low.) I don't know a lot about Bahati, but he is a member of the president's ruling party, which goes by the Orwellian name The Movement. That means he's not some random crank. However, the Ugandan parliament, you may be surprised to learn, is not exactly the most efficient deliberative body. If a bill does get passed, the judiciary is pretty independent and has shown itself willing to buck public opinion in the past. Finally, and most importantly, President Museveni is not a fire-breather on "moral" issues (he leaves that to his wife) and is well aware of the shitstorm of criticism that is likely to descend on the country if the law is passed. He's got bigger issues to worry about, like winning the next election over increasingly vocal opposition, and he's not going to want to endanger the country's life support system of foreign aid by mounting a pogrom against a highly visible minority that draws lots of sympathy in Western countries. The most likely scenario, I'd predict, is that the bill gets watered down to remove the death penalty stuff, is passed, and then, like all Ugandan laws, goes on to be rarely and haphazardly enforced. Among the things that are against the law in Uganda are: smoking in public places, prostitution, driving recklessly, and stealing public funds. These things all still happen, openly and blatantly, so I imagine that the comparatively underground gay community should be OK in the end.

Still, that's not very heartening in the big picture, I realize.