Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill: Conflict and Context

Concerns about morality, AIDS prevention, and civil rights converge as Uganda passes its controversial anti-homosexuality bill.

While many in the United States and elsewhere have been troubled by the passage of harsh new laws against homosexual behavior in Uganda, hundreds of Ugandans gathered in Kampala on March 31 for a five-hour long parade to celebrate the recently signed “Anti-Homosexuality Bill.”  Called the “National Thanksgiving Service Celebrating the Passing of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill,” the festivities—replete with performances by fire jugglers, acrobats, and schoolchildren—were organized by the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, an ecumenical religious organization promoting the new law.    

GLAAD, the premier lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender media advocacy organization in the United States, called the parade a “chilling celebration.” American gay advocacy organizations and their allies had been proactive in attempting to block the new law; for several months before the law’s passage, the Obama administration tried to prevent Uganda’s president from extending his country’s long-standing anti-sodomy laws to add legislation that criminalizes and punishes “the promotion or recognition of same-sex relationships” with a 14-year prison sentence, adding  even harsher penalties—including life in prison—for engaging in homosexual behavior with minors, or spreading the AIDS virus knowingly. Warning that the new law would “reflect poorly on Uganda’s commitment to protecting the human rights of its people,” President Obama concluded that the law would “mark a serious setback for all those around the world who share a commitment to freedom, justice, and equal rights.” 

But, the people of Uganda and their leaders present at the March 31 event dismissed President Obama’s concerns—taunting him with signs reading, “Obama, We Want Trade Not Homosexuality.” Some carried banners that said, “Stop AIDS with Abstinence Pride,” and “Stop AIDS, Be Faithful in Marriage.”  According to press reports, “Speakers paid tribute to President Yoweri Museveni, the official guest of honor, and linked Uganda’s fight against homosexuality with shedding its colonial past in an event that had the feeling of a campaign rally.”

Survey data indicate that Uganda’s new law reflects the will of the Ugandan people. The law’s passage was driven by concerns about morality, as 40 percent of the population in Uganda is Roman Catholic and the Protestant Evangelicals are also strong presence there. According to an editorial in America, the Uganda Joint Christian Council, which includes Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox bishops, expressed strong support for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

A Pew Research Center poll revealed that eight out of ten Ugandans described homosexual behavior as “morally wrong.” Currently, 38 African counties—about 70 percent of the continent—have laws against homosexual behavior, and concerns about morality continue to drive such legislation.

Beyond these concerns about morality, banners calling for abstinence to end AIDS point to yet another reason for the broad popular support for the new laws in Uganda—the increase in AIDS cases in the country. A 2012 New York Times article on the resurgence of AIDS in the country, “Uganda’s AIDS Success Story Comes Undone,” reports on alarming data from the Crane Survey, a collaborative study designed by Makerere University School of Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Ministry of Health in Uganda.  Designed to assess high-risk behaviors among groups of Ugandans, the Crane Survey investigated the sexual practices of men who have sex with men, male and female sex workers, and the partners and clients of sex workers.

Polling 3,000 individuals who were identified as “high risk” (94 percent of the respondents were Ugandan nationals) about their sexual behavior, the Crane Survey identified 306 male respondents who reported having engaged in sex with men in the three months prior to the survey.  Almost one-third (31 percent) of these men had been married to women, and 20 percent were currently married to women. Sixteen percent of these men were living with and having sex with female sex partners during the period they were engaging in sexual behavior with men. Twenty-nine percent had fathered children. 

Demonstrating a much higher incidence of bisexual behavior than occurs among men who have sex with other men in this country, the Crane Survey revealed that more than one-third of all Ugandan men who have sex with men indicate that they are bisexual (37 percent). Half claim they are homosexual (50 percent). Nineteen percent claim that they are attracted to mostly/only women, 12 percent claim to be attracted to both men and women, and 70 percent say that they are attracted to mostly/only men—but many of them still engage in sexual relations with women.  

