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Ugandan Rights Activist: U.S. Conservatives Exported Anti-LGBTQ Hate That Led to “Kill the Gays” Law

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We go to Kampala, Uganda, to discuss the impact of one of the most draconian anti-LGBTQ laws in the world, just signed by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. The new law makes same-sex relationships punishable by life imprisonment. Some LGBTQ people could receive the death sentence. Homophobia in Uganda is heavily influenced by American evangelists, who function as “exporters of hate,” notes Pepe Onziema, a Ugandan human rights activist, causing LGBTQ Ugandans to “end up as collateral damage.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York, with Juan González in Chicago.

But we’re going now to Uganda, where human rights advocates are condemning President Yoweri Museveni for signing a sweeping anti-LGBTQ measure into law that makes same-sex relationship punishable by life imprisonment — and in some cases, people can get the death penalty. It’s one of the most draconian anti-LGBTQ laws in the world.

This is Ugandan LGBTQ activist DeLovie Kwagala.

DELOVIE KWAGALA: There’s no hope. But where are we supposed to go? You don’t want us in your country. You’re not giving us jobs. You’re not giving us education. You’re not giving us medication. You are criminalizing people renting to us. Where do you want us to go? You are arresting us for literally doing nothing, for simply existing, you know? Where are we supposed to go? How did we become refugees in our own countries?

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Kampala, Uganda, where we’re joined by Pepe Onziema, a human rights advocate.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Pepe. Explain exactly what this law imposes, what it means for the LGBTQ community — really, what it means for all of Uganda.

PEPE ONZIEMA: Thank you so much for having me.

This law is a horrific law. And it’s horrific in the sense that although the last, the signed piece does not have the criminalization of identity, already the first versions of the law had already criminalized identity, and people are being targeted based on their identity, real or suspected identity. We are recording cases of eviction, because landlords have been compelled by this law to report. Even if the law has not yet been gazetted, but people are already taking action. Since March — actually, since February, when the debate began, we’ve been seeing a rise in violations towards LGBTIQ persons. We are seeing people becoming — LGBTIQ persons becoming more homeless. Homelessness has been a real issue for the community, and we are seeing that on the rise because evictions are happening. Family banishment is happening, people being kicked out of churches, jobs, schools. Young people who are, you know, effeminate, who are soft, you know, soft boys or very masculine girls are being condemned by this law. That is already happening, being deprived of education.

But more so our fight against HIV is also being impeded by this law, because if you’re homosexual and you are found to be HIV-positive, that is under aggravated homosexuality, which leads to punishment by death. Already we have laws on our books that punish homosexual conduct as unnatural offenses. And this has been a law that the public has been using to condemn us, to blackmail, to extort money, to extort even same-sex sex, and lots of, you know, other violations with a lot of impunity. So, that is coming more to light and just increasing in its magnitude right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about what could possibly be done to challenge this law, either within Uganda or also in international bodies?

PEPE ONZIEMA: Absolutely. And just before I answer that, I need to add the piece about the law seeking, claiming to want to protect children, but you will find that in the law there’s three years imprisonment for any child that is found to be LGBTIQ.

So, to answer what is being done to counter or mitigate the dangers of this law, one, we’ve already put in a petition for an injunction for the implementation of the law, because it violates several, several constitutional rights. But also, Uganda is not an island. Uganda is not existing in isolation. Uganda is a signatory to many international covenants and, you know, laws. So, because of that, we are challenging this.

But also, we are Ugandans. We belong in Uganda as advocates, as LGBTIQ persons, as parents of LGBTIQ persons, as mentors, as guides and whatever of LGBTIQ persons. We belong in this country. We must make sure that the country is comfortable for every Ugandan, so no one should be excluded, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, President Biden called for the immediate repeal of Uganda’s severe new anti-gay law, threatening to impose sanctions against Uganda. In a statement, he said, quote, “The enactment of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act is a tragic violation of universal human rights—one that is not worthy of the Ugandan people, and one that jeopardizes the prospects of critical economic growth for the entire country. I join with people around the world—including many in Uganda—in calling for its immediate repeal. No one should have to live in constant fear for their life or being subjected to violence and discrimination. It is wrong.” Those are the words of Joe Biden, the president.

