By Andrew Aylward
Ugandan lesbian activist Val Kalende says she lost her newspaper job for her outspoken opposition to a proposed Uganda law that would impose life imprisonment and even the death penalty on gay people. She blames her country's virulent homophobia on misunderstanding and a scheming president.
"It's ignorance and fear, that's the best I can describe it," Kalende said last week in Washington as she completed a speaking tour sponsored by the State Department that was intended to raise awareness of the challenges gays and lesbians face in Uganda. "People are always afraid of things they don't understand, or new things."
Uganda's proposed anti-homosexuality law has drawn international rebuke and threats by several Western countries to withdraw aid. The Obama administration has not taken that step. Kalende's tour is an effort by the State Department to apply more subtle pressure by raising public awareness.
The anti-gay legislation was introduced in 2009 by Uganda parliament member David Bahati. In June, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni gave a vitriolic, anti-gay speech at a prominent religious festival where he praised the work of churches in fighting the influence of homosexuality.
Kalende said she was fired from her job in Uganda after her work was criticized by Martin Ssempa, a prominent anti-gay Ugandan pastor and self-described AIDS activist who has testified to Congress and worked with U.S. foreign aid programs.
Now she works for her nation's only gay advocacy group, Freedom and Roam Uganda, and said Museveni is using the gay criminalization bill to crack down on political opponents.
Kalende said U.S. evangelical Christians stoked the nation's homophobia. In 2009, Scott Lively of Citrus Heights (Sacramento County) traveled to Kampala, Uganda's capital, where he told residents that homosexuality was evil and threatened family values. Lively advised the Ugandan government as it drafted the bill.
Kalende thinks the law is too extreme to pass in its current form but worries that an amended version could become law. She plans to return home after her tour, which Ugandan newspapers have covered closely. She said she fears she could be arrested.
"There is hope, when we look at the success we've managed to achieve in the last seven years," she said. "The bill has been a blessing in disguise in the way it has created a debate and visibility for LGBT issues and brought some allies to our side."