KAMPALA, Uganda - Proposed legislation would impose the death penalty for some gay Ugandans, and their family and friends could face up to seven years in jail if they failed to report them to authorities. Even landlords could be imprisoned for renting to homosexuals.
Gay-rights activists say the bill, which has prompted growing international opposition, promotes hatred and could set back efforts to combat HIV/AIDS. They believe the bill is part of a continentwide backlash because Africa's gay community is becoming more vocal.
"It's a question of visibility," said David Cato, who became an activist after he was beaten up four times, arrested twice, fired from his teaching job, and outed in the press because he is gay. "When we come out and ask for our rights, they pass laws against us."
The legislation has drawn global attention from activists across the spectrum of views on gay issues. The measure was proposed in Uganda after a visit by leaders of U.S. conservative Christian ministries that promote therapy for gays to become heterosexual. However, at least one of those leaders has denounced the bill, as have some other conservative and liberal Christians in the United States.
Gay-rights activists say the bill is likely to pass. But the bill is still being debated and could undergo changes before a vote, which has not yet been set.
In its current form, the Ugandan legislation would mandate a death sentence for active homosexuals living with HIV or in cases of same-sex rape. "Serial offenders" also could face capital punishment, but the legislation does not define the term. Anyone convicted of a homosexual act faces life imprisonment.
Anyone who "aids, abets, counsels or procures another to engage in acts of homosexuality" faces seven years in prison if convicted. Landlords who rent rooms or homes to homosexuals also could get seven years, and anyone with "religious, political, economic or social authority" who fails to report anyone violating the act faces three years.
Gay-rights activists abroad are focusing on the legislation. A protest against the bill is planned for tomorrow in London; protests were held last month in New York and Washington.
David Bahati, the legislator sponsoring the bill, said he was encouraging "constructive criticism" to improve the law but insisted that strict measures were necessary to stop homosexuals from "recruiting" schoolchildren.
"The youths in secondary schools copy everything from the Western world and America," said high school teacher David Kisambira. "A good number of students have been converted into gays."
Uganda's ethics minister, James Nsaba Buturo, said that the death-sentence clause would probably be reviewed but that the law was necessary to counter foreign influence. He said homosexuality "is not natural in Uganda."
Uganda is not the only country considering antigay laws. Nigeria, where homosexuality is punishable by prison or death, is considering strengthening penalties for activities deemed to promote it. Burundi banned same-sex relationships, and Rwanda is considering it.
Debate over the legislation came after a conference in Kampala earlier this year attended by American activists who consider same-sex relationships sinful and believe gays and lesbians can become heterosexual through prayer and counseling.
Author Don Schmierer and "sexual reorientation coach" Caleb Lee Brundidge took part; they did not respond to interview requests. A third activist at the conference, Scott Lively, said the bill had gone too far. "I agree with the general goal, but this law is far too harsh," said Lively, a California preacher.
Frank Mugisha, a gay Ugandan human-rights activist, said the bill was so poorly worded that someone could be imprisoned for giving a hug. "This bill is promoting hatred," he said. "We're turning Uganda into a police state."
Cato, the activist who was beaten and lost his job, said he thought the bill would pass. "It's such a setback," he said. "But I hope we can overcome it. I cannot believe this is happening in the 21st century."