amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

GRASSROOTS: The GMT Initiative Blog

Grassroots reports on the work of amfAR-supported research teams and advocates responding to the devastating impact of HIV among gay men, other men who have sex with men, and transgender individuals (collectively, GMT).

Ugandan President Signs Anti-Gay Bill into Law and Nigeria Gears Up for Global Day of Action

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Posted by Lucile Scott February 24, 2014

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Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality bill into law on February 24. (Photo: U.S. Army Africa)

As protests surrounding the Sochi Olympics focused the world’s attention on Russia’s homophobic law against “gay propaganda”, draconian anti-gay legislation was passed in Nigeria and Uganda. Previously, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni had stated that, while he believed homosexuals were “sick,” he did not think they should be imprisoned for life and would therefore not sign a bill, passed by Parliament in December, that punishes homosexuality with life in prison and outlaws “promotion of homosexuality”—including HIV outreach targeting GMT. The president changed his position last week, saying that “scientists” had presented him with research findings showing that homosexuality is not genetic, but a learned behavior. "It was learned and could be unlearned," he said.

In Nigeria, the Solidarity Alliance, a coalition of Nigerian human rights organizations, announced a March 7 Global Day of Action to condemn the “Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act” that was signed by President Goodluck Jonathan in January. Like the Ugandan law, it puts both LGBT and the health providers and educators working with them at risk of criminal prosecution and guts the response to HIV. “Right now, HIV work with MSM is largely stalled as those of us working in the field are concerned for the safety of the community,” says Morenike Ukpong, coordinator at Nigeria’s New HIV Vaccine and Microbicide Advocacy Society, a GMT Initiative grantee partner. “Those still working in the field have had to shift their focus from HIV programming to protecting people’s lives and property.”

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Dr. Paul Semugoma (right) with his partner Brian Kanyemba (left)

As part of the campaign surrounding the Global Day of Action, the Solidarity Alliance is asking supporters worldwide to sign a petition calling for Nigerian officials to stop arresting people for their sexual orientation and to start prosecuting individuals who assault members of the LGBT community. Stay tuned for more updates on what you can do in March.

The week also brought more instances of the homophobic violence and arrests that have been on the rise in both countries since the bills’ passage. In Nigeria, a pastor in the small village of Gishiri organized a mob that broke into the homes of approximately 15 people suspected of being gay in the middle of the night, looted their belongings, and dragged them to a police station. None of the attackers were prosecuted.

Prominent Ugandan-born LGBT advocate Dr. Paul Semugoma was arrested in South Africa and nearly deported to Uganda, where he is “wanted” for his advocacy against the bill. His nearly week-long detention by immigration officials continued even after a South African court ordered his release. He was finally released on February 20.

On February 16, after Museveni announced that he planned to sign the bill, President Obama issued a statement that enacting the legislation would “complicate our valued relationship with Uganda,” a recipient of U.S. developmental aid. In a statement, Museveni responded: “Africans do not seek to impose their views on anybody. We do not want anybody to impose their views on us.”

A coalition of Ugandan human rights advocates released a plan for how the international community could most effectively support their efforts against the legislation without sparking an anti-Western backlash that could exacerbate the violence. The plan asks the U.S., the U.K., E.U. member states, and other countries to recall their ambassadors from Nigeria and Uganda and to urge the Presidents of both countries to ensure that the law does not affect national health policies pertaining to LGBT, does not give rise to increased police brutality towards the community, and does not interrupt the work of NGOs. The advocates also requested assistance engaging the African Union and the leadership of other African nations, including Rwanda, South Africa, and Mozambique, to speak out against the bill.


Global Day of Action: Act Now against the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill

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Posted By Lucile Scott February 10, 2014

*Update: On February 14, President Yoweri Museveni issued a statement that “scientists” had presented him with research findings showing that homosexuality is not genetic, but a learned behavior and that he would therefore sign the bill—though he has yet to do so. International outcry against the bill is now more critical than ever.

