Sunday 4 April’s episode of 60 Minutes featured a segment entitled “America’s Gift: Fighting HIV/AIDS in Uganda,” in which Bob Simon reported on the United States’ relief work in Uganda surrounding the HIV/AIDS crisis in that country. While the overall tone of the piece was rather self-congratulatory, one moment in particular made me literally stop what I was doing and focus on the television.
“The impression that people in Africa have of America is that America is no longer the world’s policeman,” Dr. Peter Mugyenyi, a pioneer in the fight against AIDS in the East African country, declares. “It is now Africa’s friend. What an image.”
This struck me as both hyperbolic and odd, mostly because I have been following the events surrounding Uganda’s now infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill for months now and the dialogue between the U.S. and Uganda has been anything but friendly on this particular subject. The United States has joined with many other Western nations in denouncing the Bill, while Ugandan politicians have made it clear from the beginning that they have no intention of letting other countries shape Ugandan attitudes toward homosexuality.
And yet, none of this came up during the report. Even as Simon interviewed Pastor Martin Ssempa, well known for his HIV/AIDS work and also for infamously surprising his congregation with hardcore gay pornography in an effort to rally them behind the anti-homosexual legislation, the controversy was never addressed, even in passing.
Why does this matter? After all, it’s been years since HIV/AIDS was viewed as the “Gay Cancer” and the present efforts in Uganda have focused on heterosexual couples, not sexual minorities.
It matters because, while the progress made in Uganda has certainly been impressive – Dr. Mugyenyi claims “there has never been a rescue mission, a mission of mercy of this magnitude that has produced such magnanimous results” – by attempting to drive homosexuals into the closet and limit their rights, Uganda is flirting with the possibility of throwing all of this progress away.
As Michel Sidibé, executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, warned last month, HIV rates amongst gay men in increasingly homophobic countries are on the rise. The original version of Uganda’s proposed legislation made having same-sex relations with someone with HIV a crime punishable by death, which most certainly would discourage homosexuals from seeking out medical treatment and therefore put others in danger.
Ultimately, the success of the U.S.’s HIV/AIDS program may be a good thing for supporters of gay rights in Uganda. While the Ugandan government may be resistant to heeding Western views on homosexuality in general, perhaps they will be more sympathetic if the U.S. couches its opposition in terms of concern for the HIV/AIDS programs America’s been funneling billions of dollars into over the past few years. And while putting conditions on aid to any country always makes me wary, seeing as this is literally a matter of life and death, perhaps it is something that should be considered.