And I wanted to ask you, Pepe, how important it is that there is international condemnation. So, you have, on the one hand, Joe Biden condemning this and threatening sanctions. On the other hand, looking at a Vanity Fair piece, “Anti-gay sentiment in Uganda has climbed in recent years due in no small part to American evangelicals, who spent more than $20 million fighting LGBTQ rights in the country between 2007–2020, according to The Washington Post. Scott Lively, an American pastor, spearheaded this effort in the early 2000s, participating in a series of popular anti-gay lectures in Uganda and describing homosexuality as a 'disease' propagated by the West. Several years later, Uganda’s parliament proposed initial legislation, known as the 'Kill the Gays' bill, that was supported by a number of American Christian groups and eventually signed into law.”

So, if you can talk about what the U.S. can do, people in the U.S., but also what the president of Uganda has done? He sounded like he wanted to sound more moderate by sending the bill back to the Legislature, but then signed off on a bill that could give some LGBTQ people the death penalty.

PEPE ONZIEMA: Thank you for that question. And I want to say that we — as much as we welcome President Biden’s strong and powerful condemnation of this law, I think, for us, as advocates and activists, we’ve been pushing this. We’ve been interacting with our U.S. partners and telling them that “Something big and dangerous is coming, and it’s coming from your country. Please, have ways that you stop it before it comes to our country.” And I think that has failed. So, as much as I welcome President Biden’s condemnation, I think there needs to be a lot of work done back home within the United States to make sure that these, you know, exporters of hate into a country like Uganda — because Uganda seems to be geographically positioned for, you know, for these people to come into our country and to test everything negative that they want to test in our country. So, that needs to be stopped from the backyard in the United States before it comes this side.

So, now that we are in this quagmire and in this danger, we call on the global partners, global citizens to keep condemning this law, to keep putting pressure on our leaders to make sure that they honor the international covenants that they’ve been signatories to, and domesticate them, and treat their citizens as human beings, not as collateral damage, the way our country is doing with the LGBTIQ community.

In 2012, my organization, that was shut down last year in August by the government, Sexual Minorities Uganda, together with partners, Center for Constitutional Rights, CCR, based in New York, we filed a case against Scott Lively. You know, you can find the information on CCR’s website and so on. We did that because, for us, it was important to take homophobia, all institutionalized homophobia, back to where it came from. And it came from Scott Lively, so we wanted to take it back to him. And the courts had asked — unfortunately, there was a jurisdiction issue. Scott Lively appeared in the case. But then, again, it was ruled in our favor anyway.

So, these are things that we are going to continue doing, taking homophobia back where it belongs, even if it means us losing our lives. Yes, government wants to put, you know, advocates and actually LGBTIQ persons to death, but we are also prepared, until the last drop of our blood, as long as we live our truth in this country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Pepe, I wanted to ask you — the U.S. government has significant influence in Uganda, about a billion dollars in development aid from the United States to Uganda. And also, the current government has played a key role as an ally of the United States in Africa, even providing some troops in Somalia. Could you talk about the relations between the Ugandan government and the U.S. in recent years?

PEPE ONZIEMA: Yeah. I think the relation between Uganda and the United States dates back to, you know, the '60s. And it's been that one of mutual conversations and engagements.

So, in the recent years, I think we saw the fact that Uganda has really been supportive of some — rather, the U.S. has been very supportive of some of — you know, backing up our health sector, our law enforcement and so on. I think there’s been that kind of smooth, but not so smooth, relations, and especially when it comes to human rights. That’s when our government says, “Oh, here, don’t cross. We can talk about — we can talk about Somalia. We can talk about South Sudan. We can talk about all the regional security issues. But do not talk about homosexuality. We’re a sovereign country,” and so on. But you are a sovereign country that has not safeguarded the sovereignty of your citizens. And when your partner in trade, partner in health, sort of cautions you a little bit to tell you that, “Hey, you’re going off a little bit here. You know, let’s stick to taking care of the citizenry,” then we always — as Uganda, we always tend to curve back and start to show our power.

I think there needs to be — we know that there’s been conversations happening between the two governments. And it probably got to a point where there was a stalemate, and we are seeing this law being signed. I don’t think that President Museveni ignores the plight of LGBTIQ persons, but I’m also afraid that he’s a politician. He will do whatever, you know, plays into whatever he sees, whatever he envisions. Unfortunately, you know, when the two governments disagree, although we are seeing that the U.S. is trying to safeguard our rights, I think it gets complicated, because, either way, we end up as collateral damage within these conversations and engagements between the countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Pepe Onziema, I want to thank you for being with us, human rights advocate, speaking to us from Kampala, Uganda.

Next up, we go to Turkey, where the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has won another five years in office, extending his authoritarian rule into a third decade. Stay with us.

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