Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is pushing a bill that would impose the death penalty on HIV positive gay men. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009 seeks to impose the death penalty on gay men who are HIV-positive for “aggravated homosexuality”. In Uganda today, homosexuality is already a crime punishable by a prison life term. This proposed law would not just condemn HIV positive gay men and "repeat offenders" to death, it would also jail for three years anyone who knows a gay man but refuses to report them to the authorities. In addition to that, anyone who defends gay rights in public will be sentenced to seven years in prison.
This bill sounds like a brilliant idea! But maybe the net should be expanded even wider to include people who have extra-marital affairs, people with lung cancer, people who contract syphilis, chlamydia and other sexually-transmitted diseases! Why not kill babies born with HIV? Whilst at it, anyone who has a child out of wedlock and anyone who has sex with a woman in her menstrual period should be executed! People with epilepsy believed to be possessed and people with dimples should be included for they bear the devil’s mark! Albinos are scary; maybe the Jews were let off to easy, let’s annihilate them and finish off what Hitler didn’t! Let’s punish White people for colonizing Africa - let’s add everybody, for crying out loud!
The implication here is that being HIV positive or HIV positive and gay becomes a capital offense. Capital offenses generally include premeditated murder, rape with additional bodily harm, and the crime of treason. In some countries drug offenses are capital offenses. So suddenly, being HIV positive – never mind being gay – is equivalent to murder or rape? And how does one define “aggravated homosexuality”? And will heterosexual people who are HIV positive be spared? Who is a ‘repeat offender’? Are parents bound by law to give up their sons and daughters to be executed? Isn’t there anything in the Ugandan constitution that protects freedom of speech? What happens when someone claims someone else is gay and he says he’s not – on which party is the burden of proof?
The silent killer
If the issue is with reducing the prevalence of HIV, killing people with HIV will not solve that problem. In fact that will exacerbate the problem because no one will talk about it for fear of being executed and will not get treatment and that is when the problem will explode exponentially. People will contract the virus unknowingly and will spread it for years, indirectly infecting hundreds of people who will infect thousands, who will infect millions. HIV/AIDS will become the silent killer – even more silent than it already is – and sweep an entire generation away just because people were forced into silence by an intolerant government.
All over the world, the communities that are most affected by HIV are the ones that attach inordinate stigma to the condition. In the United States, it is the black community, and now black females are the highest growing group getting infected. In the 1980’s HIV was a gay disease. Not anymore. Today, and in Africa and China, HIV is spreading fastest among heterosexual people. The greatest factor in slowing down the spread of infections is by talking about it, not silence. What is needed is a safe space for people to be able to disclose their status without fear of stigma or recrimination. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and hope that by killing off people we will solve the issue.
Arbitrary laws and populism
Where would this stop? With arbitrary laws that promote intolerance and that are heavily steeped in ignorance, who is safe? If we allow our leaders to pass laws based on their caprices and prejudices, it will not be long before we find that all of us who sat by silently have ourselves become targets of some other law we might find objectionable. Our sages have a saying which goes: “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything”.
In a country where more than half are Christian and more than 42% of the population is Catholic; in a country where less than 40% pursue any form of secondary education, it is easy for governments to use the politics of populism to rule - the same tool Hitler used that we now vilify him for. It is no accident that countries that have built their constitutions on tolerance and social cohesion have experienced better socio-economic and industrial development.
If the issue is with gay people, being homosexual does not, in itself, create HIV or AIDS. Killing gay people will not make homosexuality disappear – not unless gene tests are mandated to be done on all foetuses and any foetus that just might turn out gay killed before they are born. People don’t choose to be tall or short, dark or light, gay or straight, left-handed or right-handed.
Return of 1641 witchcraft laws?
Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009 is not a good idea by any stretch of the imagination. It is a disaster waiting to happen, ill-informed by ignorance. It is an arrogant attempt at playing God. This bill will trigger a wave of witch-hunts reminiscent of the Salem witch trials of 1692 after witchcraft was made a capital offence in 1641. With almost one million people living with HIV in Uganda, would that not be a form of genocide? Let it not be said that on the precipice of the year 2010, Africa dragged itself back to barbarism. (Ironically, homosexuality was more accepted then!) Let it not be said that you – or I, upright godly people beyond reproach – stood by nonchalantly or even cheered as we watched this train wreck happen. We will be judged by posterity.
The Africans say when you point at someone, the other fingers point back at you. The results of a 1996 study at University of Georgia found that heterosexual-identifying men who were homophobic were two times more likely to be aroused by homoerotic images than heterosexual-identifying men who had no problem with homosexuality. It is people who are insecure or even unsure about their sexuality that make the most brouhaha about homosexuality. It makes them appear ‘better than’, and helps them assert their masculinity – even when their sexuality is not in question. But they also make the most noise because they are threatened by the idea of homosexuality and by homosexuals. They are threatened by the mirror that might show who they really are.
And who they really are is too terrifying an image for them to behold.