Updated: May 3, 2012 8:08AM
The world listened last week as Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf defended her country’s laws that discriminate against its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex population. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, she spoke of preserving Liberia’s “traditional values” and said in part, “We like ourselves the way we are.”
It’s a sad sentiment I hear in my own country of Uganda: the idea that homosexuality is somehow un-African and foreign to our culture, an import of the West that must be stopped. But it is not African to restrict another’s freedom. It is not African to spread lies and dissent and urge brutality against others. And it is certainly not African to deny fellow citizens basic human rights. No, these are ideas introduced and fostered by our colonizers, not by our ancestors.
My organization, Sexual Minorities Uganda, works against these forces of hate and division, and we live every day under the threats of violence that keep so many LGBTI Ugandans from coming forward. In 2010, a local newspaper published photographs and addresses of many of us under the headline “Hang Them.”
But still we work, because there is so much work to be done: gay men to be rescued from jail after arbitrary arrests and beatings. Lesbian women who need to be sheltered after curative rape assaults. Friends to be healed after being denied medical care.
The anti–gay groups call this struggle a campaign for gay rights. But there is nothing gay or straight about the right to worship, to assemble publicly or to live without fear of sanctioned brutality.
In Uganda today, bosses routinely fire employees suspected of being gay. We can be expelled from school or denied medical attention. Our friends and neighbors can be persecuted just for being seen with us.
The Ugandan Parliament is pushing a bill that is inspired by hateful ideas brought to us, not from within Africa, but by anti-gay activists like Scott Lively from the United States. The new law would equate gay people with pedophiles and call on the LGBTI population to stop “promoting homosexuality.”
The original version of the legislation even called for applying the death penalty to gay couples, and although it may be revoked from the final bill, even the more “palatable” version seeks to silence our voices, criminalize anyone who speaks on our behalf and encourage the wrongheaded stigmas that increase our nation’s rising HIV prevalence.
It’s one thing to hear these hurtful and threatening words from my countrymen. But to hear these remarks by President Sirleaf — recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her groundbreaking women’s rights work — illustrates just how pervasive are the human rights challenges facing LGBTI Africans.
For communities across Africa, believing that being gay leads to child molestation is normal. Believing that the LGBTI community is actively recruiting young people is an accepted dogma. Believing that two people who are in love may be murdered if they are the same sex is thought to be a reasonable action by much of our parliament.
How much further are we from a future where the humanity of all Africans is honored? A long way away, but my friends and I struggle to inform our own Ugandan community that we are like any one else and want to live in peace.
There is still such a long road ahead of us, but we are driven by the conviction that we are part of a larger story of global human rights, and we will not give up until we have built the future we all deserve.
Frank Mugisha is the Executive Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda and the 2011 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureate.