For me, the high point of attending Eschaton in Ottawa recently was the demonstration we held outside the Ugandan High Commission building on Cobourg Street on Monday, December 3 to protest the proposed the horrendous "Kill The Gays" bill currently before the Ugandan legislation. The bill, officially known as the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is a legislative proposal to broaden Uganda's current legislation to criminalise same-sex relations in that country. In its current form, the proposed legislation divides homosexual behaviour into two categories: "aggravated homosexuality" which would be a capital offence and "the offence of homosexuality" for which people convicted would receive a life sentence. The bill also includes Ugandans who engage in homosexual conduct outside the country for which they could presumably be extradited to Uganda to face punishment. It also includes penalties for individuals, companies, or non-governmental organizations that protect homosexuals or endorse LGBT rights.
First introduced as a private member's bill in 2009 by Member of Parliament David Bahati, the new bill is intended to crack down on LGBT organizations in Uganda and has wide endorsement from Christian evangelist organizations worldwide as well as domestic religious groups. Though same-sex relations in Uganda, as in many other African countries, are already illegal with penalties as high as 14 years, the new bill has faced condemnation by many Western governments. Despite threats to cut off vital foreign aid to Uganda, that country's Parliament agreed to pass the new bill by late December as a "Christmas present" to the Ugandan people.
At latest report, the capital punishment provision has reportedly been dropped from the bill although the penalities are still the harshest in all of Africa . The estimated 500,000 LGBT people in Uganda (exact numbers cannot be obtained for obvious reasons) already face enormous persecution over what is widely regarded as "unnatural sex". While the anti-gay laws in the country of 31 million inhabitants are largely a relic of Uganda's past as a British protectorate, the influence of American evangelist groups has exacerbated anti-homosexual prejudices in recent years. With representatives from Exodus International, author Scott Lively, and local representatives of evangelical groups conducting seminars and treatment sessions to "heal" homosexuality, the political and social situation for LGBT groups has become increasingly perilous. Many of the anti-gay workshops include familiar themes such as the "gay agenda" and accusations that homosexuals are seeking to recruit children. Given that homosexuals are often presented as a danger to families, the mainstay of Ugandan society, they often face violence from vigilantes in addition to police harassment.
While American evangelical groups have downplayed their association with the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill due to the international backlash, they have quietly lent their economic and policial support in recent years. They are also suspected of financing David Bahati's private member's bill. Amnesty International has been monitoring the situation and reported that arrests for homosexuality are often arbitrary and that detainees are subject to torture and abuse by authorities, often to force them to name fellow homosexuals. With the prospect of life imprisonment and possibly even the death penalty, the rise in Ugandan LGBTs seeking refuge has soared in recent years although even seeking refuge may be considered a sign of guilt under the new law.
As for the demonstration itself, it was a fairly quiet affair. The High Commission building hardly seemed out of place in the quiet Ottawa residential neighbourhood where it is located (except for the Ugandan flag outside). We gathered out front and arranged signs protesting the bill along with chanting. There was no response from the staff inside the building although the arrival of two RCMP officers suggests that someone called them to maintain order. Everything remained cordial as we continued the protest. It seems unlikely that one rally will have a significant impact although it adds to the international pressure that Uganda continues to face. Whether this will make a difference remains to be seen but, hopefully, the message we are trying to send to the Ugandan government will be heard.