A Global Day of Action protest against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in front of the Uganda High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya.

HIV and LGBT activists in Uganda have designated today, February 10, Global Day of Action against the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The Ugandan Parliament passed the bill, which punishes homosexuality with life in prison, on December 20, 2013. In January, President Yoweri Museveni stated he would most likely not sign it, prompting many LGBT supporters around the world to believe the bill will not become law. The Global Day of Action was organized to call attention to the fact that it could easily still be enacted and that diplomats and leaders worldwide need to pressure the President to finally kill this discriminatory bill. See what you can do to show your support below.

If the President simply does nothing, the bill will return to Parliament on February 23, when a two-thirds majority can make it law without his signature. According to representatives from Spectrum Uganda, an amfAR GMT Initiative grantee partner and one of the organizers of the Global Day of Action, the bill has more than 90% support in Parliament. However, the President could convince his party, which has the majority in Parliament, to drop the bill or ask for an extension for further consultation to prevent it from returning for a new vote in February. “We need to let Uganda know, through this Day of Action, that the world is watching,” states the call to action issued by Uganda’s Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights & Constitutional Law.

Even in this state of legal limbo, the bill’s negative impact has begun. “There has been an increase in the number of arrests, in intimidation, in public outings by the media, of harassment in public spaces and work places and by landlords, and of mob justice and religious hate speeches,” says Moses Kimbugwe, programs and advocacy director at Spectrum Uganda. “Some of our clients have been arrested and our peer educators are in hiding.”

uganda - protest - death penaltyThe bill punishes homosexuality with life in prison. Same-sex sexual behavior has been illegal in Uganda since British colonial times. This bill not only increases the severity of the prison sentence, but also criminalizes the “promotion of homosexuality,” a category that could include HIV outreach and services targeting GMT.  Spectrum Uganda, which last year provided HIV services to more than 500 members of the GMT community, has already been forced to shut down its HIV outreach and health services due to safety concerns.

If the bill becomes law, government and private healthcare providers that Spectrum and other advocates have trained to provide GMT-friendly HIV services will likely also no longer be able to do so.  It will decimate the response among the community and significantly set back the fight against AIDS in the country, where the HIV rate, after steadily declining from the early 1990s to 2005, has begun to creep back up and is currently approximately 7% nationwide. The government does not track the HIV rate among GMT, so the exact rate is unknown, but is likely much higher than that of the general population.

When the bill was first introduced in Parliament in 2009, it called for punishing same-sex sexual conduct with the death penalty, giving it the nickname, the “Kill the Gays Bill.” That provision was removed in 2012 due to international pressure from high profile diplomats and leaders, including President Obama—the kind of pressure Spectrum and its partners are hoping the Day of Action will prompt. “Certain interest groups, some religious, some political, generate the fictions stated in this bill for their own purposes,” says Peter Katusab, the security and emergency officer at Spectrum Uganda.  “And it shows that there are some very evil forces welling up in the Ugandan psyche. They are the same dynamics of the Rwandan genocide and Hitler’s Germany. It is most worrying.”

What you can do to stop this bill—not only today, but every day until it is permanently defeated:
Post on social media:

Tweet “Don’t prosecute; protect LGBT Ugandans: The world is watching” to these handles: @AmambaMbabazi, @Parliament_UG, and @StateHouseUg

Or post any message of support on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media using:
@Ugandans4rights, #AHBGlobaldayofaction, #Love4UgandanLGBTI, or #stopAHB

For these posts you can say this, or something like it:
“Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere: I stand in solidarity with the LGBTI community in Uganda. I stand on the side of human rights. I say NO to the anti-gay bill.”

You can also organize a protest or vigil, call your elected officials and ask what they are doing to fight the bill and protect the safety of LGBT living in Uganda, wear a t-shirt or badge stating your support, or start a petition. If you organize a protest or vigil, please contact the Ugandan Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law at and let them know.

