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We should welcome and help Uganda’s slow moves to a better LGBT future

International LGBT campaigner Maurice Tomlinson says President Yoweri Museveni’s new statement is a positive sign and we need a new approach to supporting rights in Uganda
Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda, has sent mixed messages on LGBT rights.

Though clearly delusional in his denial of ongoing LGBT abuses in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni’s recent statement nevertheless signals his support for the move by a few Ugandan Parliamentarians to permanently shelve the dreadful Anti-Homosexuality Bill (AHB).

These politicians are working on a minority report which argues forcefully that the AHB is unnecessary. President Museveni is strengthening their hand by publicly admitting there is no recruitment of Ugandan youngsters into homosexuality as such hysterical and unsubstantiated claims were proffered as the most important justifications for the AHB.

The president’s admission of pre-existing homosexuality in Ugandan society is also a matter of historical record (British colonizers chronicled their encounters with gay Ugandan kings) and will undoubtedly help to undercut the prevailing myth that homosexuality is a western imposition.

Most modern societies evolved slowly towards recognition of human rights for LGBT people and this process is certainly underway in Uganda. Such a remarkable trajectory is thanks to the tireless efforts of local activists and their international partners. Local activists should be supported in their struggle to ensure this continued forward movement.

That said, it is easy to understand the frustration of Global North-based LGBT activists with the seemingly glacial pace of human rights recognition for LGBT in Africa. What is missed is that, to be sustainable, the change must be dictated by local realities supported by appropriate international initiatives. This is cliché, but bears repeating. For in Uganda, as elsewhere around the world, homophobia will end when contact is made.

The irrational fears surrounding homosexuality which have gripped African society (largely spurred on by Western evangelicals embittered at losing the culture war at home) will only be erased when indigenous LGBT remind their fellow citizens of their humanity. Groups such as SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda) and individuals including its leader Frank Mugisha are bravely daring to be visible in Uganda every day. Those who want to help the effort should put their money where their mouth is and join them, instead of simply criticizing from the safety of their northern arm-chairs.

Ugandan anti-homophobia groups are also working strategically behind the scenes through important low-key meetings with politicians and policy-makers. I have been made to understand, this is the way change happens in Uganda. It is easy to see why this is true. With an almost king-president in power for over 25 years, it is patently obvious that Ugandan society does not readily accept radical societal changes. Respect for the leader is profound and convincing leaders to alter their views is the most important component of affecting national re-orientation on an issue.

This very top-down approach would be deemed abhorrent in the Global North. Yet, this explains why the evangelicals have been so effective. They are already accustomed to imperious dictates derived from slavishly interpretations of their holy book. They were therefore willing to ignore appeals to the ‘lumpen proletariat’ and targeted politicians and policy makers with their anti-gay rhetoric. The result was the AHB.

In similar vein, local LGBT activists are effectively seeking to enlighten leaders and with the upshot that the AHB, which was promised as a ‘Christmas Present’ by the pope-meeting Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, is still languishing on the Parliamentary order-paper.

At the same time, other bills such as those dealing with ‘protecting’ marriage (not a declared priority of the majority of Ugandan LGBT groups and thus not currently being campaigned against) are wending their way through the house. Ironically, these recent anti-gay bills are redundant even before their enactment as the hetero-normative definition of relationships is already well established in Ugandan law.

Ugandan LGBT activists have also shown their mettle by successfully challenging the demonization of gays in local courts. Most notably, the now defunct Rolling Stone newspaper was forced to cease publication after a court injunction secured by SMUG. A similar injunction needs to be issued against the Red Pepper newspaper which recently published the photos and personal information of leading Ugandan gays.

The misguided Minister of Ethics and Integrity is also before the court for arbitrarily disrupting meetings of LGBT groups. Ugandan (indeed African and Commonwealth LGBT jurisprudence) has already been enriched through these legal initiatives. It is also heart-warming to see that Ugandan judges have demonstrated the sort of judicial independence and devotion to the rule of law that one would expect from a functioning democracy.

So, where does this leave well-meaning international groups who wish to support the work for LGBT liberation in Uganda? I would request these groups take every opportunity to celebrate and trumpet the work of Ugandan LGBT activists while reserving their most vicious criticism for their own nationals who are exporting hate to Uganda. Local LGBT groups must also be supported in their documentation of human rights violations as this information is critical to sway doubtful politicians and skeptical judges.

Finally, I have found that effective advocacy is a very national thing. As Mariana Valverde reminds us: ‘Security derives from the relationships that we cultivate with other people.’ Cultivating these crucial relationships necessary to provide security for Ugandan gays will take time, and it will also be a very complicated process. There will also be many halting steps. However, the long walk to freedom for gay Ugandans (if you will excuse the liberties taken with the analogous South African liberation struggle) has certainly begun. My advice is that we all join in or get out of the way.

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