Last month, a group of Ugandans staged two performances of a play that features a gay protagonist who is killed by his employees. Now, the play's British-Ugandan producer David Cecil is facing a two-year prison term.
Cecil maintains that the play was never intended as a form of activism. But his case has landed in the international spotlight – prompting an important conversation about the Ugandan government’s notorious treatment of its gay citizens.
Despite the recent wave of hate-filled anti-gay attacks by a group of very active and vocal figures, Ugandan activists have boldly carried on the struggle for equal rights and dignity, and continue the march forward with courage and resolve. Their stories of bravery are humbling and inspiring – and may help to fuel a saner national debate so that the small number of extreme, homophobic voices can no longer fuel hateful laws and actions.
From the theatre to jail
Uganda is regularly portrayed as one of the most homophobic countries in the world. And for good reason. Ugandan lawmakers have repeatedly tried to push through laws that mandate the death penalty – recently revised to life in prison – for certain homosexual acts. A huge global outcry has helped block them – so far. But gay rights activists there face brutal opposition and are ostracised, threatened, beaten and even killed.
Enter David Cecil and the all-Ugandan cast of a play, The River and the Mountain. After two performances, Cecil – who does not consider himself a rights activist and maintains that the play was staged for entertainment, not to make a political statement – was charged with "disobeying lawful orders" for staging the play without permission from media authorities. Cecil was granted bail, but as he awaits trial and sentencing, the rest of the world needs to seriously consider the reality of these charges.
Few believe the issue was really about permits; the trumped up charges appear to be just the latest example of the Ugandan government’s crackdown on gay rights and freedom of speech and expression, despite the fact there is no law prohibiting the discussion of LGBT issues.
Not ‘made in Africa’
Beyond Uganda, Africa is regularly painted as the most retrograde continent in terms of legal protection and equality for the LGBT community. Sadly, there is a lot of truth in this. The great majority of Africa's countries have laws explicitly outlawing homosexuality. Local bigotries and violent attacks are far too common.
But African countries are far from being the only places confronting serious anti-gay propaganda and violence. And the battle is not just a matter of life and death in Africa. Parents and teachers in Malaysia are now being trained to look for the "early signs of homosexuality" in children so as to nip the "problem" in the bud. In Iraq, the BBC has documented that law enforcement officials are involved in what it calls "the systematic and deadly persecution" of gays in that country. More than 700 members of the LGBT community have been killed in Iraq because of their sexuality since 2003. And in Iran – where its president believes that the country has no homosexuals whatsoever – groups of gay citizens, who in the past have been put to death, started a Facebook page called "We are everywhere".
Help the fight for freedom
More activists and concerned citizens everywhere are responding to lethal institutional bigotry not by sitting down and shutting up but by standing up and shouting. Earlier this year in Uganda, in spite of the public danger to gays, a group of brave activists staged a gay rights parade through the town of Entebbe. And last month activists hacked into the Ugandan prime minister's website and posted a fake message in which he apologised to all homosexuals living in Uganda and gave his support to a gay pride march.
If activists have the courage to stand up to their countrymen in some of the most dangerously anti-gay countries in the world, citizens across the world must support their courage. When the city of St Petersburg threatens to outlaw homosexuality, we need to stand against this attack on love. We need to call on Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – a winner of the Nobel Peace prize – to veto new anti-gay laws that were passed by the Liberian senate in July. And we must line up to defend rights for gay people in South Africa.
Fortunately, some progress has been made. South Africa, which has seen its fair share of anti-gay attacks, allows same-sex marriage and adoption (although there's a recent effort to remove constitutional protections for gays). And Malawi's new President Joyce Banda has openly called for the repeal of that country's anti-gay law. The brave resilience of the gay rights movements and these important institutional steps forward are often overshadowed in the press by the stories of repression and hate crimes. But it is these positive moves that must be better celebrated and championed.
Sources: BBC, Avaaz, IOL, Independent, Guardian, Economist, Global Post, New Yorker