While most of the conversation focused on the struggle to defend the rights of gay men and lesbians in Uganda, it became clear during a forum at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington on April 30 that activist Pepe Julian Onziema is as much a pro-democracy advocate as a pro-LGBT advocate – if not more so.
If any theme emerged from the wide-ranging and highly personal discussion hosted by the NED, it is that the struggles for human rights, free expression, and participatory democracy are something of a seamless garment and – in Onziema’s estimation – efforts on behalf of one are also efforts on behalf of the others, and that when civil society unites to defend liberty and democracy across the board, it can be more successful than if it is fractured and siloed.
The occasion was a forum titled “In the Shadows of Democracy: LGBTIQ Rights in Uganda,” with a discussion moderated by attorney Wade McMullen of RFK Human Rights and featuring Onziema, who is currently a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at NED. Members of the audience included the Ugandan Ambassador to the United States, Oliver Wonekha, as well as Richard Rosendall of the DC-based Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance; Marc Plattner, editor of the Journal of Democracy; Dmitry Dubrovsky, another Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at NED; David Sands of the International Republican Institute (IRI); and about 85 others from human rights organizations, government agencies, universities, and publications.
This theme became more explicit toward the end of the forum, when Zerxes Spencer of NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies posed a question to Onziema about how he balances wearing “two hats,” one as an LGBTIQ activist and the other as a democracy advocate.
Onziema said that, when he and his fellow gay, lesbian, and transgendered activists first got started, other civil society organizations closed their doors to them. “What we had to do,” he said, “was to go back to the drawing table” and rethink their outreach strategy.
The result was a vision for SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda) as liberating the LGBT community but also to cooperate with other civil society sectors. “We had to weigh our strengths” against the strengths of other civil society organizations that could “complement” them, and admit their weaknesses so as to be able to seek assistance from organizations that were strong where SMUG was weak.
As to whether he wears “two hats,” Onziema said in reply to Spencer’s question, “I embrace non-discrimination in totality.”
Early in the discussion, Onziema explained how he came to acquire this attitude.
He said he grew up in a large family that, when it gathered on holidays, had members speaking a variety of languages. Cousins and brothers might have different mothers and might have been educated at different schools, but when they came together under one roof, they were treated as equals. “We were not accustomed to discrimination,” he said, so when an anti-homosexual mood took hold in Uganda in the 1990s and early 2000s, “I was moved and angered.”
When the Anti-Homosexuality Act was introduced in Parliament as a private bill in 2009, Onziema and his colleagues took note that it was about much more than homosexuality. The bill “curtailed fundamental freedoms of expression and association and went further than other anti-LGBT laws in other countries (outside of Russia).”
He and his colleagues, he said, wanted to present themselves as citizens of equal standing to others.
“We are Ugandans,” he said, and the Ugandan constitution “guarantees freedom of expression and assembly.” In fact, he added, “we have one of the best constitutions.”
At the same time, he said, “we were aware that there’s a gap” in the words of the constitution and the way the government delivers on its promises.
SMUG and other pro-LGBT groups, he said, “fill the gap in civil society. Being part of civil society is our contribution to democracy.”
Democracy, he explained, “is supposed to be participatory. You should be free to express yourself without harming others.”
For him and his fellow activists, Onziema continued, “whatever activities we carry out” is meant to “contribute to better democracy in our country. Part of it is calling the government out when government is not doing right.”
The Anti-Homosexuality Act – which was annulled by a court ruling in 2014 and has not been reinstated – “wasn’t really about homosexuality.” Instead, he said, it was a stalking horse of restrictions on civil society activities. “It was about limiting expression and it limited the fulfillment” of the declarations of the African charter on human rights.
Asked by McMullen what he thinks about statements in Europe and North America that “Uganda is the worst place to be gay,” Onziema made clear his disagreement.
“That statement is from the West,” he said. “There have been times when things were really bad but, compared to Russia, we at least have space to speak out” and challenge the government.
“And our government is paying attention,” he added. “We need to keep these issues on everyone’s radar.”
It is not correct, Onziema said, “to call the country I love the ‘worst place to be gay.’ We want to make it better for everyone so that those who have left [Uganda] can come back.”
Moreover, he noted, “the fact that the Ambassador is here” at NED shows that “it’s not as bad as people say” because certain sections of government and society are willing to listen.
(Later, during the question-and-answer period, Dmitry Dubrovsky said, “I cannot imagine a Russian ambassador speaking about LGBT issues” at a forum like this one.)
While there were a number of other points brought up — from the role of colonial governments in bringing anti-gay laws to Africa to the role of American evangelicals (such as Scott Lively) in exacerbating anti-gay sentiments and laws in Uganda to the need for foreign pro-LGBT groups to give local groups space to grow and develop, it is noteworthy that Ambassador Wonekha was given an opportunity to reply to Onziema’s presentation.
“I am happy I managed to come and be here,” she said, because if she had relied on second-hand reports “I may not have got it properly.”
She pointed out that she had been a Member of Parliament when the Anti-Homosexuality Act was introduced and she emphasized that it was a private member’s bill, not part of the government’s agenda. “We said we had more important priorities” at the time, she explained, and that’s why the bill languished for some four years before it finally passed.
Ambassador Wonekha added that she was “glad” that Onziema “emphasizes process. Allow the process to take place,” she said.
Onziema concluded his remarks by saying, to laughter in reply, that “I don’t want our guests to feel I don’t need their help. We have to keep the conversation going on. We need participation to enhance our capacities.”
He also cautioned, however, that the “media needs to be careful on how they report issues in Africa and globally.” (He had earlier noted how incomplete media reports about sanctions imposed on Uganda had led to a backlash against LGBT citizens there.)
His final point was to “encourage pro-LGBT religious leaders” in Africa and the West. “The waters have been muddied by their counterparts” who are opposed to gay rights, and their participation is needed to clarify the issues.
NED’s forum on gay rights in Uganda was reported and followed on Twitter using the hashtag #NEDevents and from the Twitter handle @ThinkDemocracy.