The global outcry against Uganda’s “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” could not be more deafening. Opponents of the legislation have condemned the effort not just to put gays in prison, which is already the law in Uganda, but to further criminalize the ”promotion of homosexuality,” require that suspected gays and lesbians be turned in to authorities, and to punish some individuals — including those who are HIV positive or those euphemistically called ”repeat offenders” — with death.
The governments of Canada, France and Sweden have branded the bill wrongheaded. From Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to President Barack Obama himself, the U.S., a major foreign donor to Uganda, has made its disapproval of the legislation clear. Usually silent religious leaders, from Anglican and Catholic Church leadership to Saddleback Church’s Rick Warren and other evangelical Christians, have condemned the bill’s promotion of the death penalty, imprisonment for gays and lesbians, and the threat its provisions pose to pastoral confidentiality.
UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe has expressed deep concern with the bill’s potential impact on Uganda’s heretofore successful HIV-prevention efforts. And while both the African Union and the government of South Africa have characteristically failed to condemn the bill, several important African leaders, including former president of Botswana Festus Mogae and UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa Elizabeth Mataka, have spoken out firmly and forcefully. If the bill passes in this firestorm of criticism, it certainly won’t be for lack of unified, unequivocal condemnation.
This vehement response was absent less than a year ago and fewer than a hundred miles away, when the Parliament of Burundi amended its Penal Code to criminalize consensual same-sex relationships for the first time in its history. Nor was it conspicuous when Nigeria considered criminalizing attendance at gay-rights meetings or support groups in 2006. Now, horror at the cruelty of these new laws and growing evidence of direct involvement by the U.S. religious right is leading to a subtle, but significant, sea change. Local LGBT and civil-rights movements are finding the voice to condemn these horrible new pieces of legislation and the international community is standing its ground. Last month, the government of Rwanda dropped a proposal to criminalize homosexuality in the face of pressure from rights activists and HIV-service providers inside and outside of the country.
But while condemning new oppressive laws is important, it is just as important — and perhaps more pressing — to take measures to hold governments accountable for the daily violence and lifetimes of discrimination that LGBT people face in the more than 80 countries around the world that continue to criminalize homosexuality and the many more that impose penalties for those who challenge gender norms.
Take Senegal, for instance, where homosexuality has been illegal since 1965. The last two years have seen a dramatic escalation in homophobic persecution and violence, largely unnoticed by the international community and the world media. The country has experienced waves of arrests, detentions, and attacks on individuals by anti-gay mobs, fueled by media sensationalism and a harsh brand of religious fundamentalism. Police have rounded up men and women on charges of homosexuality, detained them under inhumane conditions, and sentenced them with or without proof of having committed any offense. Families and communities have turned on those suspected of being gay or lesbian. In cities throughout the county, the corpses of men presumed to have been gay have been disinterred and unceremoniously abandoned. As the international community has laudably warned Uganda on the progress of its nonsensical law, arrests on charges related to homosexuality in Senegal — five men in Darou Mousty in June, a man in Touba in November, and 24 men celebrating at a party in Saly Niax Niaxal on Christmas Eve — continue largely unnoticed.
Responding to the homophobic extremism in the Ugandan legislation is hugely important, but it is no substitute for a broad and unequivocal condemnation of sodomy laws and anti-LGBT violence wherever it occurs. When just such a statement condemning grave violations of human rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and calling for the end of criminalization was brought to the UN General Assembly just one year ago, only 66 of 192 countries voted for it. At the time, the U.S. was not one of them.
Even if the campaign against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill succeeds, homosexuality will continue to be illegal in Uganda — just as it is in Senegal, where the lives of LGBT people are virtually unlivable. The test of our commitment to rights for all members of the human family, including LGBT people, is not whether we respond when the media turns its hot spotlight on a new, extreme piece of legislation. It is whether we are willing to commit our attention, resources, and political will in places like Senegal, where there are no cameras or reporters chronicling the impact of a decades-old law to hold us accountable. While the global sense of outrage at Uganda’s bill is inspiring, it will be a missed opportunity if this spirited condemnation of homophobic violence fails to become standard operating procedure.
Cary Alan Johnson is the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). Ryan Thoreson is a research fellow at IGLHRC and co-author of Words of Hate, Climate of Fear: Human Rights Violations and Challenges to the LGBT Movement in Senegal. The opinions expressed here are the authors’ and not necessarily those of the organization.