Recent attention from both ends of the political spectrum has focused on the efforts of the Harper government to safeguard the safety and human rights of lesbian and gay people around the world. I’ve commended Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird for taking the lead on this before, and without prompting. But what has been getting missed thus far are the underlying circumstances which make this a particularly difficult Gordian knot of diplomacy. The more we learn about political movements in Uganda, the more we realize that if we are forceful, we may actually be causing harm to that nation’s LGBT people.

Box Turtle Bulletin (which has provided extensive and in-depth coverage of Uganda’s “kill the gays” bill and other similar happenings in Africa) is noting that Uganda’s Parliamentary Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga, was received with a welcome rally upon her return to Uganda, following a conflict with Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister at the Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in Quebec City on October 25. Kadaga is reportedly vowing to do entirely the opposite of what Baird had urged, by pushing to resurrect the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill — which has had specific mention of the death sentence for “serial homosexuality” (among other things) removed, but replaced with a reference to the same penalty from an unrelated law. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill would also heavily criminalize several peripheral things like advocating on behalf of LGBT people, or attending a same-sex wedding. Uganda’s Daily Monitor is further claiming that Baird had demonised Uganda, unprovoked.

This isn’t the first time that Uganda has responded in this way, and mirrors similar responses from other African nations like Nigeria toward pressures to safeguard the human rights of LGBT people. Kadaga and other Ugandan legislators have also responded to U.S. and U.K. attempts by redoubling their determination to criminalize, and by increasing the severity of punishment.

Part of this arises because of an increased sensitivity to other nations imposing their will on Africa, something that has taken place overtly and covertly throughout Africa’s entire remembered history. Uganda in particular has only been independent from Britain since 1962.

This sensitivity to colonial tactics has been exploited by right-wing western organizations, which have taken to portraying affirmation and assistance efforts for LGBT people as attempts to impose homosexuality on them. Ironically, those organizations are trying to encourage the development of a Western-style theocratic worldview in these nations, and succeeding to an extent. In Political Research Associates’ report entitled Colonizing African Values – How the U.S. Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa, researchers noted:

“Homophobia proved a powerful rallying point for many established leaders on the continent. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the late Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi, and former Zambian President Rupiah Banda all derided their opponents as in bed with the homosexual agenda when their leaderships were threatened. These leaders found they could earn easy support from religious factions, while winning nationalist votes for denouncing the West as neocolonial.

Africans working for U.S. rightist groups also lodge the charge. Human Life International’s regional coordinator Emil Hagamu praised the Ugandan parliament as “typically African” for promoting the “Kill the Gays” bill. “It strives to protect African traditional and cultural values against Western encroachment in areas such as homosexuality and same-sex unions. Uganda is the center of attraction for population control bigots.”

(“Population control” is HLI’s phrase for decrying the science on overpopulation, which it views in the same way that the U.S. far right sees climate change science and evolution. It is through this that the organization spins contraceptive initiatives to look like Western nations are imposing abortion and a kind of genocide on Africa, something that they’ve had less success at for the moment. This illustrates that it is not only LGBT human rights at risk in the current climate, although their situation is most dire. As an example, Melinda Gates’ contraception-inclusive womens’ health initiative was also recently targeted with the accusation of colonialism, even from the left. She didn’t help her case by appearing to ignore calls to invite local activists to be a part of the decision-making process.)

Diplomacy is a loaded game, and one nation cannot (should not) impose its worldview upon another.  We can’t sit aside while genocides happen either, though, so it takes a complex approach to try to address the latter without committing the former. And unfortunately, there are self-interested parties — including other Western ones — that will exploit any attempt at assistance as evidence of meddling, in order to deflect from or even fuel their own political games. And given that HIV assistance is a primary objective of many relief efforts, there can certainly be a potential financial benefit for exploitative parties to do so.

What needs to be done is complex, but includes networking with and empowering women and LGBT people in those nations, so that they can lead their own activism within the cultural context that westerners often clumsily don’t understand enough. The reason that the accusations of colonialism and attempting to dictate resonates with the African peoples is that in the past, that is very much what governments have attempted to do. It’s best countered by supporting and empowering communities to lead for themselves.

