Last week, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, refused to sign a controversial anti-gay bill that would mean life in prison for people convicted of homosexual acts.
But many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual and intersex (LGBTI) people in the East African country, and NGOs trying to help them, say many have been suffering discrimination for years and it is getting worse.
“People think it [the bill] is already law,” Judith, who asked not to be identified for her safety, told IPS. “Whether the bill is passed or not, we are suffering.”
Judith, 25, is an HIV positive former sex worker, a man trapped inside a woman’s body, who turned to sex work for financial survival after her parents suspected she was gay when she was 16 and threw her out of their village home.
For her, the rejection has already started. Judith claims she was discriminated against in early January at the clinic she regularly visits in Kampala.
Judith, who was diagnosed HIV positive in 2008 and has a dangerously low immune system and gonorrhoea, says the doctor told her that other patients were complaining because the clinic was treating a “gay”.
“‘Don’t come back,’ that’s what she told me. ‘Patients are complaining that we are working on homosexuals. It’s not allowed here in our culture. I’m a Christian,’” Judith recalled. “I felt very bad and almost cried but I’m used to it [the slurs]. I was speechless, I left immediately,” she told IPS.
Judith says that most Ugandans do not understand the idea of being transgender. “Here, people don’t know anything about trans [sexual] issues. They just know gay and lesbian,” she says. The way Judith was treated is “not surprising”, Enrique Restoy, a senior advisor on human rights at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, told IPS.
“We have been receiving reports of HIV services being denied to men who have sex with men and transgender people in Uganda for years,” said Restoy.
He said that the passing of the draconian bill by parliament on Dec. 20 sent a “devastating signal to every citizen that it is okay to discriminate and stigmatise people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.”
“The bill has been eroding the human rights of LGBTI people and driving them away from essential HIV services ever since it was tabled in parliament in 2009,” he added.
In his view, the legislation contravenes human rights conventions and political commitments on the HIV response signed by Uganda. In the 2011 United Nations Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS, all member states committed to passing laws to protect populations vulnerable to HIV.
However, in recent years, Uganda, Nigeria and Malawi have proposed or approved homophobic legislation.
In a statement, the alliance said the bill would have “a disastrous impact on the HIV response.” The U.N., European Union and United States also criticised it.
HIV prevention in jeopardy
Uganda’s bill called for life in prison for anyone convicted of “aggravated homosexuality”, which includes same-sex acts with children or by anyone who is HIV positive.
According to one report, the bill made it a crime to “promote” homosexuality, which could include offering HIV counselling to gays.
This could affect local groups, supported by the alliance and other donors, which provide HIV prevention and counselling advice to gay people.
Statistics on gay men and HIV are hard to find but, according to a survey funded by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, of 455 men who have sex with men in Kampala, they are at “substantially higher risk” of contracting HIV than the general adult male population.
A 2009 study by the School of Public Health at Makerere University on men who have sex with men in Kampala found that their HIV infection rates were almost twice as high, 13 percent, as the national average of seven percent.
Dr Sam Okuonzi, a medical doctor and member of parliament, calls homosexuality an “abnormality”, but says only those who “promote, encourage and glorify it” should be punished.
He is adamant that the bill would not prevent HIV positive homosexuals from using health services.
“Any prohibitive provision to that effect must have been removed or will be removed,” he told IPS. “This should enable all HIV/AIDS patients to access medical treatment without fear of prosecution.”
Okuonzi observed that the views of his constituents in Vura County in Arua District, in northern Uganda, are “more extreme” than his own.
During a recent trip to Soroti in Eastern Uganda, Judith found that LGBTI people in rural areas face even more of a battle when it comes to accessing health services and enduring discrimination.
“They don’t have condoms, they don’t have lubes [lubricants], they’re chased from their homes,” she said.
Despite feeling unwelcome, Judith believes the doctor in Kampala is not homophobic: “There is pressure from other people. She wants to keep her job. This bill has affected us a lot.”