U.S. Reps call for action against Ugandan bill

Tammy Baldwin

Tammy Baldwin

Three openly gay members of the U.S. House of Representatives, along with 91 of their colleagues, have sent a letter to President Obama urging him to do everything he can to stop a bill in Uganda that calls for harsh penalties—including life imprisonment and the death penalty—against gays.

The proposed law in Uganda, which calls for life imprisonment for anyone convicted of having sex with a person of the same gender, also triggered a U.S. Congressional hearing this month.

The January 21 hearing took place in the House’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, created two years ago to “promote and advocate” for rights adopted in the international Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Openly gay U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), a member of the Commission’s Executive Committee, called the Ugandan legislation, “An extreme and hateful attempt to make people criminals not because of anything they do, but because of who they are and who they love.”

The bill was introduced to the Ugandan Parliament by Member David Bahati and expands upon an already existing statute that outlaws homosexuality. The new bill seeks to impose life imprisonment for anyone convicted of having sex with or trying to contract a marriage with someone of the same sex. In certain cases, such as when the person tests HIV positive, the penalty is death.

In addition to targeting gays, the bill seeks to go after anyone who “promotes” homosexuality or “aids, abets, counsels or procures” someone else to engage in homosexual acts. Such persons could face up to seven years in prison. Anyone who is aware of someone breaking the law but does not report this fact to authorities faces a fine and three years in prison.

“The severity of the Ugandan legislation requires a severe response,” said Baldwin in her opening remarks at the Commission hearing. Bills, such as this, she said, are “contemptible statements of hate and bias,” have “serious consequences,” and are “enormous obstacles to effectively addressing HIV/AIDS.”

At the hearing, Baldwin and Commission Co-Chairman James P. McGovern (D-Mass.), along with other Commission members, heard testimony from Karl Wycoff, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, as well as a panel of expert witnesses: Cary Alan Johnson of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission; Julius Kaggwa of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, Uganda; Rev. Kapya Kaoma of Political Research Associates; and Christine Lubinski of the HIV Medicine Association, Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Kaggwa told members of the Commission that, because the Ugandan bill also targets anyone who “promotes homosexuality,” it should be opposed not only by LGBT-rights supporters but also those who advocate for free speech and greater democracy.

Baldwin said in an interview she hopes the hearing will help Congress to “direct our actions in a more focused way.”

Assistant Secretary Wycoff testified that, while it is important for the U.S. and other countries to make public statements and meet privately with Ugandan government officials, many in Uganda view these communications as outside meddling. That, he said, could embolden proponents of the legislation. Wycoff’s remarks led to a discussion of the importance of supporting the activists in Uganda and the coalition they are building to oppose the legislation internally.

But Baldwin said opposition against the bill could take many forms, including support for the non-governmental organizations that are part of the coalition fighting the bill.

“It may also mean figuring out further venues for heartbreaking stories of oppression and violence and humiliation to be told both internally to Uganda, but to a larger world audience,” she said.

On January 21, 94 U.S. representatives—led by Reps. Baldwin, Barney Frank (D-Mass.), and Jared Polis (D-Colo.)—sent a letter to President Obama and one to Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, asking them to help stop the bill. One day earlier, 12 U.S. senators sent a letter to President Museveni with a similar message.

Baldwin said she and the other House members who signed the letter to President Obama think the president could do more than he has. The White House issued a written statement in mid-December, saying that the president “strongly opposes” the legislation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also expressed concern about it. The House letter, however, asks the President to “speak out publicly” on the matter, especially given his popularity in Africa.

This week, Shin Inouye, a spokesperson to the LGBT media for the White House, said, “The President has strongly opposed legislation that would criminalize homosexuality anywhere—including Uganda—and the Department of State has made this opposition clear to the Ugandan government. We appreciate the interest of Congress in that matter, and will continue to make our opposition to this bill clear, and to support human rights around the world.”

The House members believe, too, that they can bring economic pressure to bear. Should the bill pass, they wrote to President Museveni, it could endanger the $300 million in President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funds to Uganda.

