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How the West Was Wrong: Misunderstanding Uganda’s Gay Rights Crisis Makes It Worse

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Posted on Mar 13, 2014

By Sara Weschler

(Page 4)

One of the truly twisted aspects of the current situation in Uganda is that the very people you’d expect to stand as allies with the LGBT community are often the ones most staunchly opposed to it. My friend’s Facebook status was unsettling to me the other day, but it really wasn’t out of character. Some of the most progressive people I know in Uganda—people who devote their lives to truth and reconciliation work (even in the face of direct government threats), people who fight for the rights of women and marginalized ethnic groups—are also the most outspokenly homophobic.

This is not a coincidence; there is causality here. When people’s crushing struggles for justice are ignored again and again, when they feel repeatedly abandoned by an international community that purports to care about the rights of all humans, a certain anger begins to take root. “Gay rights are human rights,” we are fond of declaring, and nothing could be more patently true. Yet this is precisely not how they have been presented to most Ugandans. The West’s behavior toward Uganda has far too often framed gay rights as something separate from human rights, something more valuable and more pressing than the rights of the rest of the population. By aggressively intervening on behalf of the LGBT community, but standing silently by as an autocratic government alternates between criminal neglect and inexcusable abuse of the rest of its citizens, we in fact make Uganda’s gay population a lightning rod for popular anger. This is in no way a justification of the violence gay people face in Uganda; it is simply a description of a dangerous reality on the ground. The push for LGBT rights in Uganda can succeed only if it is integrated into efforts on behalf of human rights as a whole. As it stands, however, the West seems incapable of taking in Uganda’s full political landscape.

No one understands this last point better than Uganda’s president. Together with his ruling National Resistance Movement party, Museveni engages in a sort of perverse “pinkwashing” of his country’s political image. This may be a darkly apt term given the Ugandan security forces’ penchant for releasing torrents of fuchsia indelible ink on peaceful street demonstrations—a tactic that later allows them to track participants back to their homes for arrest. But I am referring, instead, to the government’s cynical manipulation of the LGBT rights issue to distract from its own self-serving assaults on the rights and interests of the Ugandan population as a whole. Time and again, Museveni and his cronies have used the Anti-Homosexuality Act to draw international attention away from pervasive crimes and abuses. And the West has played right into this game. Originally proposed in 2009, the bill enjoyed little in the way of concerted support and stalled in parliament for well over a year. It first resurfaced for discussion in spring 2011, just as “Walk to Work,” an opposition-led movement protesting Uganda’s soaring cost of living, began to pose a genuine threat to Museveni’s grip on power. The foreign media took the bait, focusing their sights on the anti-homosexuality legislation at a time when Uganda stood on the cusp of far-reaching political change, when opposition in the country was finally gaining traction and international support could have had deeply meaningful and tangible effects. In subsequent years, the bill has been repeatedly revived to distract the international community on issues ranging from the embezzlement of millions of dollars intended for the rehabilitation of the country’s war-torn northern districts, to Uganda’s support for the M23 rebel group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to the possible murder of politicians who inconvenienced the National Resistance Movement (see Helen Epstein’s recent editorial “Two Cheers for Gay Rights in Uganda” for a superb summary of these political developments). “No, no, don’t look at that,” one can almost hear Museveni saying, “look over here instead.” And each time the West has been happy to oblige.

To be fair, though, it’s not just outsiders who have fallen for this tactic. If anything, Museveni’s cynical manipulation of the Anti-Homosexuality Act has been even more successful at home. The president uses the law—and the response he has repeatedly managed to elicit from abroad—to frame himself as an intrepid leader resolutely defending profound Ugandan values against an onslaught of moral corruption from the West. More importantly perhaps, in the past month he has managed to employ the law as a bargaining chip, trading his commitment to sign it for the unquestioning support of the NRM party in the 2016 elections. Museveni, who once famously wrote that Uganda’s problem is “not the people, but leaders who want to overstay in power,” will soon be wrapping up three decades in office. At this point, he cares far more about maintaining his position in the State House than he does about the day-to-day struggles of his people—homosexual or otherwise.

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