Changing the West’s Narrative with regard to Anti-Gay Legislation in Uganda

By Melanie Nathan, August 31, 2014.

SFALI, Anti-Homosexuality Bill, Uganda, Hon. Nabilah Naggayi Sempala
SFALI, Anti-Homosexuality Bill, Uganda, San Francisco forum for Hon. Nabilah Naggayi Sempala

This week I am interviewing, publicly, a member of the Ugandan Parliament with a Town Hall dialogue to follow.  The Honorable Nabilah Naggayi Sempala has agreed to speak to us in San Francisco at a forum, hosted by The San Francisco Africa leadership Institute (SFALI). After years observing and writing about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda, helping to provide safe-shelter for LGBT people, interacting with a wide array of Ugandans, including activists and parliamentarians, as well as noting the recent TIME interview with the human rights lawyer, who led the defeat of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda’s Constitutional Court, it becomes increasingly clear that the West must set a different course in response to the issue and possible future legislation.

In 2009 Ugandan Member of Parliament, David Bahati, introduced a private member bill, The Anti-Homosexuality Bill (AHA), dubbed “The Kill the Gays Bill,” which was signed into law in December, 2013.  The controversial Bill, described by President Obama as “odious,” was assented to by President Yoweri Museveni, on February 24, 2014, without the death penalty, but with harsh prison terms of up to life in prison for so called “aggravated homosexuality.” The introduction of the Bill followed at the heels of a distinctive export to Uganda of a brand of Christianity from the United States of America, by radical right winger Scott Lively and others, who called for the eradication of homosexuals to thwart the so called “homosexual agenda,’ through instilling fear into a Ugandan populace ripe for scapegoating, while citing myth and lies about homosexuality.

After so many years of political play, soon after the Bill passed,  Red Pepper magazine, the most widely read newspaper in East Africa published and outed “Uganda’s Top 200 Homos.”  The Ugandan community rallied in the tens of thousands, packing a stadium, to present an award and give thanks to the President for signing the popular legislation. This caused many LGBT people to report incidents described by human rights defenders as persecutory, such as banishment from families, evictions, firings, assaults and even threats of mob violence.

The LGBT community in Uganda fought back and the Constitutional Court struck down the Anti-Homosexuality Act, declaring it invalid, citing that the Speaker of the House, Rebecca Kadaga, had failed to establish a quorum when the Bill was voted upon. The Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the Act in relation to the human rights arguments brought by the Petitioners, creating the possibility for its reintroduction into the Ugandan Parliament. And indeed that is precisely what could happen, as politicians signed a petition for its reintroduction shortly thereafter.

Hon. Nabilah Naggayi is one of the parliamentarians who signed this petition to reinstate the legislation.  She informed me of her cynicism in doing so, and of her request to introduce an amendment that would include men who sodomized their wives in the punitive measures of a new bill.  Hon. Naggayi asserts that she is not one of the homophobic MP’s, but rather one who has been repressed and isolated. She conveys her importance in Parliament, given the patriarchy and her fight for the critical marriage Bill which will help women and children, who are severely marginalized in Uganda. As a member of the opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change, (FDC,) and not the party of Yoweri Museveni, who has led Uganda for almost 30 years, Hon. Sempala has not had an easy time keeping her seat in Parliament.   It is an important seat, noting that Uganda’s Parliament has 375 seats of which only 34 represent the FDC party and  of the just over 112 women, only 11 are from the FDC.

When I read the interview by TIME with the human rights lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo, who represented the Petitioners in the court case that succeeded in invalidating the AHA, I was struck by the similar sentiment he expressed when comparing it to my conversation with Hon. Naggayi and it served to endorse the notion that we must be willing to dialogue for a better understanding.

Both Opiyo and Hon. Naggayi express that in their opinion it may not be helpful to continue to isolate the LGBTI issue as an issue separated from the confluence of human rights issues in the Ugandan context. It seems that this sentiment may unlock revised responses by us in the West:

TIMETime Magazing Opiyo lawyer, Uganda, Human rights TO ODIYO:-

What role does the American government play in all of this? Can the American government in any way step in, interject?

The people who advocated for the AHA were motivated by, financed by, American evangelicals. It’s an American group driving this debate at home. This debate was not a popular debate. It was not an issue in Uganda because people in Uganda are struggling about food, employment, medical care, access to medical services, education—these are the things that occupy the people in my village, in my town. Not homosexuality—that was a non-issue. This issue was put in the national debate because of the influence of the American evangelical movement. The Americans brought this to our country they’ve got to sort themselves out back home, here, to ensure that the radical American preachers don’t spread hatred across the world.