“If you can’t reach men who have sex with men and be able to talk honestly about prevention and early intervention and treatment,” said Baldwin, “those [PEPFAR] funds are not going to be used according to congressional intent. Baldwin said no one at the hearing called for a complete halt to the AIDS funding for Uganda, but rather “more a review of who gets it, how it’s used, how it will be overseen and supervised if the law passes.”

Baldwin said the PEPFAR funds comprise 2.6 percent of the Ugandan economy, and thus have significant impact.

Currently, the U.S. and Uganda have extensive bilateral relations. If the bill passes, Baldwin says, it could affect those ties. Sweden has already threatened to cut its assistance to Uganda if the bill passes.

Rep. Frank, who signed the letter but was not at the hearing, agreed that the bill would affect future cooperation between Uganda and the U.S. If it passes, Frank said, he would oppose any debt relief and aid from the World Bank to Uganda, areas where he has some influence as chair of the House Financial Services Committee.

One undercurrent of the issue is the influence of U.S.-based religious groups in Uganda.

“As has happened elsewhere, this proposed legislation appears to be the product of Americans recruiting prominent African religious leaders to campaign to restrict the human rights of LGBT individuals in their countries,” said Baldwin at the hearing.

Last year, three American evangelical Christians gave a seminar in Uganda on “the gay agenda,” saying it threatens traditional families. The speakers were Scott Lively of Abiding Truth Ministries, classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center; Caleb Lee Brundidge of the International Healing Foundation (IHF), which encourages people to “heal” themselves of their same-sex attractions; and Don Schmierer of Exodus International, a group that says it promotes “Freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.”

Their Ugandan host was Stephen Langa of the Family Life Network, a non-governmental organization focused on “the restoration of family values and morals.” Langa has admitted helping to draft the anti-gay bill, according to a January 3 report in the New York Times. The report said Lively also acknowledged meeting with Ugandan lawmakers about the legislation.

All three Americans have now posted statements on their organizations’ Web sites denying they intended such harsh actions. Exodus sent a letter to President and Mrs. Yuseveni, condemning the criminalization of consensual homosexuality, saying it interferes with the church’s task of helping homosexuals. IHF sent a similar letter to the Ugandan parliament, saying the bill would “frighten all people from seeking the very help they need, and that many want.”

The International Transformation Network (ITN), another U.S.-based evangelical group that works to turn people away from homosexuality, has reportedly established a training network of approximately 14,000 evangelical churches in Uganda, according to journalist Bruce Wilson of the Web site Talk To Action. Wilson has detailed ITN’s involvement in Uganda and says President Museveni and his wife Janet have hosted ITN representatives at state dinners. Janet Museveni has attended, or sent a representative to, several of ITN’s world conferences. Their daughter Patience runs a church whose members are being trained by ITN, and David Bahati, sponsor of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, has been one of the attendees of that church.

“We need to be mindful that those voices of the conservative religious evangelicals in Uganda are not being appropriately balanced by voices of truth-tellers who are reaching out,” said Baldwin, in an interview.

“We need to have U.S. voices,” said Baldwin, “and people who have person-to-person cultural exchanges, political exchanges, etc., that have a different message and can counter the lies with truth.”

Baldwin said the January 21 hearing gave the commission a chance to hear ideas for doing just that.

“Most of the women in the Ugandan parliament are supporting the bill, as are some women’s rights groups,” Baldwin related. One idea mentioned by several panelists at the hearing was that First Lady Michelle Obama and women in Congress speak to Ugandan women. There was also a suggestion that the Congressional Black Caucus could make a statement.

“I think we’ll follow up on all those very helpful pieces of advice,” Baldwin said, “especially knowing that they came from people in Uganda who have a sensibility about what will be effective and what won’t.”

The letter to President Obama from members of the House asks the president to not only to speak out publicly against the legislation in Uganda but also to work towards the decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide.

“More than two-thirds of African countries have laws criminalizing consensual same-sex acts, and over 80 countries worldwide currently have in place sodomy laws or other legal provisions that criminalize their LGBT communities,” said Baldwin.

Uganda, she said, is part of “an alarming trend.”

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