Uganda: Anti-gay bill stalls

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KAMPALA, Uganda — Uganda's "Anti-Homosexuality Bill," which raised a worldwide uproar over its death penalty for gay sex, has stalled in parliamentary committee and it is unlikely to be passed in the current session, according to gay activists here.

Right from the start, on Oct. 13, 2009 when Ugandan member of parliament David Bahati submitted the bill, the proposed legislation caused national and international outrage.

Almost 10 months later, the bill remains with the Ugandan Parliament's Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, never having made it to a vote.

The bill, if passed, calls for the death penalty in certain circumstances including, having same-sex relations while being HIV positive and engaging in gay sex with a minor.

Intense international lobbying urged a “softening” of the penalties within the bill and the Swedish government warned it would reduce its financial aid to Uganda if the bill were passed.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni distanced himself from the Anti-Homosexual Bill in January 2010. Subsequently, he created a government commission to investigate passage of the anti-gay bill.

In May, the commission advised that the bill be withdrawn from parliament.

During the highest pitch of the national debate about the bill, Ugandan journalist Henry Lubega and his colleague decided to test climate for gays — they posed as gay Ugandan men, while dining at a Kampala restaurant. They reported that they received a mixed reaction.

Some patrons showed signs of disgust, while others merely glanced at the pair and returned to their meals.

“Most importantly,” said Lubega, “there was never any aggressive action towards us and we never felt physically threatened.”

This unthreatening response bolsters the opinion that the strident anti-homosexual demonstrations were whipped up by some politicians and religious leaders, but the general population is more tolerant.

“Politicians find that homosexuals are a great scapegoat or red herring to divert attention to more pressing issues ... such as unemployment, corruption, poor health facilities, reform of electoral laws and so forth,” wrote Ugandan lawyer Sylvia Tamale, the first female dean of law at Makerere University law school.

“If we are to be absolutely honest with ourselves, we should ask whether there are not more pressing issues of moral violation in other areas such as domestic violence, torture and corruption. None of these areas have specific laws outlawing their practice,” wrote Tamale.

Rev. Mark Kiyimba of the Ugandan Unitarian Universalist Church, also known as "Pastor Brown," is a leader in Uganda’s LGBT community. He says that international pressure, especially from the Obama administration, has “cooled down progress on the bill.”

“We have shifted our focus and are now concentrating on HIV, spirituality and social issues," said Kiyimba. "We don’t hear anything anymore about the bill. Besides, parliament will dissolve next month, so it is too late to debate the bill before the close of parliament.”