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Rev. Canon Byamugisha Makes History as 1st African Religious Leader to Reveal HIV-Positive Status

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We’re joined from the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., by Rev. Canon Gideon Byamugisha. A prominent church leader in Uganda, in 1992 he became the first African religious leader to openly declare his HIV-positive status. He has since devoted his life to an AIDS ministry that works to end the stigma around the disease. Rev. Byamugisha discusses his historic decision and the ongoing discrimination against LGBTQ people in Uganda. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Washington, D.C., the 19th International AIDS Conference is wrapping up. I’m Amy Goodman, and we’re joined by the Reverend Canon Gideon Byamugisha. He is a prominent church leader in Uganda. In 1992, he became the first African religious leader to openly declare his HIV-positive status. He has since devoted his life to an AIDS ministry that works to end the stigma around AIDS.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Reverend. Talk about why you decided to come out in 1992 and what you have been doing for the last 20 years.

REV. CANON GIDEON BYAMUGISHA: Thank you very much, Amy.

I became public about my status because I discovered that there were a lot of things that were being talked about AIDS that were not accurate. When my wife died earlier in 1991 and they told me that she had died of an AIDS-related illness, it was a shock, because, for us in Uganda, they had told us that HIV only attacks certain groups of people. And they had said it attacks commercial sex workers, it attacks truck drivers on long-distance routes, and it also attacks homosexuals. And so, if you didn’t belong to any of those groups, then you were not at risk. So it came as a surprise to me that they were telling me that my wife had died of an AIDS-related illness.

So I decided to come out to the open to say, look, probably there are things that are not being said about AIDS, that the risk group is any person who lacks accurate information, who does not have appropriate skills for self-protection, or they don’t have services or a supportive environment to help them live an HIV-free life.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, as you learned that you, yourself, were HIV-positive, talk about what you feel in Uganda are your biggest concerns. I mean, right now, the news we have out of Uganda is, once again, legislation has been introduced into the legislature that targets homosexuals, that targets gay men and lesbians, criminalizes their activity. This is separate from HIV and AIDS, but, for many, it also comes together.

REV. CANON GIDEON BYAMUGISHA: Yes, Amy. You know, AIDS has told us what we have always known, that although we are one globe, but there are two worlds. There are two worlds living in close proximity—the world of the accepted, the world of the rich, the world of the educated, the world of the empowered. And so, we are seeing that those persons, those families, those communities, those nations that happen to be accepted, to have education levels and the laws that are necessary for safe living, those have reduced their infection levels. They are treating their people.

But when you find a group of community which is not accessing the services and the legal environment they need, then you find they have a higher risk of infection, of illness and of mortality around HIV. So this is the case with the—our friends in Uganda who happen to be lesbian, gay or transgender, that they do not have a supportive legal, cultural, religious and psychological environment with which they can defend themselves against HIV, if they are not yet positive, and if they are already positive, they cannot get access the services and the treatment they need in a way that is supportive and empowering.

So—and politicians in Uganda know, religious leaders in Uganda know, that they have the power, they have the moral authority, to end the violence around lesbians, gay and bisexual or transgender communities in our community. But they are choosing not to use that political and moral power they have. And, as we say, we want to hold the people and the governments accountable. I think time will come when questions will be raised that why we allowed certain groups of people to perish from HIV and AIDS at a time when the world knew much and had much to control the virus.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the role, in the United States, of certain evangelical groups that are pushing, particularly in Uganda, for a crackdown on gay men and lesbians in the legislature, the U.S. connection? And then the backlash, once the old legislation was beaten back, saying that the U.S. and Britain are putting pressure—the West is putting pressure on Uganda to try to change its African views, and it’s a kind of colonization—how do you respond to that, Reverend?

REV. CANON GIDEON BYAMUGISHA: First of all, I don’t—I would want us to differentiate between African views and colonial views. These laws that are in Uganda are not African laws. These are colonial laws that were brought about by the British, and they were left intact when they left, and they have not changed. Africa before colonization had a way of engaging with, of accommodating people who were the minority in the community. But when these rulers came, they were arrogant, they were discriminative, they were harsh. And now it surprises me when I hear many Africans saying we will defend their laws, which they never put in place themselves. They should instead be having a responsibility to say, how would an Africa Christian morality handle this issue? How would Jesus handle this issue? And as we know from the Jesus—

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, with that question, we’re going to have to leave it there, as the show wraps up. I want to thank you, Reverend Canon Gideon Byamugisha, the first religious leader in Africa to publicly announce your HIV-positive status.

Special thanks to our Baltimore crew: Paul Weiss, Mathew Bainbridge, Gregg Bevan, Terri Cochran and Amy Littlefield.

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