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Gays in Africa face growing persecution, activists say

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 12, 2010; A12

KAMPALA, UGANDA - Persecution of gays is intensifying across Africa, fueled by fundamentalist preachers, intolerant governments and homophobic politicians. Gay people have been denied access to health care, detained, tortured and even killed, human rights activists and witnesses say.

The growing tide of homophobia comes at a time when gays in Africa are expressing themselves more openly, prompting greater media attention and debates about homosexuality. The rapid growth of Islam and evangelical forms of Christianity, both espousing conservative views on family values and marriage, have persuaded many Africans that homosexuality should not be tolerated in their societies.

"It has never been harder for gays and lesbians on the continent," said Monica Mbaru, Africa coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, based in Cape Town. "Homophobia is on the rise."

Fearing for their lives, many activists are in hiding or have fled their countries.

In Uganda, a bill introduced in parliament last year would impose the death penalty for repeated same-sex relations and life imprisonment for other homosexual acts. Local newspapers are outing gays, potentially inciting the public to attack them, activists say.

A day after a newspaper article said that gays should be hanged, Sheila Hope Mugisha became a target. As the prominent gay rights activist neared her home, she said, boys from the neighborhood threw stones at the gate and chanted, "You are a homo." Mugisha ran inside and locked the door. She didn't leave for several days.

"Here, homosexuality is like you have killed someone," she said.

American gay activists have sent money to help the community here. Western governments - including aid donors - have vocally criticized the bill and denounced the treatment of gays.

That has angered conservative pastors here, many of whom are influenced by American anti-gay Christian groups and politicians who say that African values are under attack by Western attitudes. They say their goal is to change the sexual behavior of gays, not to physically harm them.

"In Uganda, we look at homosexuality as an abomination. It is not normal," said Nsaba Butoro, Uganda's minister on ethics and integrity and a vocal supporter of the bill. "You are talking about a clash of cultures. The question is: Which culture is superior, the African one or the Western one?"

'Unnatural acts'

More than two-thirds of African countries have laws criminalizing homosexuality. In May, a judge in Malawi imposed a maximum prison sentence of 14 years with hard labor on a gay couple convicted of "unnatural acts" for holding an engagement ceremony. Malawi's president pardoned the couple after international condemnation, particularly from Britain, Malawi's largest donor.

Gays have also been attacked this year in Zimbabwe, and in Senegal their graves have been desecrated. Gays in Cameroon have been attacked by police and targeted in the media. In Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh has vowed to expel gays from the country and urged citizens not to rent homes to them.

Late last month, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga declared that gay people discovered having sex should be arrested. He later backtracked after his comments drew widespread anger from human rights groups.

A survey by the Forum on Religion and Public Life released in April found that 79 percent of Ugandans consider "homosexual behavior morally wrong," with even higher percentages in several other African countries.

One exception is South Africa, whose constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and is among a few countries in the world that have legalized same-sex marriages. Still, even there, negative attitudes toward gays persist in many rural areas and townships.

Mbaru's organization has seen a 10 percent increase in reported attacks against gays in Africa in the past year, she said. According to Sexual Minorities Uganda, a gay rights group, more than 20 gay people have been attacked over the past year here. An additional 17 have been arrested and are in prison.

In recent years, conservative American evangelical churches have had a profound influence on society in Uganda and other African nations. They send missions and help fund local churches that share their brand of Christianity. Sermons and seminars by American evangelist preachers are staples on local television and radio networks across the continent.

Some activists say the attacks in Uganda intensified last year after three American evangelical preachers visited the country. In seminars attended by thousands and broadcasted over radio, the preachers discussed how to "cure" homosexuality and accused gays of sodomizing boys and destroying African culture. A month later, a Ugandan lawmaker introduced the anti-homosexuality bill.

"The religious fundamentalists want to rule everyone. They want everyone to follow their religious agenda," said Pepe Julien Onziema, a gay rights activist here.

Uganda's penal code criminalizes homosexuality as "acts against the laws of human nature." But under the draft bill, even parents and teachers who fail to report an offender would face three years in jail; those who "promote" homosexuality would face a five- to seven-year jail sentence.

The bill has provoked an international uproar, particularly from the United States and European governments that provide the bulk of Uganda's foreign aid. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has quietly urged lawmakers not to act on the bill.

Giles Muhame, a 22-year-old journalist in Uganda's capital, said the bill was shelved because of donor pressure. "Most Ugandans are totally against homosexuality," he said.

With a few colleagues, Muhame launched Rolling Stone, a conservative tabloid that is unaffiliated with the U.S. magazine.

"The Bible condemns homosexuality," Muhame said. "You know what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah? It is like murder. It is like terrorism."

Targets for violence

On Oct. 2, Rolling Stone published an article under the headline "100 Pictures of Uganda's Top Homos Leak." The subhead read, "Hang Them."

The tabloid published people's addresses and hangouts. Alongside a large photograph of her, the article described Mugisha as a predator who targeted children. Then it told readers where she lived.

It was the latest in a string of assaults over her life. When she was 16, Mugisha said, a neighbor raped her after he saw that she was not interested in boys.

"He wanted to teach me how to play with boys," Mugisha recalled.

She became pregnant and had an abortion. Her rapist also infected her with HIV, she said. "I nearly tried to kill myself," said Mugisha, wiry with short-cropped hair and dressed in blue jeans, a red-checkered shirt and a baseball cap.

Three weeks after the Rolling Stone article, another tabloid, Red Pepper, said she had dated more than half the women in Uganda and published a photo that appeared to show her kissing her partner. She received harassing phone calls. Her uncle stopped talking to her.

"If the bill becomes a law, I have to find a way to leave Uganda," Mugisha said.

Mugisha sought the help of an advocacy group that helped her sneak out of her neighborhood and move to a secret location in another neighborhood.

Jacqueline Kasha, another gay rights activist, said recent victims included a lesbian in the northern Ugandan city of Lira who was doused with gasoline by her neighbors. They were about to set her on fire when community leaders intervened. Many other gays have gone into hiding, Kasha said.

She is one of them. To travel around Kampala, she uses a taxi driver she trusts. She avoids the market and other crowded places. She rarely goes to her office.

Moses Solomon Male, a pastor, said gays were exaggerating their plight to get more funding from Western rights groups and seek asylum in the United States and Europe.

"Homosexuality is not inborn," he said. "So it's not inherent as a right."

Kasha and Onziema have taken Rolling Stone to court, seeking to stop it from publishing more anti-gay articles. In a packed courtroom last month, their attorney argued that the stories violated constitutional rights of privacy, dignity and right to life.

A decision is expected Dec. 13. Meanwhile, the magazine has kept attacking gays.

"The world is under siege by homosexuals," Muhame said. "They want to control the world, and they are starting with Africa."

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