Secondly, I think that the American government must understand that their response to this issue in Uganda at some point escalated this debate and shifted the narrative of this debate from being a human rights issue to a new colonial attempt by Americans to impose their values on Ugandans. The politicians are very quick to pounce on that. The debate shifted to America versus Uganda, not about Ugandan people who face discrimination every day. The American government can redefine this narrative by given(ing) prominence to local leaders. This is a Ugandan problem. Ugandans must find the solution to it.


When do you think gays, lesbians, transgendered people will be completely safe in Uganda? How long do you think that will take?

That is difficult to tell, precisely because the sense of homophobia, the sense of discrimination is so deeply entrenched. It’s going to be a long journey that will require patience; that will require deliberate actions on the part of both sides of the debate. But ultimately it’s going to take the commitment of the politicians and the leaders to reshape the narrative and the debate in our country. There has to be an honest debate within the faith community on this matter. In much the same way that they’re having an honest debate about the rights of women—that debate must come out. As long as the leaders are playing by the popular sentiment and not enforcing the values and obligations that signed up to do in their various human rights instruments this matter will still be delayed. It’s a long, long way to go. I can’t put a number to it but I think that it’s going to be a long walk and a difficult one at that.

It is so important, sooner than later, to engage in dialogue with Ugandans on all sides of this issue, for a better understanding of the impact of our global responses.  I am so grateful that Hon. Naggayi, a politician who has made some compromises we may consider wrong,  is willing to talk and answer our questions for all to hear.  I truly hope that the LGBT community and the human rights community of San Francisco will see the critical importance in this discussion. We have an opportunity to listen and learn.

It is time to extend the conversation beyond the predictable handful of people who have dominated the discussion until now.  It is my hope at SFALI that in the near future we will hear from an array of African people, who hopefully can travel to the U.S. to speak to and engage interested audiences, to include government, politicians, lawyers, academics, journalists, human rights defenders and activists.


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San Francisco Africa Leadership Institute
SFALI, Anti-Homosexuality Bill, Uganda, Hon. Nabilah Sempala

9 thoughts on “Changing the West’s Narrative with regard to Anti-Gay Legislation in Uganda

  1. Pingback: Changing the West’s Narrative with regard to Anti-Gay Legislation in Uganda | Daily Queer News
  2. Interesting that You have now started moving ‘to the center’. You were the most extreme of the advocates of the gay issue that I knew. Now you are willing to Listen to BOTH sides? I remember one of your commenters on some post months ago suggesting this to you and you brushed her off. Extremists, irrespective of the issue, have never won much in the long run (Malcolm X vs MLK, Mandela vs Militant youth of the struggle, etc). They may please a small small minded constituency but because their appeal is limited, they never win comprehensiveness changes. I never considered you to be one to think that people can reasonably be opposed to you or whether such people are worth talking with. Now you are realizing that ‘My Way or The High’ Way doesn’t always have good results. Been a longtime coming but a welcome change in strategy all the same. While I never understood why of all things, The West chose to engage with Africans on Sexuality, a complex and complicated issue for a continent that in most cases still lives as the former might have lived in 1700 or even earlier, It’s good anyhow that you are now willing to ‘talk’ to your opponents. And by the way, I am astonished by your mispresentation of facts in most of your postings, I guess because you are always writing for an audience that knows little if anything about Uganda or Africa. The Red Pepper ‘magazine’ as you incorrectly call it (it’s not even very accurate to call it ‘newspaper’ as you again do, it is a tabloid and no serious person regards it anything more) is not “the most widely read newspaper in East Africa”. It even isn’t in Uganda! (It sells behind The New Vision, Monitor and Bukedde). It is however the most read among tabloids IN UGANDA!

    1. I call RED PEPPER a Newspaper purposely. Because those who do read it and act upon its vindictive message see it as a Newspaper. I want to accord it the ‘officialdom’ it asserts – thereby realizing how dangerous it really is. I have vacillated consciously between calling it a Newspaper or Tabloid, to suit my Bloggers license. Either way it does not really matter when it comes to the harm it has caused. No I am not moving to the center, I simply am realizing that we have allowed Bahati and others to win this as political game fort far to long. I am ready to take the wind out of his sails. So please see my latest piece – I really believe that round 2 must change the narrative

