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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 5)

I was initially going to conclude this essay with a little coda to my story about the local leaders’ workshop: a conversation I had the following day with a colleague who happened to be absent during the altercation itself. It’s an exchange I’m fond of relating, because it ended in him telling me, with utter certainty, that “this thing of gay rights ... it will come to Uganda.” I have faith in what he said, but I also know that drawing too much comfort from his statement right now would be naive. Two weeks after the enactment of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, with homosexuals facing the constant threat of arrest or, worse yet, the prospect of horrific mob violence, his words ring painfully hollow.

Gay rights will come to Uganda, but they will come slowly, and they will come only as part of a wider movement toward social justice in the country. If we as foreigners want to be involved with this change we must be willing to back the human rights initiatives of all groups, not just the ones we identify with most easily. We must be willing to extend our attention spans beyond sound-bite explanations and knee-jerk solutions. There is no quick fix here and there are no shortcuts around the complexity of this issue. Any genuine and long-term solution will require patience, caution and, above all, an engagement with the full spectrum of human rights abuse in Uganda.

That being said, there are lives at stake today and there is a responsibility to protect those in danger right now. The situation facing Uganda’s LGBT community at this moment is nothing short of catastrophic. There is no simple way out of this, no silver lining to turn toward. Impulsive gestures, however well intentioned, may put lives at even greater risk. The past few days have seen the creation of a number of funds for the safeguarding of LGBT individuals in Uganda (for example, Protecting LGBT Ugandans from Mob Violence). This, and other similarly discreet measures, may constitute the best course of action for now, as they can help those in need without drawing the ire of the wider community. Meanwhile, on a larger scale, we must work to defuse public anger. Sadly, on this point, the dos are less obvious than the don’ts. But the don’ts are themselves important, and none more so than the following: Don’t cut aid to Uganda. Cutting aid will not make Uganda’s LGBT community safer. It will not hurt Museveni’s image at home or prompt a reconsideration of this legislation. All it will do is reinforce the local belief that the only Ugandans who matter to the outside world are gay Ugandans—one of the very misconceptions that brought us where we are today. Right now, we must stand with Uganda’s LGBT community without standing against the rest of the country’s population. Gay rights are human rights. And in Uganda, as everywhere, human rights are a concern for all people; it’s time we finally started treating them as such.

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