Anti-Homosexuality Bill is bigger than Uganda

The anti-LGBTQ law, which the Biden administration condemned, is part of a broader movement that the religious right has influenced.

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The Biden administration strongly condemned the Anti-Homosexuality Bill that the Ugandan Parliament passed this week, vowing to protect LGBTQ+ rights globally at all costs. If President Yoweri Museveni signs the bill into law, it would make LGBTQ+ identity illegal and punishable by up to life in prison and, in some cases, the death penalty.

When theGrio first asked during Tuesday’s White House press briefing whether the administration was concerned about the bill and a summit being held next week in Uganda intended to bolster similar bills across the African continent, strategic communications spokesperson John Kirby said, “Of course.”

“President Biden has been nothing but consistent about his foundational belief in human rights and [that] LGBTQ+ rights are human rights,” said Kirby. “We’re never going to shy away [or] be bashful about speaking up for those rights and for individuals to live as they deem fit, as they want to live, and that’s something that’s a core part of our foreign policy and will remain so.”

Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council John Kirby speaks on March 20, 2023, as White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre listens during a White House daily news briefing at the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A source with knowledge of U.S. discussions in the region told theGrio that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield spoke to Museveni shortly after the bill was passed to express condemnation. The Ugandan leader claimed he didn’t know the bill was going to pass in Parliament, the source said.

During Wednesday’s press briefing, Kirby went further in the administration’s criticism of the bill — even leaving the door open for sanctions. “We would have to take a look at whether or not there might be repercussions that we would have to take, perhaps in an economic way, should this law actually get enacted,” said Kirby, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former Obama State Department spokesperson.

The Biden official said economic sanctions, which would likely cut critical PEPFAR funding for health assistance, would be “really unfortunate” for Ugandans. However, he made clear that no decisions have been made and that the administration was “closely” watching the movement of the bill. 

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre notably opened Wednesday’s briefing by denouncing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which she called “one of the most extreme anti-LGBTQI+ laws in the world.”

Jean-Pierre, the nation’s first openly LGBTQ+ press secretary, said the law would “jeopardize progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS, deter tourism and [investment] in Uganda, and damage Uganda’s international reputation.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks on March 21, 2023, during a daily news briefing at the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in the White House in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

She added, “Human rights are universal. No one should be attacked, imprisoned, or killed simply because of who they are or whom they love.”On the international stage, the United Nations has also condemned the bill.

Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill is years in the making

The Ugandan bill criminalizing LGBTQ+ identity is years in the making. The Ugandan government passed a similar bill with the same name in 2014, which its Supreme Court ultimately annulled.

Then-President Barack Obama condemned the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014, saying it would “mark a serious setback for all those around the world who share a commitment to freedom, justice and equal rights.”

Despite the fact that the 2014 bill was struck down, homosexual acts remain illegal in Uganda. The 2023 bill would add new criminal offenses, the BBC News reported. For example, the new law would, for the first time, criminalize identifying as homosexual and require family, friends and community members to report individuals in same-sex relationships to authorities.

A Ugandan transgender woman, who was recently attacked and is currently being sheltered, watches a TV screen showing the live broadcast of the parliamentary session on the anti-gay bill on March 21, 2023, at a local charity supporting the LGBTQ Community near Kampala, Uganda. (Photo by STUART TIBAWESWA/AFP via Getty Images)

Bishop Joseph Tolton, a Pan-African activist who has done missionary work in Uganda and is closely connected to the pro-LGBTQ civil society work in the region, told theGrio that the 2014 bill was struck down “on a technicality.”

“They were clear to leave the door open that it wasn’t so much a matter of substance as much as it was in that process,” he said.

Frank Mugisha, a leading LGBTQ+ activist in Uganda, told news wire service Reuters that the act will have devastating impacts on the queer community if signed into law. “LGBTQ persons are going to fear going to health centers for services … there’s going to be a lot of trauma and cases of mental health that will lead to a lot of suicide,” said Mugisha. “It’s a moment of shock for the LGBTQ community.”

Mugisha, along with human rights lawyers, have vowed to challenge the law in court if Museveni signs it.

Anti-LGBTQ sentiment and the influence of the religious far-right

What’s happening in Uganda is not happening in a vacuum. Activists say Uganda will also host the Global Challenges to the African Family Summit from Wednesday through April 3. The goal of summit organizers is to gather parliamentarians from other African countries to pass similar anti-homosexuality bills across the continent. Some believe that the summit organizer is a conservative young professionals group in Kenya that has a sister component located in Uganda. 

Tolton said religious far-right groups have influenced the upcoming summit and much of the anti-LGBTQ legislation and sentiment in Africa. “We are quite clear that this is absolutely connected to and funded by the religious right,” he told theGrio.

The religious right is also connected to anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the United States, the Southern Poverty Law Center has found. So far in 2023, more than 200 bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country, according to data that the American Civil Liberties Union has tracked. As is the case with the upcoming Ugandan summit, proponents of these U.S. bills have justified LGBTQ bans to protect children and families.

Just one day after the Ugandan Parliament passed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, it was reported that the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to expand his so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law— which bans school discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity — to all grades up to the high school level.

Tolton said the advancement of LGBTQ rights in America through the legalization of same-sex marriage sent a “signal to the rest of the world that this is the direction that humanity was going in globally.”

As a result, Tolton continued, “The religious right realized that they didn’t have a problem here at home alone, but that they also had a global problem on their hands because of their vision for the world being a world surrendering itself to the law of Christ.”

He added, “That’s part of the reason that the Supreme Court that we have is so scary, because they seem to be so driven to move us toward being a theocracy.” 

A protester dressed in a Bible costume on Nov. 5, 2022, stands in front of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis case hearing before the court. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Tolton urged the religious left to push back against the burgeoning Christian right movement gaining traction worldwide.

He explained, “Americans and other people of good faith and goodwill who have more progressive views and values have not created the infrastructure, the apparatus or the connectivity to have not just influence in these other countries — particularly African ones — but to even have a sense of engagement.”

However, Tolton praised the Biden administration for strongly condemning Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill. “The unfortunate news of the bill has given them another opportunity to really demonstrate America’s commitment to democracy and human rights,” he said. “That we’re as interested in human rights as we are in investment and trade, and in matters of national security.”

Continued Tolton, “What the administration has created for itself is a real lane now, whereby which to continue to speak to these issues and I’m optimistic and hopeful about that.”

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