  3. Melanie, I called you an extremist in that the tempo, attitude and emotion in your work is, at least overall, very extreme indeed. You cheered the end of US’ funding to inter-religious council of Uganda that led to loss of 80 jobs, and a curtailed response to HIV patients (though the money was ‘reallocated’ to another NGO, there is no entity that can match the reach and networks of IRCU’s faith-based programmes, so the impact is in no doubt going to reduce), then that childish ‘tongue-in-cheek’ rerun of a ‘Pastor Martin Ssempa’ rape story…. Your belittling of the role of local actors in the overturning of AHA (It had to be the White, Western led Sanctions effort of course), and you still refuse to acknowledge that the repeal was a landmark thing and you downplay it and instead play up the still homophobic popn, political stunts of bringing AHB back while saying nothing on the long journey and odds that would entail; That mocking of a Bishop’s call against Violence on gay people as a ploy to get Western donor money (Now, how was the bishop’s call not a good thing really, even if it was half-hearted as you allege?) Why the negativity all the time? I think I know why:, You fear to loose an enemy. If this thing goes away, you loose an enemy and that’s never a good thing for a “power”; Just like what happened when the cold war ended and US, NATO, etc no longer had a credible ‘threat’ on their doors (The threat is back, it looks). The moderate activists I know here in Uganda who are slowly talking to homophobic Ugandans and as a result gaining sympathy and understanding and reducing the virulence of their fellow citizens’ homophobia who happen to know about your work, while appreciative of your effort, are totally against your approach. If only you guys in San Francisco or wherever you are based would just leave us alone!

    1. I am an global activist. This is not ONLY about Uganda – its about the spreading of homophobia around the world thanks to religious extremists. It is about LGBT people in the world identifying as ONE- not separate or different- and taking responsibility to protect our own. I dont see myself as any different other than the fact that I live in a different milieu where my sexuality is not criminalized. If my people are hurt I will come to their defense. I belong to that very LGBT minority that you try and I assert I have no place in because I am white and on a different continent. Are you saying that people should not support their own? I identify as part of that minority. The fact that I am a white American reduces the fact that I am a lesbian in a world that hates lesbians? Oh OK!

      I absolutely applaud the US AID sanctions as did well known activists on the ground in Uganda and as did the grass roots members of the LGBT community who are in hiding in Uganda. Those 80- jobs lost are people who should see that the world may not want to support religious extremists who do the bidding of dictatorial regimes – perhaps they should not use religion to churn their hate. …. Are you saying everything the Ugandan activists have been saying is untrue? Sure sounds like it! . Interestingly some bishops seem to have changed their tune a little since the sanctions.

      I did not belittle anyone’s role in the demise of the AHA. Sorry you did not get the huge back slap you would have liked – you need me that much – you attribute so much power to me ben. So much. And its wrong of you. I am not as powerful as you try to make me seem.

      LOL seriously?

      I was 100% right however when I noted that the finding on the mere technicality would simply bring the AHA back to parliament. In fact I commended the work of those who brought the case for the part that they did accomplish. But we all know the case was yet another political tool of Museveni. Notwithstanding the September date for the hearing – it was suddenly brought forward and how coincidental – AHA ruled invalid the week that M7 travels to the USA. Though I still have faith in a measure of the Court’s independence, I have no doubt the timing was influenced. I do not however consider it landmark ruling when lack of quorum is so obviously unconstitutional. However had they ruled favorably for petitioners on the merits of the human rights issue – now that would have been landmark.

      Lets face facts -many LGBT Ugandans are struggling to survive. Who is helping that group?


      As for fear of losing an enemy. I dont perceive any single Ugandan – even the hate speaking guys as my enemies. Sorry to disappoint you. Maybe they are your enemies. To me all people are fiends – some just do not understand about gay people and their ignorance has been exacerbated by the inability for people to come out and have an open honest discussion for fear of arrest and retribution. However I do believe that if people could meet and talk \the myth and lies could be dispelled – but that is only happening behind the scenes in very very small steps.

      AND WHAT EXACTLY is Melanie’s approach – perhaps you can enlighten Melanie. What you see on the BLOG is about 1/10th of what I do….. so pray do tell you seem to think you know it all.

      Sorry if your control and status quo is rocked Ben – remember I have been described by certain members of Uganda’s LGBT activist community as a “key ally” and a “good friend.” I guess you just dont like that now do you?

    2. Seems Ben that you think the hat filled churches and the people they support are more entitled to survive financially than the 33 gays I know in hiding and the 65 struggling at Kakuma Camp in Kenya. I will use the Hate filled stories to fund raise for the gays that have been sent scurrying into hiding and exile as long as the hate continues and as long as people need money to survive. Sorry it fails tour pretty story narrative.

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