Unitarian Universalists mobilize opposition to legislation that could make homosexuality a capital crime.
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Kampala is one of the few churches in the country that welcomes GLBT people.
The conference, called “Standing on the Side of Love: Reimagining Valentine’s Day,” was held February 14 in a Kampala hotel. Details about the site and time were kept secret until the last moment for fear of police interference. In an article that ran the day after the conference in the Kampala Daily Monitor, the inspector of police threatened to arrest people connected with the conference.
The Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009 now before the Ugandan Parliament would prohibit “(i) any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex; and (ii) the promotion or recognition of such sexual relations in public institutions and other places.” Punishment can range from life imprisonment for homosexual sex to execution in cases of “aggravated homosexuality,” which includes having sex while infected with HIV or having sex with a minor.
Gay Ugandans already face enormous prejudice and hostility. The Rev. Eric Cherry, head of the UUA’s International Resources Office, visited the Kampala congregation in December 2008 along with former UUA President William G. Sinkford. “The situation for gays and lesbians in Uganda has been terrible for many years,” he said. “We heard stories from members of the congregation about physical violence, being disowned, political oppression, and being socially outcast,” he said.
The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Okla., who attended the conference, expressed fear about the Ugandan UU church’s future if the law passed. “Our religion will be outlawed and criminalized,” he told UU World. “This is also an issue of religious freedom. Our faith and religious theology affirm the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.”
The conference was organized to build solidarity among Ugandan gays and lesbians and to help them strategize ways of fighting the legislation. At the end of the conference, attendees pledged to submit a petition to the chair of the Ugandan Parliament protesting the bill. They also hope to attract as much attention to the bill as possible from the international community.
The international community has noticed. President Barack Obama criticized the proposed legislation, at the National Prayer Breakfast held in Washington, D.C., on February 4. It is “unconscionable to target gays or lesbians for who they are,” he said. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also condemned the measure at the prayer breakfast, saying, “I recently called President Museveni . . . and expressed the strongest concerns about a law being considered in the Parliament of Uganda.” Pressure is also being exerted by the European Union, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and other international organizations like Amnesty International.
The conference was mainly organized by the Rev. Mark Kiyimba, minister of the Kampala congregation, and featured mostly Ugandan speakers, including gay activist Abdallah Wambere as emcee. Lavanhar, along with the Rev. Patricia Ackerman, a representative of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, were the only Americans present. Lavanhar’s church has a partnership relationship with the Kampala congregation through the UU Partner Church program.
The conference also had a religious message. Many gays and lesbians living in predominantly Christian Uganda hear only negative messages about their sexual orientation. A joint statement by the country’s Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches in December declared that “homosexuality is a detestable act,” even as it expressed opposition to the death penalty and “other forms of extreme punishment such as life imprisonment as proposed in the Bill.” According to a 2002 census, 42 percent of Ugandans are Roman Catholics, while 36 percent are members of the Anglican Church of Uganda.
The conference message was a hopeful one. “Being gay or lesbian does not make you fall short of God’s glory,” Wambere said, according to a report by Kaj Hasselriis in xtra.ca (February 15). Hasselriis also wrote that Lavanhar got the biggest cheer of the afternoon when he said, “You can be a good person and be a gay or lesbian person. Please know you will reach the promised land. God bless Uganda!”
UUA President Peter Morales lauded the courage of the Ugandans opposing the legislation in a letter written February 12. “I know that by standing up to institutionalized discrimination, you are accepting great personal risks,” he wrote. “We Unitarian Universalists frequently affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but seldom are we called to stake our own well-being and safety on this core principle. Your willingness to do so is a moving example for all of us.”
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Jane Greer is a former senior editor of UU World magazine.