In case you missed it, on Monday the president of Uganda signed a bill into law that calls for a sentence of 14 years in jail for first-time offenders of “homosexual acts.” The law sets life imprisonment as the maximum penalty for a category of offenses called “aggravated homosexuality,” defined as repeated gay sex between consenting adults as well as acts involving a minor, a disabled person or where one partner is infected with HIV. The new law also creates the offenses of “conspiracy to commit homosexuality” as well as “aiding and abetting homosexuality,” both of which are punishable with a seven-year jail term. Those convicted of “promoting homosexuality” face similar punishment.
If there’s any good news, it’s that the law originally called for the death penalty for some homosexual acts; that penalty was removed from after an international outcry forced the hand of the Ugandan legislature. But that’s where the good news stops. The situation for LGBT individuals in Uganda has clearly worsened, and yesterday a Ugandan newspaper published a list of what is calls the country’s “200 top” homosexuals, including outing some Ugandans who previously had not identified themselves as gay. And the witch hunt begins…
The whole time during the Olympics, we were worried about Russia, while Uganda was actively working to promote this law (which is highly supported in the country). The US response to the passage and signing of the law has been swift, with John Kerry noting that the State Department would be reviewing it’s relationship with the Ugandan government and potentially changed its stance on US aid to the nation. Desmond Tutu denounced the law, referring to Nazi Germany and apartheid-era South Africa as prime examples of what happens when politicians legislate love. He noted that “there is no scientific basis or genetic rationale for love. There is no scientific justification for prejudice and discrimination, ever. And nor is there any moral justification.”
But the recent actions in both Russia and Uganda raise a critically important question that many in the international community aren’t prepared to face. Are we demonstrating cultural imperialism by denouncing countries that pass laws like Russia and Uganda or are we merely fighting the good fight for human rights? Are we too quick to judge other countries’ social policies… and quite frankly are we hypocritical when many states in our own nation have “legislated” against love?
I do think it’s easier for those of us who sit comfortably in Western societies, protected by a backdrop of laws that guarantee certain freedoms, to criticize nations we believe to be less progressive and tolerant. But this week’s news from Arizona shows us that perhaps we aren’t as progressive as we would like to think. Should we perhaps be more sympathetic to another nation’s social policies?
I firmly believe in this case the answer is no. We aren’t talking about universal health care or socialized welfare. We’re talking about a law that potentially commits you to life in prison for marrying the person you love. We’re talking about people living in fear that they will be “discovered” as homosexuals. We’re talking about a law that potentially allows those seeking retribution to accuse others of being gay with potentially horrendous resulting punishment. We’re talking about a law that also imprisons directors of NGOs or foreign companies for merely assisting any LGBT individual; a law that affects individuals from other nations who travel to Uganda and are now afraid to provide humanitarian aid out of fear that they will be imprisoned.
It’s easy to say “oh that’s their social policy, leave them alone” when you’re sitting “across the pond” and will never be affected by it. But someone must speak up. For if we’ve learned anything from history, both that of our own nation and of the world, bad things happen when people don’t speak up. Martin Niemoller’s “First they came for the Socialists” quote is a glaring reminder of the dangers of silence.
I can’t say that I’m the biggest supporter or follower of Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi), but I saw this tweet the other day from her and couldn’t help myself. I actually think it applies more broadly than Uganda and probably to more than the LGBT community, but it’s an important sentiment.