Pulling Out All the Stops to Push an Antigay Bill

KAMPALA, Uganda — They entered through Parliament’s gates, an eclectic group. Their leader, the Rev. Martin Ssempa, wore sunglasses and long black robes embroidered with matching red crosses and two campaign buttons. One said, “Debate Our Bill Now!” and the other, simply, “No to Sodomy.”

Michael Onyiego
The Rev. Martin Ssempa, in sunglasses and long black robes, arrived at the Ugandan Parliament in Kampala to discuss a highly contentious antigay bill.
Ugandan Who Spoke Up for Gays Is Beaten to Death (January 28, 2011)
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Marc Hofer/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Mourners at the funeral of David Kato a prominent gay-rights activist in Uganda who was killed in January.
Mr. Ssempa’s mission is to get Uganda’s Parliament to pass a highly contentious antigay bill and eradicate homosexuality throughout the country — or, after more than a year of the law’s languishing in the legislature, to at least debate the proposed law.
To many here, Uganda’s gay population does not represent a sexual minority advocating for its rights, but an underground threat promoting a cancerous vice. They accuse gay men and women of recruiting children in secondary schools, and maybe giving them H.I.V.
In 2009, Uganda’s Parliament tabled legislation calling for the execution of gays under certain circumstances and requiring citizens to report any known act of homosexuality to the police within 24 hours.
The bill drew ire from Western nations and has drifted listlessly in Parliament over the last 18 months. When David Kato, a prominent gay-rights activist, was murdered in January after his photo ran on the cover of a newspaper calling for gays to be hanged, the bill became politically toxic.
But with Parliament closing next month, Mr. Ssempa, a leading religious figure from an independent sect of Christianity, made a last-ditch push last week, bringing a coalition of religious leaders, civil society organizers and two self-described former homosexuals to meet directly with the speaker of Parliament, Edward Kiwanuka Ssekandi. They presented him with a petition containing what they said were more than two million signatures in support of the bill.
The Anti-Homosexuality Bill was introduced in 2009, only a month after a seminar with American ministers about “curing” homosexuality and the dangers of “the gay movement.” Last year, an evangelical Christian from Missouri, Lou Engle, held an event in Uganda at which the bill was promoted (though after he left to travel home, he says).
But Uganda, a poor and heavily Christian nation of 35 million with a large American missionary community, has long held its own conservative views on sexuality. Mr. Ssempa says his movement is about African culture, and while the United States has continued to debate its own societal values, similar conversations are happening here.
Mr. Ssempa, reading from the petition, began the meeting by saying he was “distressed” that the bill was being “deliberately killed” by “undemocratic threats” from Western nations, and called the political bullying “homocracy.”
A bag was passed around with “Debate Our Bill Now!” and “No to Sodomy,” pins, before it came to rest in front of one of the so-called former homosexuals.
“These young people,” Mr. Ssempa said, pointing toward the two young men, sitting stiffly across from him in front of the speaker, “will share their experiences having been recruited into homosexuality and coming out. And that is why we are here.”
Bishop Julius Oyet, sitting beside Mr. Ssempa, tried unsuccessfully to pin Speaker Ssekandi with the two “Debate Our Bill Now!” and “No to Sodomy” pins before speaking passionately on the “dire need” to “save the nation.”
“We are facing a defining moment, Mr. Speaker, in our nation, when we cannot allow one of the top pillars of our culture and civilization to crumble,” the bishop said.
The focus turned to the two men sitting quietly on the other side of the table, Paul Kagaba and George Oundo. Mr. Kagaba, 27, went first.
“For me, I was lured into homosexuality by a headmaster of a primary school, who recently died,” said Mr. Kagaba, speaking of the recently killed Mr. Kato. “He was our neighbor,” Mr. Kagaba said, “and we embraced him.”
Mr. Kagaba said that Mr. Kato offered to pay his school fees, and soon Mr. Kagaba, 17 at the time, moved in. One day, Mr. Kagaba claimed, Mr. Kato bought him chicken and two Guinness beers, and raped him that night. The next morning, Mr. Kagaba says, Mr. Kato gave him $130.
Other gay activists have vouched for Mr. Kato’s innocence, and Mr. Kagaba himself said he became an outspoken gay activist for six years, until his family held an intervention and he met Mr. Ssempa. Now he says he counsels others at the pastor’s One Love clinic in downtown Kampala, where they preach sexual purity and sing a cappella.