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Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill sparks hot debate

Death penalty for gay sex is included in proposed legislation.

Members of religious groups campaigning against homosexuality hold placards during a rally in Kampala, Aug. 21, 2007. Some Christian groups in Uganda have backed proposed legislation which would impose the death penalty on those convicted of some homosexual acts. (James Akena/Reuters)

KAMPALA, Uganda — To many non-Ugandans, Uganda conjures up two sustaining images; One, a small, beautiful, landlocked east African nation, once called the “Pearl of Africa” by her British colonizers. The other, a country ruled by African strongman Idi Amin, recently immortalized by the 2006 Oscar-winning performance of Forest Whitaker in, “The Last King of Scotland.”

A new image could be emerging for Uganda. One that would eclipse any other notion and one that Ugandans are hotly debating: one of the few countries in the world to implement the death penalty for gays and lesbians.

This potentially powerful new image could be said to be the brain-child of David Bahati. Bahati, 35, is a Ugandan member of parliament from the politically influential western region of Uganda. Many here say he is an “up and coming” politician with a good pedigree and many of the “right connections.”

On Sept. 25, 2009, Bahati introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009 for review and vote by parliament. The most controversial part of the bill calls for the death penalty for people convicted of "aggravated homosexuality."

Aggravated homosexuality is a new term that includes: gay sex with someone younger than 18 or someone who has sex and is HIV positive, as well as gay sex in which the offender seduces a person using alcohol or drugs, the offender is a parent/guardian of the person against whom the offense is committed, or victim of the offense is a person with a disability.

The bill is being hotly debated, not only in parliament, but by human rights activists, gay and lesbian activists and many expatriates as well as average Ugandans.

Uganda already has a law, which dates back to British colonial rule, which makes homosexuality a crime.

Many critics charge that the bill confused homosexual acts between consenting adults with pedophilia and rape. Bahatiʼs own description of the reason for the bill is "there is also a need to protect the children and youths of Uganda, who are vulnerable to sexual abuse and deviation as a result of cultural exchanges, uncensored information technologies ... and increasing attempts by homosexuals to raise children.”

Those who support the bill say that homosexuality is un-African and imported by Western countries. Dr. Martin Ssempa, of the Family Policy and Human Rights Center of Uganda, in an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama and popular U.S. Christian minister Rick Warren, asks them to apologize “for insulting the people of Africa by your very inappropriate use of your church and White House pulpits to coerce us into the evil of Sodomy and Gaymorrah.”

Religiously, Uganda is a very Christian country. It has been described as an “island of Christendom in a sea of Islam.” According to statistics compiled by, Ugandans are 84 percent Christian (42 percent Protestant and 41.9 percent Roman Catholic). Many Christian ministers preach against homosexuality.