And at the same time, Baird needs to balance all of this with the passion of Canadians, who are looking at the increasing violence and heavy-handed legislation against LGBT people in Uganda and Nigeria, and insisting that we need to do something. It’s a tall order, and as Baird moves forward, the challenge won’t be easy.

NOTE: As I was finishing this, the following letter was sent to Melanie Nathan at O-blog-dee-o-blog-da, which further emphasizes the need for a measured, non-sensational approach to Uganda. I agree with her that “we owe it to the local groups in Uganda to respect their direction.” 

The letter is from a Coalition of LGBT Civil Societies in Uganda. Understandably, they did not want their names disclosed, but I trust the source, and the content is consistent with what has been happening in that nation. And at any rate, consulting with the people most at risk is always the best policy:

Released November 13, 2012 at 8:22am ·

Dear Partners, friends and colleagues,

We thank you for all the support you have a accorded the Coalition since the tabling of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in 2009, and we look forward to your continued collaboration in the struggle to see this bill dismissed once and for all.

In response to the recent claims made by the Hon Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament that she would see the Anti-Homosexuality Bill passed before this year comes to a close, we urge you to adhere to the following Action Alert Guidelines and to always seek clarification where there is a difference of opinion on tactics or where there is confusion or need for further information.

We encourage you to:

1. Urgently engage with the leadership of the nation (the President, the Prime Minister, the Leader of Opposition, The Speaker, the Minister for Gender Labor and Social Development, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Ethics and Integrity, the Minister of Health, the Minister of Justice and any other Cabinet Ministers that you can engage with, the Inspector General of Police and the Principal Judge) to impress upon them the needlessness and imminent harm of this bill. This must however been done diplomatically and off the media. There should not be any media/public admonitions PLEASE!

2. Engage with any non-LGBTI partner organizations in Uganda that you may collaborate with or whom you fund to establish what their thinking is on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, as well as their thinking on other related legislative moves such as the proposal to amend the Penal Code in line with the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill. We would strongly encourage other mainstream Ugandan organizations such as human rights NGOs and entities like the Uganda Law Society to speak out strongly against the impartiality of the speaker as well as this draconian bill. 3. Draw international public attention to issues such as corruption (tagging it to the recent corruption cases in the Ministry of Public Service and the Office of the Prime Minister), human trafficking, nodding disease in northern, land-grabbing, as well as the suppression of media freedom and civil society space, so that attention shifts to where it properly belongs; in the best interests of the country’s population as a whole. 4. Go ahead with any preparations of statements, campaigns, and other public documents for when the bill appears on the Order Paper of Parliament (you will be alerted when this happens) as well as for a worst-case scenario in which the Bill is passed into law. 5. Contribute physical, financial, or technical support to the LGBTI community as well as the exposed Human Rights Defenders working with LGBTI rights who are likely to begin to be arrested and charged almost as soon as the Bill is passed. The entire leadership of the Uganda Coalition has decided that any such assistance shall be channeled through a central point at the CSCHRCL secretariat from where it shall be communally managed. 6. Engage with your policy makers to take stronger measures to ensure that LGBTI issues are mainstreamed into calls for proposals, grant agreements, project design, implementation and evaluation as part of a long term strategy to establish LGBTI friendly services and programmes for all Ugandans as an inclusive practice.

We urge that you do NOT: 

1. DO NOT Put out any public press statements on the Bill for now. But you can express your opinion if asked about the Bill. However this opinion must be candid and practical without being ‘insulting’. 2.  DO NOT Make strong public statements threatening to cut aid or in support of such threats in response to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, as this can lead to scape-goating of the LGBTI community as well as Human Rights Defenders working with LGBTI rights and whip up sentiments for the Bill. Please note; We would like Ugandans to take charge of this campaign for now. Only if the Bill is mentioned/programmed in the Business of Parliament or passed into law shall we encourage a fully-fledged international outcry which can come in all forms such as; Public statements (written or spoken), public letters, solidarity campaigns, peaceful protests, interviews, opinion pieces et cetera.

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project and Dented Blue Mercedes)

Mercedes Allen

Mercedes Allen

Mercedes Allen is a writer, graphic designer and former activist living in Southern Alberta.