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Legislation, homophobia endanger Ugandan UUs

Kampala minister urges vigilance as threats and bigotry increase.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
5.16.11

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The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar is senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Okla., the partner congregation of the UU church in Kampala, Uganda.

The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar is senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Okla., the partner congregation of the UU church in Kampala, Uganda. “What’s at stake is that our religion is illegal [in Uganda] because of our stance on the inherent worth and dignity of all people,” he said. (Nancy Pierce)

Last week, with the Ugandan Parliament once again considering an “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” (AHB) that could result in the death penalty for some gays and lesbians and criminalize the “promotion of homosexuality,” the Unitarian minister from Kampala urged Americans to pay attention and speak out.

The Unitarian Universalist Association, along with the U.S. State Department and international human rights groups, has denounced the bill. UUA President Peter Morales called the AHB an “unconscionable attempt to legitimize hatred and bigotry.”

The Unitarian Universalist minister of the Kampala church left the country in late March concerned for his safety. He asked that his name not be published for his protection and for the well-being of students at the church-run school and residents of the church-run orphanage for children left parentless due to HIV/AIDS. He is visiting the United States on a six-month visa, touring UU churches and speaking about the oppression his countrymen face.

“We need more vigilance by the people in the States to get involved in the issues of the Global South,” he said. “We want UUs to get more involved in knowing the oppression people are facing so they can add a voice.”

Before leaving Uganda, the minister had been questioned twice by police who accused him of using the church and the school to recruit homosexuals.

Uganda has become an increasingly dangerous place for LGBT people and their allies. In January, LGBT-rights activist David Kato was attacked in his home and beaten to death with a hammer. Before his death, he had announced that the lives of gays and lesbians in Uganda were in danger.

Two days before Kato’s death, the UUA, in partnership with the UU United Nations Office, launched a fund to help human rights advocates in Uganda. When he announced the UUA/UU-UNO LGBT Uganda Fund, Morales said, “Rarely, if ever, has the UU tradition of living our faith been more crucial than it is at this moment. Right now in Uganda we have seen an alarming rise in violence and prejudice toward people who are even assumed to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Right now, Ugandan citizens, including members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Uganda, fear they will be killed because of this growing culture of oppression against LGBT people.”

Last week, the bill moved on and off the agenda for Uganda’s Parliament. Some reports claimed that the government removed the bill from the agenda due to international pressure, including condemnation from human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as Internet petitions with 1.5 million signatures.

Parliament closed on Friday, May 13, with no action on the anti-homosexuality legislation. The bill could be reintroduced in the next parliament, but some lawmakers said its best chance for passage might have been in this season, according to the New York Times.*

Human rights observers speculate that the bill was engineered not only to target people in the LGBT community, but also to help the government silence opposition forces. “The anti-homosexuality law would be used against the opposition to have a pretext to arrest people, even if they’re not homosexual,” said Bruce Knotts, executive director of the UU-UNO.

The wide-ranging bill would give the government broad powers to imprison suspected offenders. It would impose the death penalty upon people convicted of “aggravated homosexuality,” which could include having a partner under the age of 18, having HIV, or being a “serial offender.” It would also criminalize the “promotion of homosexuality,” which could include individuals working on issues of human rights, gender identity, and sexual orientation, or treating people with HIV/AIDS.

Since its creation in February, the UUA-UUNO LGBT Uganda Fund has raised more than $40,000. The money has been used primarily to support the Eddoboozi Human Rights Defenders Network. Eddoboozi is a Ugandan word meaning “voice,” and the group is an advocacy network for LGBT activism in Uganda. It is also establishing a house that can be a safe haven for advocates in the country. “We want to give people a place where they can speak so they don’t have to risk their lives as well,” the Kampala minister said. He helped found Eddoboozi to separate advocacy work from the church.

While in the United States, the Ugandan minister has been based in Tulsa, Okla. The UU Church of Uganda has a partnership with Tulsa’s All Souls Unitarian Church. He is living with church members, who are also organizing a speaking tour for him so that he can visit other American UU churches and tell his story.

“It’s an issue of religious freedom,” said the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister of All Souls. “I am shocked by the fact that by doing what I do every day his life is in jeopardy. What’s at stake is that our religion is illegal because of our stance on the inherent worth and dignity of all people.”

Lavanhar believes that UUs need to be aware that oppression of religious liberals is a contemporary issue. His church recently celebrated a Flower Communion service, which tells the story of the Rev. Norbert Čapek, founder of the Unitarian Church of Czechoslovakia and creator of the Flower Communion ceremony. Lavanhar sees a connection between the story of Čapek, who was killed by the Nazis in 1942, and the Ugandan minister. “People have tried to live this free faith of ours throughout our history,” he said. “And in the present day people are still facing that level of endangerment.”

In 2010, Lavanhar travelled to Uganda to stand beside his Ugandan colleague during a Valentine’s Day rally for LGBT rights. Organizers had planned a march, but it was cancelled for fear participants would be attacked with stones, Lavanhar said. Instead, they held a closed press conference in a hotel meeting room. Blogging about his visit, Lavanhar described the government’s campaign to imprison and kill LGBT people as “a genocide of sorts.”

Knotts, of the UUA-UNO, urged UUs to continue to express their outrage against the bill, which could be revisited even if this session of Parliament does not vote on it. He encourages people to sign petitions opposing the measure and to write their representatives and the U.S. State Department, asking them to oppose aid to Uganda.

Knotts also urged UUs to give to the LGBT Uganda Fund. “We have LGBT members of the congregation who will be at greater risk and human rights defenders who will be at greater risk, and we’re going to need funds to find ways to protect them, whether it is legal protection through the Ugandan courts or physically helping them by giving them safe houses,” Knotts said.


Update 5.16.11: This story went to press before the Ugandan parliament closed, but was published later. A paragraph noting the fate of the legislation in the current parliament was added, and the opening paragraph was slightly adjusted. Click here to return to the updated story.

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