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In Uganda, Gays Face Growing Social, Legal Hostility

April 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Being gay is extremely taboo in deeply religious Uganda, where one tabloid urged the hanging of people it called the country's "top homos." Fred de Sam Lazaro reports how the re-emergence of a bill to impose severe penalties for homosexuality, including death in some cases, has brought more rebuke from Western donor nations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: An African nation’s campaign against gays runs into a warning from the United States.

Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from Uganda.

A version of this story also aired on the PBS program “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly”

JOSEPH TOLTON, pastor: David’s murder was meant to cause all of us who support human rights to live in fear!


FRED DE SAM LAZARO: David Kato was memorialized recently on the first anniversary of his death, a service led by Pastor Joseph Tolton, a gay rights advocate visiting from New York.

Kato’s activism in a land where homosexuality is deeply taboo made him a target for a tabloid called “Rolling Stone.” The paper published the names of what it called the country’s “top homos.” Under the words “Hang Them” was Kato’s photograph. A few days later, he was beaten to death.

Advocates say it was only the most brutal incident in an increasingly hostile environment for gays, one that could soon be written into law.

JOSEPH TOLTON: We will not be crushed by the Bahati bill.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The Bahati bill, named after its author, David Bahati in Uganda’s parliament, was introduced in 2009 and reintroduced earlier this year. It would add severe penalties — death in some cases — for homosexuality, which is already illegal under anti-sodomy laws passed during British colonial times.

FRANK MUGISHA, gay rights advocate: I could be put in jail for life for not doing anything, but for saying I am a homosexual and for being out.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Frank Mugisha is Uganda’s best known gay rights advocate. He took over the group led by David Kato. Mugisha blames American evangelical pastors, including Massachusetts-based Scott Lively, for helping stoke the intolerance.

SCOTT LIVELY, pastor: What has caused these people to end up in this condition that God condemns, that is hurting them and that we want to help them to overcome?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Videos posted on the Internet show Lively conducting seminars here decrying a global homosexual agenda, insisting that homosexuality is a learned behavior that can be unlearned, and that he’d helped many people do so.

Lively denies he ever called for violence, but in a deeply religious country, Mugisha says such messages affirm local clergy and policy-makers.

FRANK MUGISHA: You have a political leader saying we should never accept homosexuality, a political leader saying if the law is passed, I’ll go to – I’ll go and take a job in the prisons to hang the homosexuals myself.

So if it is a political leader, a member of parliament saying that, then how are the people who believe, who have voted them, who listen to them, how are they going to react?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Reaction on the streets was strongly in favor of the anti-gay legislation. Polls have shown that 95 percent of Ugandans favor criminalizing homosexuality. Even David Kato’s funeral was not free of anti-gay rhetoric from a pastor.

MAN: You should repent.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: When first introduced, the bill did call for the death penalty in certain cases. It provoked an international outcry among donor nations. A large part of Uganda’s budget comes from foreign aid. The measure was shelved, until what some people here called a new provocation late last year.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told this gathering in Geneva that the U.S. was placing the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people at the heart of its human rights agenda, and tying it to aid decisions.

HILLARY CLINTON: The president has directed all US government agencies engaged overseas to combat the criminalization of LGBT status and conduct, to enhance efforts to protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, to ensure that our foreign assistance promotes the protection of LGBT rights.

JOSEPH SERWADDA, Pastor: This is going to be very tough on Africa, because most African nations consider gayism. . .


JOSEPH SERWADDA: . . . gayism as a behavior, not as a culture, not as a faith, and definitely not as a way of life.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Pastor Joseph Serwadda, who heads an association of Pentecostal and evangelical churches, says Western countries are imposing their values and agenda on sub-Saharan Africa. As proof, he noted that the head of mission at the U.S. Embassy here attended the funeral of gay activist David Kato.

JOSEPH SERWADDA: Many people, thousands of them, die of HIV/AIDS, of other illnesses and ailments. Many people die in road accidents, and we’ve never seen an ambassador show up at a grave site.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Could it be because — could it be because his picture was on the front page of a magazine that said, “Hang Them?”

JOSEPH SERWADDA: Could also be because America has an agenda for homosexuals in Uganda.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Like police and prosecutors in the Kato murder case, he says robbery or a soured business deal could well have been the motive, not homophobia.

Pastor Serwadda isn’t sure he’s ever met a gay person in Uganda and says it is proof that homosexuality was never an issue here until gays in the West began stirring things up, encouraging Ugandans to push for special rights and protections they don’t need.

JOSEPH SERWADDA: Nobody has gone to jail; nobody has been harassed; nobody has been ostracized because of their sexual orientation.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Wow. That’s contrary to what we hear.

JOSEPH SERWADDA: You’ve just come in the country a couple of weeks ago. We live here. I’ve lived here for more than 50 years, so I know.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But you’ve never met a gay person.

JOSEPH SERWADDA: Only one, and I wasn’t sure he was.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But you know that they’re not harassed.


FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He says the Obama administration is pushing gay rights now to court the gay vote in the U.S. election.

We tried to talk to U.S. officials for this report, but our request to interview the ambassador or any other spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Uganda was turned down. It’s an indication of how delicate the issue of gay rights is in this country.

Meanwhile, the anti-homosexuality legislation is working its way through a lengthy hearing process. Among those paying close attention is the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and Justice in Washington.

Last year, it awarded its annual prize to Frank Mugisha.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass.: Robert Kennedy would have been amazed by your work, Frank.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It’s the first time the award has ever been given to a gay rights campaigner.

Mugisha says the prize and the notoriety are a mixed blessing. It bestows international legitimacy and may allow him access to policy-makers. Still, with emotions running high, Mugisha says he lives in almost constant fear for his physical safety.

FRANK MUGISHA: I’m not scared of the government. I keep saying that, because if the government really wants to harm me, they will do that. But I’m scared of the ordinary people.

Just recently, when someone wrote in a newspaper about me, and if you went and read, there were Facebook comments on that, and if you read the comments, there were people who were saying they could kill me if they saw me.


FRANK MUGISHA: Yeah, on the Facebook comments on the monitor. And there were people who were saying all sorts of horrible things. So you just imagine. And I interact with people, you know, and you — people tell you horrible things right to your face.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: So even as Mugisha hopes that international pressure can dissuade Uganda from passing its anti-homosexuality law, he must worry about a more immediate threat: random violence that has often accompanied public discussions about homosexuality.

JEFFREY BROWN: On our website, Fred describes how difficult it was to report this story. His blog is posted on our home page at

Fred’s reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota.