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Anti-Gay Atmosphere Permeates Uganda

Thousands of children  demonstrate against homosexuality in Uganda's capital, Kampala, in January. A bill being considered by the Ugandan Parliament would increase penalties for homosexual conduct and  criminalize many related activities.
Thousands of children demonstrate against homosexuality in Uganda's capital, Kampala, in January. A bill being considered by the Ugandan Parliament would increase penalties for homosexual conduct and criminalize many related activities.

In October, a tabloid called Rolling Stone -- no relation to the American magazine -- published an article headlined "100 Pictures of Uganda's Top Homos Leak." The article listed names, addresses and hangouts of gay men and lesbians.

Frank Mugisha saw his photo. Then he noticed the subhead: "Hang them."

"I was shaken up. I was freaked out. I was scared," says Mugisha, who heads up the group Sexual Minorities Uganda. "I'm like, hang them? What is the general Ugandan community going to do to us if the media is calling for us to be hanged?"

On Tuesday, a judge in Uganda is expected to decide whether Rolling Stonemay continue to publish the names of gay men and lesbians. Gay activists say that outing them puts them in danger. For example, a couple of days after his name and photo were printed, Mugisha received a text message from a university student.

"It said, 'We don't like homosexuals in Uganda and you guys should be executed. We know where you live, we know who you hang out with, we know who your friends are and we shall come and deal with you as the youth of Uganda.'"

Mugisha was not physically attacked. But others were, says Christopher Senyojo, a retired Anglican bishop who works with gays in Uganda.

"I know a girl whose house was stoned [and] had to run away for some time from that neighborhood," he says. "I've known people who have been attacked, because after this publication, bad elements started to hunt them down."

Across Africa, gay men and lesbians have been targeted for punishment or violent attacks in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Senegal and Cameroon. But Mugisha says, in Uganda, there's an American connection.

"Homophobia has always existed in Uganda," he says. "But I would say it's greatly increased over the past two years, ever since American evangelicals came to Uganda."

Specifically, he's referring to a conference in March 2009, when three Americans spoke to hundreds of people in Kampala about homosexuality. One of them was Scott Lively, who told the group: "The gay movement is an evil institution. The goal of the gay movement is to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity."

Lively, who declined an interview, heads Abiding Truth Ministries, a conservative evangelical group in Massachusetts that claims people can be healed from homosexuality. On that same trip, Lively met with members of Uganda's Parliament, and a few months later, Parliament member David Bahati introduced a bill that would impose the death penalty on gays.

"I am trying to make sure there is a way to protect our children and make sure our traditional family, the culture that we believe in, is not polluted," Bahati said in an interview. He spoke to NPR while he was in Washington to attend an economic conference, but was prohibited from entering the building where the conference was held after the organizers learned of his bill.

Bahati says the vast majority of Ugandans oppose homosexuality, and he's just representing their views.

"There has been an impression that maybe Bahati is another Hitler, is another Saddam Hussein, is another Idi Amin of Uganda," he said. "I'm not that. I love people. I love gays, but we disagree on how we should approach this issue."

Bahati's bill -- which will be considered as early as February -- would exact the death penalty for consenting gay adults who are "serial offenders." It would give life imprisonment for touching someone of the same gender in a sexual way, and jail time for anyone -- including friends and family -- who doesn't turn gay people in.

"If it was passed, it would be terrible," says Senyojo. He believes what the law doesn't do, vigilantes would.

"The mob could definitely attack anybody who they said was a homosexual," he says.

The Obama administration has warned Uganda that this is a bad idea. Bahati says America should mind its own business.

"As God-fearing people, we know that man and woman were created to have a union, and we are very, very, very strong about this," he says. "This is our own view. We respect America for what they believe in. They should also respect Uganda for what they believe in."

Bahati says because of international pressure, he would consider removing the death penalty provisions. He adds that his bill has overwhelming support in the Parliament. But even if it fails, the current law barring "carnal knowledge against the order of nature" carries a penalty of life in prison.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.