Unintended Consequences

The Uganda Ruling is Good For Everyone But Gays

A court overturned Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, giving a convenient out to the African and American leaders. But it could make the backlash against LGBT Ugandans even worse.

Isaac Kasamani/AFP/Getty

A Ugandan court today overturned that country’s infamous Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA) on procedural grounds, because there may not have been a quorum present when it was passed by parliament.

Hardly a ringing endorsement of equality and liberty, but a victory nonetheless, and one hard-earned by lawyers from Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) of Uganda, and their partners at UHAI-EASHRI—the local leaders of this battle, incidentally, belying the claim that LGBT equality is some sort of Western conceit.

And yet, in the complex context of Uganda, everything about this victory is different from how it appears.

First, the major question now is whether the government will appeal the ruling. On the one hand, President Yoweri Museveni has so successfully propagandized against gay people that his government may have no choice but to appeal. Religious leaders in Uganda have depicted the struggle as one between God and Satan.

On the other hand, this decision could be a blessing in disguise for both Uganda and the United States, which find themselves between various rocks and hard places. Museveni may have underestimated the extent of the Western backlash to the AHA; this could give him an opportunity to back out. Because the ruling was procedural in nature, Museveni could remain supportive of the AHA in principle, but also “committed to the rule of law” in practice. And when the AHA is reintroduced in parliament, as it inevitably will be, he can soft-pedal.

But if this decision is good for President Museveni, it is even better for President Obama. Given its stated policy commitments, and its Democratic base, the Obama administration cannot simply stand by and allow human rights to be trampled. Yet preventing further deterioration in East Africa remains a strategic priority, and the Obama administration recently increased, not decreased, its military aid to Uganda.

Even activists are not united with respect to what to do. While it’s popular to call for sanctions, boycotts, closing embassies and the like, many activists have argued that suspending aid (the most popular response) would hurt vulnerable Ugandans, and further reinforce the Gay = Western canard.

The result of all this has been a grudging, foot-dragging, and ambivalent set of aid conditions finally implemented by the administration after a series of delays. The rhetoric has been harsh, but given the realpolitik of East African foreign policy, the actions have been decidedly mixed.

And while the administration did cut $6.4 million in aid to the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, a virulently anti-gay organization that pushed for the AHA, a recent exposé by The Nation showed that this is the proverbial drop in the bucket. The Children’s AIDS Fund, Samaritan’s Purse, WorldVision, Heritage Keepers—these are not familiar names to most Americans, but they are some of the evangelical organizations who blend social services with Christian fundamentalist political activism, at home and abroad.

In short, both Obama and Museveni would be very happy if this whole crisis would just go away.

So, one might think, would LGBT Ugandans. Yet responses so far have been muted, with some activists calling for restraint. The reason is obvious: backlash.

We’ve learned a lot in the last two years about the relationships of law to society when it comes to LGBT equality. In Russia, Uganda, and elsewhere around the world, legal change is the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the iceberg is violence, stigmatization, secondary legal effects, lax policing, and an overall degradation in safety and security.

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In the case of Uganda, records kept by Sexual Minorities Uganda show that violence against LGBT people has increased tenfold since the passage of the AHA. Add in fiery preaching by anti-gay zealots, often funded by American organizations, and you have a volatile brew ready to explode.

Activists worry that this court decision could provide the spark. If the law won’t protect Uganda from Satan, people will have to take up arms themselves.

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail. There are supportive African (and African-American) clergy calling for coexistence rather than violence. Maybe the Obama administration, instead of merely backpedaling reactively, could support these voices pro-actively as well. Maybe Museveni could call for a period of national reflection.

Or maybe, things will continue to get worse.