World·In Depth

Ugandan media, politicians campaign against homosexuality

A Uganda tabloid launches an anti-gay campaign while an anti-homosexuality bill awaits debate in parliament.

WARNING: This story contains content that some people may find objectionable.

Ugandan Bishop Christopher Senyonjo is targeted on the cover of the Oct. 2 edition of Rolling Stone, not because he is gay but because he advocates for gays rights. ((Carolyn Dunn/CBC))

Gays and lesbians in Uganda say they are living in fear, targets of a media and political campaign to wipe homosexuality from the face of the East African country.

Tabloid newspaper Rolling Stone is spreading anti-gay hatred and identifying gays in Uganda. In its Oct. 2 edition, the newspaper launched a campaign to identify 100 "top homos" in Uganda, adding on the front page, "Hang Them."

Other headlines on Page 1 read:

  • "We shall recruit 1,000,000 innocent kids by 2012 – homos."
  • "Parents now face heartbreaks as homos raid schools."

Rolling Stone 'outing,' then stoning

Those headlines rocked Stosh Mugisha's world. "The headline about hanging them hurt me so much," she told CBC News.

Mugisha's photo appears in the "Hang Them" edition of Rolling Stone. Soon people began staring and pointing. Then the attention became more threatening. People threw stones, some through her windows, she said in an interview. Mugisha and her partner fled their home and are now living at a secret location.

Gay rights groups say at least four people on Rolling Stone's lists have been attacked. Because homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, threats and attacks usually aren't reported to authorities.

"My fear is mob justice," Frank Mugisha, who heads Uganda's leading gay rights group, Sexual Minorities Uganda, said in a CBC interview in Kampala. (He is not related to Stosh.)

"They could harass someone, they could kill someone, they could go to the most extreme level of homophobia."

Rolling Stone editor Giles Muhame says if gays and lesbians are being attacked — which has not happened, he says — it's their own fault. "Whatever happens to them as a result of the exposure is because what they did made them vulnerable to that," he told CBC News.

Gay terrorism attacks?

After a Ugandan court issued a temporary injunction to stop Rolling Stone from publicly identifying gay men and women, Muhame changed tactics. "Homo generals plotted Kampala terror attacks," reads the banner front page headline in the latest edition.

Using elaborate quotes from unnamed sources, Rolling Stone claims the attacks that killed about 75 people in Kampala in July were plotted and funded by "bloodthirsty generals in the evil homosexuality world."

Most of the victims were killed when suicide bombers attacked a park where fans were watching a World Cup game on large-screen TVs. Al-Shabaab, the Somali affiliate of al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility.

The Associated Press quoted an al-Shabaab commander as saying, "Whatever makes them cry makes us happy." The Rolling Stone "investigation" identified a similar sounding motive: "Psychologists say homosexuals feel hurt when they see heterosexuals having fun."

Gay rights in Africa

For supporters of gay rights, the prospects in Africa over the last 10 years have gone from bad to worse, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).

In their annual report, State-sponsored Homophobia, the ILGA reports that 38 African countries have laws criminalizing homosexuality.

"By far, it's the continent with the worst laws on the books when it comes to homosexuality and other sexual minorities," the report states.

A common argument of anti-gay campaigners is that homosexuality is "un-African," something imported from the West. "What we are being persuaded to accept is sub-animal behaviour and we will never allow it here," Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, said in 1995 after saying that gays were "worse than dogs and pigs."

On Nov. 28, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga called for the arrest of a man or woman who has sex with a same-sex partner. He was speaking at a rally in the capital, Nairobi.  However, the laws against homosexuality in Kenya apply only to men.

On Nov. 16, at a UN General Assembly panel, no African country voted against an amendment to delete "sexual orientation" from a long list of reasons for states to investigate killings of groups of persons. Canada and most Western countries voted no, but the amendment carried.

Muhame told CBC News "homosexuality is now more dangerous than terrorism," and so he is on a mission to eradicate it. "It's a virus," he said, adding that it is contagious and spreading like wildfire.

On Nov. 23, Uganda's High Court was to examine whether the Rolling Stone publication ban should continue. However, "Muhame insisted he was not ready to offer a defence, citing 'a problem with my wife,' " Agence France Presse reported.

After another hearing Nov. 26, Justice Kibuka Musoke announced he would rule on the case in two weeks.

Homophobia in Uganda

Other Uganda tabloids, like Onion and Red Pepper, also have anti-gay campaigns, with considerable political support.

A favourite theme is blaming foreign influence, especially aid groups working in Uganda.

In a salacious front page story on Nov. 13 about an alleged lesbian club at Makerere University, Onion claims, "These Lesbos are said to be financed by NGOs from the Netherlands, U.S.A., Switzerland, Sweden, and are very loaded, so they can do anything they want anywhere."

(Neither Rolling Stone nor the Onion has any affiliation with the similarly named publications in the U.S. Uganda's Red Pepper has no connection to a radical magazine with the same name in the U.K.)

Anti-homosexuality bill in Ugandan parliament

2009 private member's bill, which toughens laws already in place against homosexuality, has been condemned by world leaders. It has not yet received first reading but is still alive in Uganda's parliament.

It calls for life in prison, even the death penalty, for gays and lesbians. And anyone who knows about but fails to report a gay person to police could be jailed for three years.

"We see our children being lured into homosexuality," David Bahati, the member of parliament who introduced the bill, said in an interview.

"They're being recruited by people who are financed from abroad. Here in Uganda we don't believe homosexuality is a human right," he told CBC News.

'Homosexual behaviour morally wrong'

There may be international opposition but Bahati claims to have widespread support inside Uganda. A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that was released in April reports that 79 per cent of Ugandans consider "homosexual behaviour morally wrong."

Stosh Mugisha is doing her best to ignore the increasingly sensational headlines that attitude inspires and live a normal life. But now she knows how one newspaper article can change everything.

"It sucks, I feel so bad, I feel so horrible, because I never thought friends would turn against you in a flash of light."

On the cover of Rolling Stone

On the cover of the "outing" issue of Uganda's Rolling Stone newspaper is a man with a clerical collar, Ugandan  Bishop Christopher Senyonjo.

He's on the cover not because he is gay (he's not) but because "by protecting people who practise an activity which is outlawed, he is condoning evil," editor Giles Muhame told Religion Dispatches.

Against the wishes of his church, the Anglican Bishop has been campaigning for gay rights for about a decade. So when the Rolling Stone issue was published, he was no stranger to threats and false accusations.  Nevertheless, Senyonjo told CBC News he was scared and that it is now "very dangerous" for the people mentioned in Rolling Stone.

He attributes the current campaign in Uganda against sexual minorities to Americans who came to Uganda "preaching a gospel of hate instead of love."

He mentioned the Christian right and specifically Scott Lively, one of three evangelical Christians who came to Uganda in 2009 to address an anti-gay conference at parliament. Lively describes himself as an "opponent of the homosexual agenda" and blames homosexuals for Nazism and the Rwandan genocide.

(Senyonjo is currently on a U.S. speaking tour. CBC News interviewed him by phone from San Francisco.)

With files from Daniel Schwartz.