amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Then They Came For Me…

Owen Ryan, Paul Semugoma, Chijioke Madugwulike

There’s a terrible fear in Uganda tonight. All across the country, men and women are listening for footsteps outside their doors and to rumors among their friends. They look intently at the television and lean in to the radio to allay their worst fears. But nothing comes.

Some argue that it’s time to leave, to gather their belongings and go before the situation gets any worse. Others refuse to be driven from their homes and families because of tyrants threatening violence and death. Both groups see a wave of popular hatred and public mistrust aimed at them and feel these are precursors for what’s to come.

What they rightly fear, and what we must all stand against, is the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Under the guise of protecting children and banning gay marriage, this bill has incited a public witch hunt driven by bigotry and violence. Let’s be clear about what it stipulates:

  • Gay men and women, or those suspected of being gay, will face imprisonment or death for consensual relationships.
  • Family, friends, and neighbors of gay men and women are obliged to report them or will be sentenced to 7 years in prison.
  • All those accused are forced to take an HIV test and will be given stiffer penalties for a positive result.
  • Individuals working for organizations that serve gay men and women, including human rights groups and HIV treatment programs, can be jailed and their organizations shut down.

Quiet, diplomatic negotiations have been ongoing for more than a year, but voting on the bill remains scheduled as a “Christmas gift,” according to the speaker of Uganda’s parliament.

As of late, public outcries have become much more pronounced, with world leaders and average citizens making their opinions known. An international campaign successfully urged Citibank and Barclays, both of which have large operations in Uganda, to lobby the government to stop the bill. Efforts are underway to have Pepsi do the same. As a concession to this pressure, Ugandan policymakers claim to have removed the capital punishment measures in the law, but this is a patronizing move at best.

We must stop this bill. Our countries share a long history of support and partnership that is currently threatened. Since the establishment of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003, US taxpayers have provided more than $1 billion in aid to fight the epidemic in Uganda. This has had a dramatic impact on the lives of millions of Ugandans, including the thousands of children who have been born HIV-free as a result of PEPFAR-funded programs. Similarly, our investments in education, food security, and humanitarian relief have literally transformed a generation.  

All of these are at risk now. The gains made by PEPFAR and USAID will be lost if Ugandans begin to fear that their doctors and friends will turn on them. We will return to the HIV epidemic we knew a decade ago, with all of the loss and devastation that came with it.

And in all honesty, this is the least-worst outcome of the bill’s passage. History has too often shown us that legislated hate is only a precursor for much worse to follow. The explicit permission to use violence only begets more violence. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill cannot come up for a vote without an unequivocal and full-throated statement from Americans of our steadfast opposition to this brutal and senseless persecution.

Monday, December 10, is International Human Rights Day. Help commemorate the day by calling your representatives in Congress to ask them to speak out against this bill with their American and Ugandan colleagues (if you’re not sure who they are, this site can help). Call the White House and ask the same. Inform your friends on Twitter and Facebook.  Add your voice. It’s exactly what we need right now.




Owen Ryan is amfAR’s deputy policy director. Paul Semugoma is a Ugandan physician in private practice in Kampala who has researched the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in vulnerable Ugandan communities.  Chijioke Madugwulike is an Allan Rosenfield Fellow at amfAR.