The following is an open letter to Uganda President Yoweri Museveni
Dear President Museveni:
This week I received a call for help from your people that I cannot ignore. My lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender friends and colleagues in Uganda are frightened, and I am concerned that they have every reason to be. Over the past several years they have been victimized by vicious verbal attacks and hate crimes. In 2011 David Kato, a prominent gay activist, was beaten to death after a Ugandan newspaper featured pictures of him and other gay Ugandans under the headline “Hang Them.”
Tragically, Uganda’s parliament passed an anti-homosexuality bill in December, a bill that we most respectfully implore you not to sign.
In the days leading up to the bill’s passage, LGBT activists were arrested and paraded before the media. My Ugandan friends tell me that they now fear arrest and attacks by their neighbors, forcing them to stay at home and limit their movements.
As a community of faith, we felt that it was particularly important that you hear from us. In March 2009 three American evangelical Christians traveled to Uganda to preach anti-gay rhetoric and fuel the anti-LGBT agenda in your country. Their lectures, heard by thousands of Ugandans, including teachers, police and politicians, are widely credited with inspiring the anti-homosexuality bill, which was introduced just one month later. As documented extensively in the film God Loves Uganda, these missionaries have remained involved since, working with Ugandan legislators on drafting the bill and continuing their hateful anti-LGBT organizing. These missionaries claimed to speak on behalf of God, but you and I know there is nothing godly about hate.
We feel it is important that you know that many Americans and many people of faith around the globe are vehemently opposed to this bill. We believe in the dignity of all humans, because we believe that each and every one of us is made in the image of God.
While you and I may disagree on the nature of homosexuality, Mr. President, I know we can agree that the bill before you now would violate the God-given dignity of too many Ugandans.
Among the bill’s many cruel and unconscionable provisions is the maximum penalty of life imprisonment for what the law characterizes as repeated homosexual behavior. It also criminalizes what it describes as the promotion of homosexuality, which includes funding organizations that provide basic services, such as health care, to LGBT people or to those who support the legal and human rights of sexual minorities.
My friends in Uganda – all of them citizens of yours – have joined with 51 Ugandan human rights organizations to declare:
If we remain silent … we shall suffer at the hands of Ugandan leaders that have no respect for Human Rights…. We must speak out loudly against the Anti Homosexuality Bill … to let Uganda know … that “the world is watching.”
And that’s why I am writing you, Mr. President. The world cares, and it cares deeply. And the world does not share the sadly distorted views that those missionaries have carried into your land. They do not speak for us.
For people in my community, and for recent generations of Jews, the threats facing LGBT people in Uganda are all too hauntingly familiar. Mr. President, freely expressed prejudice, state-sanctioned hate and escalating attempts to use the law of the land to strip citizens of their legal rights and their humanity have no place in any country.
Now, as we and our friends around the world watch history threaten to repeat, we answer the call of our colleagues in Uganda to speak out. We cannot remain silent. We cannot simply stand by.
We urge you to take this opportunity to send a message to those who have faced discrimination, experienced abuse or survived losing someone who has been killed for being gay: that the Ugandan government does not condone these actions.
We recall the words of the late Nelson Mandela, who, in 1996, saw to it that South Africa’s new constitution barred discrimination based on sexual orientation. And please allow me to share his words with you: “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”
Mr. President, your recent statements contain some very harsh language about LGBT people. Still, we believe that you understand that the anti-homosexuality law is not consistent with Uganda’s constitution, with the spirit of fair treatment for all, or with the spirit of our shared belief in something greater than ourselves.
As you lead your nation and continue to engage on the world stage with other leaders, please don’t allow this law to go into effect and send the wrong message about Uganda to the world. Don’t listen to the voices of hate. We hope you will make the decision that is best for your country and its people and not allow this bill to become the law of your land.
This opinion piece first appeared on the Huffington Post
Ruth Messinger is the president of American Jewish World Service, the leading Jewish international development and human rights organization.