In 2009 the world news media picked up on a controversial bill to be enacted in the Ugandan Parliament entitled the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill”. The global outrage at this bill has been deafening, with the news media sensationalizing the story and in the process demonizing many who had nothing to do with this entirely Ugandan political affair. It has undoubtedly caused battle lines to be drawn. The bill was shelved and many in Uganda feel it has very little chance of being resurrected, but the debate is still alive and extremely polarized. In the midst of such animosity one thing is striking. Very few people have actually calmly analyzed the proposal point by point. After hearing conflicting views on the content of the bill I felt it important that I read through it to assess the various merits and defects contained therein. Before I offer any personal opinion let me say there is always a level of discomfort that I have coming from a different culture commenting on a law that is intended to be Ugandan in nature. Despite this level of discomfort I will still make the following comments:
Firstly let me mention the positives as I see them in the version of the bill found on Wikipedia. I do appreciate and support the desire of the legislation to “protect the cherished culture of the people of Uganda” especially as it relates to “traditional family values”. Uganda does have a very conservative culture and the people should have the right to determine these values for themselves. I also appreciate and support the definition of marriage that they wish to uphold which is “only between a man and a woman”; in much of the developed world the redefinition of marriage has become the center of a culture war and I appreciate Uganda’s stand for traditional marriage. Many have said the bill is primarily to prosecute pedophilic rape. This is indeed part of the bill, and I believe the desire to prosecute offenders is right. These offenders, who are often in positions of trust, rape those under age, in whom they have a relationship of trust or with those who knowingly have HIV and have sex to infect another person. Legislation should be enacted in Ugandan Law to protect the vulnerable in such situations. Furthermore, I believe it is completely acceptable to criminalize brothels, which I believe blight many societies.
While the bill has some positive points I do believe it also has some serious defects, which are, I believe, significant enough to invalidate the bill in its current form and purpose. I believe acts of homosexuality are sinful; however legislating against sexual immorality is a thorny issue at the best of times. It is very difficult to impose morality and seek behavioral change through legislation and I would suggest unwise in many cases. I believe that legislation to protect the vulnerable should be in place and enforced (and with this in mind I believe legislation to bring an end to prostitution in Uganda should be a greater priority in the minds of the legislators). This bill does intend to prosecute anyone who engages in or attempts to engage in a homosexual act. Furthermore if a person is convicted of acts of homosexuality twice it is considered an “aggravated” offence and they are liable to receive the death penalty. I do not believe the criminalization of this particular sexual sin is helpful at all. I actually believe it is very harmful to Ugandan society, where accusations and slurs of homosexuality have become commonplace. Furthermore demonizing one sin to the exception of others can be dangerous. Adding the death penalty to this offence is very unwise. If acts of homosexuality are criminalized, should fornication and adultery not also be criminalized, and if this is a “Christian” nation should the very thought of lust have some kind of penalty attributed to it as well? Legislators have a huge responsibility, and legislating morality is always going to be tricky to achieve. However, I do not think this bill represents a success in solving the problems of sexual immorality in Uganda.
Clause 4 outlines a further offence, the, “attempt to commit homosexuality”. The wording of this clause is so wide and imprecise that even if it was right to legislate this in the first place a relaxed interpretation of this clause could lead to massive and manifest injustices especially given the punishments under this clause have penalties ranging from seven years to life imprisonment, which are indeed incredible.
Moving on to Clauses 13 and 14 we find what I consider some of the most frightening parts of this bill; they deal with the “promotion of homosexuality” and the “failure to disclose the offence”. I believe these are frightening and dangerous for a Christian because they cut against one of the very cores of the gospel, which is the call to repentance. Is a church group that seeks to minister help and healing to those who struggle with sexual brokenness (including those who struggle with same sex attraction) guilty of the promotion of homosexuality? I think it could definitely be interpreted this way. Do church ministers who are trying to bring healing and restoration to a person who is struggling with sin have to turn that person over to the authorities? They must do so under the provisions of this act. Instead of becoming a place of safety and healing, the church becomes a place of danger, accusation and suspicion. A regime of fear and suspicion would be created akin to US McCarthyism similar to the many regimes of fear that this East African region has already experienced. As I have already mentioned, it appears that the accusation of homosexuality has become the slur of choice in Uganda already. As such, it would not be helpful to take this unfortunate propensity and encourage it with legislation. This act criminalizes sin and then provides no way for repentance from sin and for healing and restoration to happen. With this bill there could be no testimonies of redemption.
While I hate with a passion all sin that separates us from God (including but not limited to sexual sin) and long for a day when people everywhere would “lift up holy hands in prayer” (1 Tim 2:8), I believe this act is unhelpful and harmful. While the Ugandan people (Christians and Muslims) may rightly say they hate sexual sin, demonizing and hating people who struggle with sin is guaranteed to lead to deception and massive hypocrisy. I believe the enacting of this bill would be a human rights disaster. It provides a very scary and paranoid vision of the future. We should hate the sin but violence against the sinner is not the answer.
Great article Jono – the best I’ve read on this topic, and something that will help provide clarity to both “sides” of this controversy.
Jono, you write with such clarity and succinctness. I thought this was a very good article. The varying degrees of how humans decide to legislate their morality will never be perfect this side of time.