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GAY=DEATH: Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill and what it means for HIV

Monday, 11 February 2013 Categories // Current Affairs, International , Opinion Pieces

New writer Amy C. Willis says "the Anti-Homosexuality Bill has the potential to negatively impact HIV education and prevention for both the LGBTQ and straight populations alike."

GAY=DEATH: Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill and what it means for HIV

While Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act - affectionately known by its supporters as the “Kill the Gays” bill - isn’t new (it was introduced in 2009 by parliamentarian David Bahati), it’s recently experienced an aggressive resurgence; in November 2012, the Ugandan government revived the proposed bill with concerted efforts to pass it before year’s end.

Admittedly, I didn’t know much about the bill when it was proposed in 2009; however, when it began to resurface a few months ago in the media, I quickly starting paying attention and launched into an informal investigation on what was happening and why. Being an avid HIV and AIDS researcher, advocate and activist, once I discovered there was a clause about people living with HIV, I became even more invested. In addition to my life and work in HIV, I’m also a queer identified feminist who has lived in southern Africa and who often finds myself at the crux of various social justice struggles, with Uganda’s current situation being no exception.     

Once I began researching Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill*, what I found was stomach-churning and heart-wrenchingly horrifying.

Here are some of the highlights of the original bill: the purpose of the bill – fuelled largely by Evangelical beliefs (and supported by Evangelicals in America) -  is to preserve marriage as a contract between a woman and a man, to protect children from deviant homosexual behaviour, and importantly, to prohibit sexual relations between two people of the same sex while simultaneously prohibiting the promotion or recognition of such relations. “The offence of homosexuality” is roughly defined as any intentional touching, penetrating, or stimulation of sexual organs between two people of the same sex; if found guilty of this “offence”, a person can be imprisoned for life.

If you think that’s horrendous, brace yourself. The charge of “Aggravated homosexuality” is used as an umbrella term under which numerous activities/offences fall, including sex with a minor (someone under the age of 18), sexual abuse of someone with a disability, and being HIV-positive, among others. Upon conviction, those who commit “aggravated homosexuality” will be sentenced to death.   

For the most part, the international community did not respond kindly to Uganda’s homophobic and murderous legislation and countered this legislation with freezes in foreign aid and international calls to abolish the bill (or at least the part of the bill which called for the death penalty). I’ve read numerous articles to suggest that in 2012, the Ugandan government made some amendments to the bill which allegedly included the elimination of the death penalty though the amended draft of the legislation has not yet been made available to the public and therefore, it is nearly impossible to confirm if this is true. 

Whether the death penalty has been removed from the bill is an important fact to clarify, though I would argue that in many ways, the damage has already been done. Once the floodgates are open (i.e. the Ugandan government giving the general public permission to discriminate against, stigmatize and perpetuate violence against the LGBTQ population, the constant threat of a fine plus up to three years in jail for not reporting an “offense”,  etc.), how easy will it be to close them? This is especially true when the bill includes a clause stating that anyone who has been “victimized by a homosexual” can kill the LGBTQ person in question with impunity. Or that the bill trumps confidential relationships typically shared between doctors and their patients (in other words, doctors must report any patients they see who confide in them about being gay and/or being gay and HIV+).

Upon learning this, I immediately began considering the numerous disastrous effects this will have on people living with HIV and the transmission of it in Uganda.   For starters, the inclusion of the HIV-positive clause in the Anti-Homosexuality Bill reinforces the historical and problematic relationship that exists between gay men and HIV and AIDS. To highlight HIV within this bill continues to suggest that HIV is “the gay disease” even though in many African countries - Uganda included - the epidemic is generalized and often more prevalent in heterosexual populations. By underpinning the connection between gay men and HIV, this bill may inadvertently give the straight population permission to distance themselves from HIV education, awareness and prevention and more easily disassociate from better sexual health practices because they don’t feel HIV is as relevant to them. Conversely though, with the increased state-sanctioned discrimination against the LGBTQ population in Uganda, I suspect that HIV and sexual health education targeting this demographic would likely be scaled down if it hasn’t already been.

Effectively, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill has the potential to negatively impact HIV education and prevention for both the LGBTQ and straight populations alike, with different methods of attack. 

Another area of HIV awareness and prevention which immediately came to mind when thinking about this bill is the impact it will have on testing. According to UNGASS, in 2010, only 20% of women and men between 25-49 years of age had been tested for HIV in the previous 12 months and knew the result of that test. We know from experience that stigma and discrimination around HIV exist and when coupled together, create an environment of fear, shame and hostility. Now imagine this environment layered with state-sanctioned violence and oppression against those who are LGBTQ-identified with an unknown HIV status and try to put yourself in the shoes of someone considering an HIV test and how negatively they would be impacted if their test were positive. Wouldn’t it just be easier to not know? For many, this might result in actively choosing not to know their status out of fear of the very real consequences that they may face.

In not knowing their status, it is possible that many folks are carrying the virus and are subsequently unknowingly infecting others. The risk of knowing your HIV status is dangerously compounded for any LGBTQ-identified person in Uganda; receiving a positive test will result in death at the hands of the government yet not getting tested will be a certain demise for those who are unknowingly living with HIV. 

When access to healthcare and access to treatment are compromised, how can we expect the LGBTQ population to thrive, especially when their lives are complicated by HIV? Given that all institutions (education, healthcare, etc.) are expected to follow the proposed bill, what is this going to do for HIV prevention education, especially for the LGBTQ community?

UNAIDS identified men who have sex with men (MSM) as one of the highest HIV risk groups in Uganda and in 2009, MSM accounted for 13.7% of people living with HIV. Not surprisingly, the same year that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was introduced, Uganda stopped collecting HIV data on MSM. At the time this article was written, 2009 was the last year that UNAIDS reported HIV statistics on MSM and HIV. With only 54% of its poz population on anti-retrovirals (as of 2010, according to UNAIDS), I question how many of these folks are LGBTQ-identified and how access to their treatment might be interrupted by the proposed legislation, if it hasn’t already been. 

To say that there is a lot at stake should the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill pass is a vast understatement. The situation is dire and what is at risk is not only the lives, human rights and dignity of many LGBTQ-identified Ugandans but also the potentially disastrous cascade effect that this legislation could have on HIV awareness, prevention, transmission and treatment.   

*Want to read the bill yourself? Here’s a link to the 2009 version.

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