Christmas fear in Uganda

A proposed new law takes state homophobia to new and sinister levels in East Africa.

The Ugandan Speaker of Parliament’s suggestion that the proposed anti-homosexuality Bill would be passed "as a Christmas gift" to Uganda is deeply chilling. Hearing the developments in the news, it feels like we’ve been here before - and remembering the murder of human rights activist David Kato, concerns about where this will go are acutely real.

Friends and colleagues in Uganda, and other countries, face an on-going emergency. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender means discrimination, denial of basic human rights, and criminalisation. It doesn’t go away just because the headlines stop for a while.

The LGBTI community in Uganda is facing harassment and persecution, made worse by hate-speech and the fanning of homophobic flames by those in Uganda and abroad. We know the impact that this has on their physical, sexual and mental health, and it’s unacceptable.

In its current form, the Bill proposes, among other serious penalties, that a parent who refuses to denounce their gay son or lesbian daughter could face up to three years in prison - or a fine of up to roughly twice the average yearly household income for a Ugandan family. And we’ve heard this described as protecting the family. The list goes on – proposing a systematic denial of the most basic rights – to health, housing, education, freedom.

Talking to gay friends in East Africa I’m sometimes taken in by the relaxed way we talk about their security. I’m tempted to believe that she doesn’t mind moving house every few months to keep her profile low; that he’s happy to travel always with a friend and not alone. It can be easy to forget how difficult it is for him to access healthcare, or not to notice when he downplays the end of his last relationship, which ended not because they stopped loving each other, but because the pressure became too much. Or that their family and friends have cut contact.

It’s easy to do all this because the friends I speak with are resilient, courageous. They’re just trying to get on with their lives, and spend very little time complaining about what is often a daily reality. But just as the story doesn’t go away when the news cameras stop rolling, the reality is that this Bill has already taken its toll by legitimizing hatred and discrimination. And while the re-tabling of this Bill is disturbing for what it might bring, I’m disturbed by the menace it has inflicted since it was introduced in 2009.

This reality will continue as long as this Bill languishes in Parliament: because the stigma, harassment and denial of rights that people experience today does not exist in a vacuum. It’s shocking to see MPs, and others holding positions of authority, use this Bill and the media furore to distract attention from critical issues: like the growing concerns over corruption that have resulted in the UK halting its aid to the Ugandan Government.

As long as those with the power to reject the Bill hold back from doing so decisively and completely, they carry part of the responsibility for threats to the safety, security and health of all Ugandans affected.

Aoife NicCharthaigh is Policy and Advocacy Manager for the international sexual and reproductive health and rights charity, Interact Worldwide

Protesting outside the Ugandan embassy in London. Source: Getty

Aoife NicCharthaigh is Policy and Advocacy Manager for the sexual and reproductive health charity, Interact Worldwide.

 

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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