High-risk behaviors—including putting women at risk for AIDS—were identified within the population of 306 men who had sex with men in the past three months.  Identifying the median rates of high-risk behavior, the Crane Survey revealed that in the three months preceding the survey, men who had sex with men had bought sex from two men and had two male commercial-sex clients, two casual sex partners who were male, and four steady male sex partners. Median numbers of female sex partners by partner type were also measured. In the three months preceding the survey, men who had sex with men had also bought sex from one woman and had zero female commercial clients, no casual sex partners, and one female steady sex partner.  The median number of all male and female sex partners for the 306 males who had sex with males during the three months preceding the survey was 12. 

It should not be surprising that AIDS infection rates in Uganda have been steadily rising—especially among women. The Ugandan Daily Monitor reported that, according to Uganda’s UNAIDS country coordinator, Musa Bungudu, “Uganda is the only country in Eastern and Southern Africa with rising HIV/AIDS infection rates.  According to the 2011 National HIV Indicator Survey, the prevalence rates among Ugandans between the ages of 15 to 19 are going up.  It now stands at 7.3 percent, and even higher in women at 8.3 percent, up from 6.4 percent in the 2004-2005 survey.” The Daily Monitor also reports that Dr. Kihumuro Apuuli, director of Uganda’s AIDS Commission, believes that if new infections continue to rise “the HIV burden is projected to increase by more than 700,000 over the next five years,” and about 25,000 babies will be born with the AIDS infection each year.

In his address following the signing ceremony for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, President Museveni accused unnamed “arrogant and careless Western groups” of seeking to recruit young Ugandan children into homosexuality. “There’s now an attempt at social imperialism, to impose social values,” he said. “We’re sorry to see that you (the West) live the way you live, but we keep quiet about it.”  

Believing our nation’s tolerance and growing acceptance of homosexual relationships should be exported, the Obama administration continues to attempt to impose its now-broadened definition of the family throughout the world.  Most recently, the United Nations delegation from the United States lobbied to replace the traditional definition of the family contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with one that recognizes “diverse forms of the family.”  According to Stefano Gennarini of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-Fam), an organization dedicated to defending life and family by preserving international law, the United States delegation to the United Nations has asked to replace the traditional definition of family contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with a lengthy new description of families that have “diverse forms and functions.”

Gennarini points out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has “almost sacred status” at the United Nations. It is regarded, “together with the United Nations Charter, as a founding document of the new world order set in place after World War II.”  Article 16 of the declaration identifies the family as the “natural and fundamental group unit of society” and states that it “is entitled to protection by society and the State.”  Article 16 also mandates that “men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality, or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.”

This was not the first time that the United States has attempted to impose its views on same-sex marriage at the United Nations.  But it was the first time it attempted to exclude the traditional language from the declaration.  The UN General Assembly has rejected the notion of “various forms of the family” at its last two sessions—despite the heavy lobbying by the United States delegation. 

It is likely that this lobbying will continue—even though Article 16 and its definition of the family are reflected in the constitutions of more than 100 countries. For example, Bolivia’s constitution mandates that the “State recognizes and protects the family as the fundamental nucleus of society…. The marriage between a man and a woman is formed by legal bond.”  In Brazil, the constitution states “the stable union between a man and a woman is recognized as a family entity, and the law shall facilitate the conversion of such entity into marriage.”  In Bulgaria, the constitution demands that “Matrimony shall be a voluntary union between a man and a woman.”  In Cuba, the constitution identifies marriage as the “voluntary established union between a man and a woman.” These are just a few examples.  

It is likely that the United States will continue its campaign to redefine the family at the United Nations to include same-sex marriage.  It is also likely that the US will join other European nations like Norway, the Netherlands, and Denmark in withdrawing aid to the Ugandan people until that country’s government begins to move away from what these nations see as draconian laws that unfairly target the homosexual community.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly states that gay men and women “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” and that “unjust discrimination” in their regard must be avoided. To some in the Church, the harsh legislation passed in Uganda seems unjust and discriminatory. For example, the editors of America titled their article about the law “When the Law is a Crime.” On the other hand, many religious leaders in Uganda, including some (but not all) Catholic bishops, believe the people of Uganda have the right to endorse legislation they think will help promote morality and prevent the spread of AIDS, as well as protect marriage as a bond between one man and one woman. The severity of the legislative measures apparently reflects, justly or unjustly, the severity of the situation in Uganda—a situation that will undoubtedly be the source of further controversy and tension for quite some time.

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About Anne Hendershott 101 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Sophia Books, 2020)