American Jewish Organization Confronts LGBT Issues in Uganda

As the United States struggles with the issue of gay marriage, countries around the world face their own challenges in discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) community.

In Uganda, the issue has come to a head as political officials and anti-gay activists seek to impose the death penalty for people who engage in certain homosexual behavior.

The recently proposed piece of legislation, dubbed Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009, would make acts of homosexuality punishable by life in prison. Acts of “aggravated homosexuality” — including sexual activity or attempted sexual activity with a person of the same sex by someone who is HIV-positive — would be punishable by death. Gay rights activists could also face five to seven years for “promoting homosexuality.” 

Homosexual acts already are punishable by death in other African countries, including Nigeria and Sudan, and in some Arab countries, including Iran and Yemen. 

“This is patently unconstitutional,” Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), said of the proposed Ugandan legislation on a recent visit to Los Angeles from AJWS’ New York headquarters. AJWS works with grass-roots groups around the world to support them in their work, provide funding and focus on local tactics that may have a better chance of creating change than direct American intervention.

At a recent forum at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, Messinger discussed the LGBTQ rights in African countries, focusing on Uganda. Moderated by West Hollywood Mayor John Heilman, the event was part of West Hollywood’s Human Rights Speaker Series.

“We’re talking about treating everyone with respect,” Heilman said in an interview before the discussion. “We are trying to raise awareness, connect people to the extent that we can, to educate and to get connected.”

Americans need to be cautious in how they voice opposition to the Ugandan bill, Messinger warned. Many African authorities have attempted to capitalize on anti-Western sentiment by suggesting that homosexuality was brought to the country by Westerners.

“We need to be careful about this push to not pass the legislation that is coming from the West,” said Messinger, lest it backfire.

Another fallout from the Ugandan bill, should it go through, Messinger said, is the devastating impact it would have on HIV/AIDS work in the country.

“In some places in Africa, the entire 25 to 49 population is HIV positive,” Messinger said. Because openly gay HIV-positive individuals would be in danger by identifying themselves, many would likely not seek treatment.

“This would drive all HIV/AIDS work underground,” Messinger said.

Many of those who have done work either for or against the bill believe that the impetus for its creation was a visit to Uganda by three American Evangelical pastors last year: Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge and Don Schmierer. During their trip, they alluded to a “gay agenda,” equated homosexuality with pedophilia and suggested that gay people would destroy families and pose a threat to children.

On the heels of that visit, a Ugandan politician drafted and introduced the bill. 

Nevertheless, Messinger said, it’s vital that the Jewish community continues to work together with people of all faiths. “The more dialogue, the more opportunity to find issues, to find common cause.”

The bill is currently in Parliament. Messinger remains optimistic that her organization and others like it have “done a good enough job,” and that the bill will be passed over this parliamentary session in favor of other legislation.

Standing up for LGBTQ rights, Messinger said in an interview before the discussion, is the responsibility of the Jewish community. “Jews have always stood for the needs of the other,” she said, because “we know what it’s like” to be marginalized.