Did Uganda’s President Really Veto the Anti-Gay Bill?

“Am I the only one who thinks the media is misleading by saying Museveni vetoed #Anti-Gay Bill? Harsh laws against advocacy coming. Read page 6,” I tweeted on January 19.

My tweet was a response to news stories claiming that Uganda President Yoweri Museveni had blocked the “anti-gay bill,” which was passed in Parliament on December 20 despite objections by Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi over the lack of a quorum. Previously known as “Kill the Gays” bill, the version passed in December had eliminated the death penalty but maintained a punishment of life imprisonment for “aggravated” homosexuality—namely, having sex with a person who is under 18 years old or disabled, or instances in which the “offender” is HIV positive.

The penalty also holds for “serial offenders”— people who have been previously convicted for the crime of homosexuality. As noted by the Uganda Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, the bill targets the promotion of homosexual acts “in public institutions and other places through or with the support of any government entity in Uganda or any other non-governmental organization inside or outside the country.”

As international leaders called on Museveni to veto the legislation, Yasiin Mugerwa of Uganda’s Daily Monitor reported on January 17 that Museveni had blocked the bill. Mugerwa cited a letter written by Museveni to Speaker Rebecca Kadaga and other MPs, from December 28: “How can you pass law without the quorum of Parliament after it has been pointed out? What sort of Parliament is this? How can Parliament be the one to break the Constitution and the Law repeatedly?” (see the full letter below)

International media outlets like the BBC, USA Today, and the Globe and Mail immediately echoed the Monitor article, asserting that President Museveni had blocked or even vetoed the bill—which was far from the truth—even after Pepe Julian Onziema, Director of Programs at leading Ugandan LGBTQ advocacy organization Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) tweeted that the Monitor article was misleading.

Museveni didn’t even officially receive the anti-gay bill until January 23, and has 30 days from then to respond. Museveni did not say that he won’t sign the bill into law. Rather, he promised to take the issue to his party’s caucus, which met on January 24. At the meeting, the caucus wanted Museveni to sign the bill, but, according to the Daily Monitor, Museveni pushed back by demanding “scientific evidence” to establish whether or not gays are abnormal.

While some might consider this a promising development, there is still much reason for worry. I have met many scientists across the world who are homophobic and who would be likely to side with anti-gay activists if consulted (or paid). Moreover, the quorum issue has been overblown: Anti-LGBT MPs have many votes in Parliament, and the bill would still pass if re-introduced. In this regard, the quorum question is a dead end.

Like others concerned about human rights for all people, I read Museveni’s letter with interest. But after reading it, I realized that Museveni is hedging, clearly playing to both sides. As such, people can interpret the letter according to their own views—as we are now clearly seeing.

For example, Museveni’s letter advocated the criminalization of advocacy (including organizations and individuals supportive of LGBT persons) even as it sought to connect Uganda’s contemporary politics around LGBT rights to traditional African culture. It characterized gays as abnormal and lesbians as sexually starved individuals (a statement that could all too easily be manipulated to promote “corrective rape”), yet he also pushed back against certain Christian conservative arguments, which claim the Bible condemns same-sex relationships (i.e. “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”), calling such arguments a “fallacy.” Moreover, he cited African names for gays, transgender, and intersex persons as proof of the existence of sexual minorities in Uganda long before colonialism.

Ultimately, Museveni’s letter sought to portray the President as defending the traditional values of Uganda. In making this argument, he accepted the existence of gays on African soil … with some major qualifications—they are abnormal persons who should be treated accordingly.

At least superficially, Museveni may appear more supportive of LGBT persons, yet his position has changed little. He made a similar argument during the installation of the new Archbishop of Anglican Church of Uganda, Most. Rev. Stanley Ntagali, in Kampala, on December 17, 2012. Before Europeans reached Uganda, Museveni told the audience, “I knew of two kings and one chief who practiced homosexuality. They were not persecuted, discriminated or killed. The chief actually did very good work but homosexuality was not promoted. People would whisper and ignore, the issue now is promotion as if it’s good, that we can’t accept.”

Museveni echoed this claim in his letter but added that Uganda should stop those who “lure” young people into homosexual acts: “We should legislate harshly against these people with money, from within and without, who take advantage of the desperation of our youth to lure them into these abnormal and deviant behaviors.” Museveni went so far as to support a life sentence for those who “[lure] normal youth” into homosexual acts—on this point, he wrote, “I would agree with the Bill passed by Parliament.”

Even as we recognize certain positive elements of Museveni’s letter, it’s critical to address his ongoing support for other aspects of the anti-gay bill. Additionally, Museveni will certainly pander to religious leaders, who are demanding that some form of the law be passed. Since Museveni approves of a life sentence for those who lure young people into homosexuality, the new bill, which will come from Parliament, will likely crack down on advocacy efforts. The bill Museveni will end up signing will also most likely outlaw same-sex marriages and adoption by gay and lesbian couples. This modified legislation will put the country in line with Russia and Nigeria, where similar laws have been passed with the pretense of protecting the young people from “the promotion of homosexuality.”

These transnational linkages exist—and the international community must wake up and recognize the influence of Putin and Russia on efforts to criminalize advocacy in African nations. Putin’s recent anti-LGBT actions have provided African nations with momentum and increased credibility as anti-gay laws move from the margins of global politics into the mainstream. As Jeff Sharlet rightly noted, “Russian anti-gay laws give license to smaller nations to follow suit. It isn’t fringe anymore”

U.S. conservatives, who have exported regressive, deeply homophobic ideologies across the globe (see here and here), will celebrate the criminalization of advocacy as a victory. Scott LivelySharon SlaterLou Engle, and many other U.S. conservatives have been pressing for similar bills not only in the U.S., but also in Russia, Nigeria, and other countries. They’ve been asking nations to criminalize the promotion of and the “recruitment” of young people into homosexuality.

And religious leaders are likely to line up in support for the outlawing of advocacy—a measure they can market as relatively moderate and tame as compared to the earlier iteration of the “Kill the Gays” bill. Such has already been the case in Nigeria, where Cardinal John Onaiyekan, a number of Roman Catholic bishops, and many evangelical leaders have celebrated the passage of the Nigerian anti-gay bill. Yet we cannot accept such attempts to re-brand. Silencing advocacy is inciting genocide of our fellow human beings. Museveni’s letter is not a cause for celebration.

President Museveni Letter on Anti-Homosexuality Bill – December 2013