LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Ugandans living with HIV/AIDS are being denied access to treatment and healthcare because of their sexual orientation, a Ugandan bishop who campaigns for the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community said.
Bishop Christopher Senyonjo said the number of LGBT people with HIV/AIDS in the east African country is on the increase and prejudice and ignorance mean they are often marginalised and forced into hiding.
“This is being reported by people working with HIV/AIDS … [who say infection rates] are rising and that there is fear," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from Uganda. "People need to understand that people don't need to be punished … for their sexual orientation."
Across sub-Saharan Africa, more and more people are being harassed, attacked and shunned because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, Amnesty International said in a report this week. Of the 78 countries in the world that criminalise homosexuality, 38 are in Africa.
Amnesty said Uganda was one of the most backward countries in terms of LGBT rights, mostly due to numerous attempts to pass an anti-homosexuality bill – known locally as the "kill the gays" bill. If passed into law, it would impose a death penalty on those caught engaging in same-sex sexual conduct three times, those engaging in same-sex sexual conduct while HIV positive and those having sex with a minor.
Senyonjo called the bill, which is awaiting debate in parliament, "draconian".
Senyonjo, a former Anglican bishop who has been working with the LGBT community in Uganda since 2001, heads the St.Paul's Reconciliation and Equality Centre in the capital Kampala, a community-based organisation that runs various programmes ranging from healthcare for HIV-positive people to women's empowerment and care for orphans.
MISINFORMATION BREEDS PREJUDICE
Senyonjo takes the approach of a "straight-gay people alliance" in which straight and gay people work together to eliminate prejudice and discrimination.
"I think educated people are coming to understand more that LGBT people are also humans who should be respected,” although there remains a good deal of fear among large segments of the population who are less well educated, he said.
Misinformation and ignorance breed prejudice, Senyonjo added: "Most people in Uganda are against LGBT people. They need a lot of sensitisation and this is what we are trying to do. If you give knowledge, I think you will change attitudes."
Anti-homosexual sentiment is rife in the conservative east African country where gays are often forced to live secretive lives and hide away to avoid harassment and persecution.
The anti-gay bill, which was introduced in 2009, caused a wave of persecution in Uganda, with media outlets publishing names and addresses of people believed to be homosexuals and calling for their execution, but the rise of the evangelical church has led to a further increase in anti-gay sentiment.
Activists accuse Ugandan-born pastors of spreading propaganda, including that homosexuals are "recruiting" young children and argue that the anti-homosexuality bill was introduced after a March 2009 conference in Kampala that hosted representatives from the U.S. "ex-gay" movement, which seeks to encourage people to refrain from same-sex behaviour, including evangelical pastor Scott Lively.
"They are evicted by their families and at school they are definitely mistreated," Senyonjo said of gay Ugandans.
The centre he founded helps those who have been estranged from their families by offering counselling and by reaching out to relatives in the hope of changing hearts and minds. But some people are so scared of repercussions that eventually they flee the country, he said.
Bishop Senyonjo has appeared in two documentaries about LGBTI people in Uganda, "Call me Kuchu" and "God Loves Uganda," the latter focusing on the campaign carried out by religious missionaries in Uganda to instil the values of right-wing American Christians.
Despite the fact the situation for gay people in Uganda remains "bleak", Senyonjo believes "there is hope for improvement as more and more educated people are becoming more and more understanding that homosexuality is not imported."
He rejected the often-used rhetoric that homosexuality is un-African, a perverted behaviour introduced during Western colonisation: "It's a human phenomenon … it has nothing to do with one choice or the other."
Senyonjo has encountered hostility because of his advocacy work and, in the early 2000s, the Church of Uganda revoked his religious titles. Despite this, he continued his work, convinced "the oppression and discrimination against [LGBT people] stems from misinformation and ignorance of the fact that human sexuality is both heterosexual and LGBT."
Last year, he was awarded the Clinton Global Citizen Award for his "visionary leadership" in the fight for human rights in Uganda.
"I do find misunderstandings and some hostility from some people, especially the leaders of my Church of Uganda," he said. "But this is gradually changing to understanding as I dialogue with them."