The Indian Supreme Court’s Decision to Recriminalize Homosexuality: The Impact on HIV

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Posted by Lucile Scott on February 5, 2014

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Indians take to the street to protest the Supreme Court decision recriminalizing homosexuality. (Photo: ThinkProgress)

In 2009, the Delhi High Court overturned Section 377 of the Indian Constitution, a colonial-era law stating that same-sex sexual conduct is an "unnatural offence" punishable by a 10-year jail term. The Delhi decision called the law discriminatory and added that sex between consenting adults should never be a crime. On December 11, the Indian Supreme Court overturned that decision. This recriminalization of homosexuality sparked vocal outrage, not only among an LGBT community asserting that its members couldn’t simply return to the closet after four years, but across the social spectrum—from political leaders to Bollywood stars. All agree that a law violating citizens’ human rights has no place in a modern democracy.

The Indian government had chosen not to appeal the 2009 Delhi High Court decision (the appeal was brought by conservative groups), implicitly supporting that decision, and following the December ruling, the government filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision. On January 28, the court dismissed the petition, leaving the ruling in place. amfAR talked to James Robertson, executive director of the India HIV/AIDS Alliance, and Javid Syed, program director at American Jewish World Services, about the  on-the-ground impact of the startling decree.

WAD_2012_JR.jpgJames Robertson, executive director of the India HIV/AIDS Alliance, speaking during World AIDS Day 2012. 

amfAR: What reactions to the decision have you seen in India?

James: First, what happened in 2009 wasn’t really the result of a huge social movement that built up over time, but the effort of a few very smart people who saw an opportunity under the Indian constitution to question this law. That is one reason we’ve slipped back. The gay rights movement didn’t build the necessary political and social support. So that’s what people are talking about now—how to build a coherent and broad-based movement. Legal change is the result of social change, and in the past two months, I have seen the gay rights movement build energy and urgency that we didn’t have before. I think that India will actually gain from this in the longer term.

Javid: The English language media in India has been overwhelmingly against the ruling and positive. Other language media apparently is more of a mixed bag. On the political front, the ruling Congress party came out against the Supreme Court verdict, but the main opposition party, BJP, came out for it, and it is highly unlikely that the Congress government will get enough support amongst the legislature to change this law.

amfAR: Has the recriminalization of homosexuality had an impact on HIV outreach, or do you think it will in the future?

James: We are running the largest MSM and transgender program in India, outside of the government. Nowhere have we seen that just focusing on condoms solves the problem of HIV. Particularly in marginalized groups, the fact that they question their self-worth and social value and face discrimination in their daily lives is hugely important when it comes to HIV risk. So will the recriminalization of homosexuality have an impact on our work? How could it not? We already have reports of HIV outreach workers being harassed by police. I think it may also create problems with outreach materials about anal sex. If you say, ‘Wear a condom when you have sex,’ that’s not incredibly helpful if someone thinks sex just means vaginal intercourse and thinks anal intercourse is something else. We need to be very clear about the risk factors and this law is a consideration in openly discussing that.

The Indian Supreme Court building. (Photo: Legaleagle86)The Indian Supreme Court building. (Photo: Legaleagle86)

Javid: The government has taken huge strides to overtly support the connection between the human rights of most-at-risk populations and an effective HIV response. It is unlikely that these programs will go away, though the verdict does now put parts of the government response in contradiction with the law.

James: The government isn’t backing away from prevention and that’s good, but not recognizing that the decision will create barriers is naïve. We still have a couple hundred thousand more people we need to bring into our HIV program for GMT, and this could cause many of them not to join. And in India, even if that’s just 10% of the people who might have signed up, that’s a large number. We now have one-sixth of the world’s population living under a backwards 19th century British law. But now we can’t blame the British. Modern India at the highest level made this judicial error and travesty. Many of us know what the right side of history is. India is now not on it.