NAIROBI, Kenya – Dressed in rainbow wigs and masks, gays and lesbians in Kenya on Monday joined a global effort to protest against an anti-homosexuality bill passed by Uganda’s parliament that is now in the hands of the country’s president.
Activists are trying to pressure Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni into not signing the bill, which increases prison times for homosexual acts. The bill, which legislators passed in December, also prescribes a seven-year jail term for a person who conducts a marriage ceremony for same-sex couples.
A leader of the protest in Kenya, Eric Gitari, executive director of Kenya’s National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, said the Ugandan legislation has major repercussions on human rights conditions across East Africa. Some gays and lesbians in Uganda have already fled to a Kenyan refugee camp, he said.
The Ugandan-related protests come as gay activists focus on many issues around the globe: A new l aw in Nigeria last month increased penalties against gays; Russia has faced questions in the run-up to the Olympics about gay discrimination; and an American university football player on Sunday announced he is gay, setting up the possibility of the first openly gay pro football player.
Rights activists around the world were holding street marches Monday “in solidarity” with Uganda’s homosexuals, said Pepe Julian Onziema, a gay leader in Uganda who said at least 15 homosexuals have fled Uganda since the bill was passed out of fear for their safety.
Gays and lesbians face severe discrimination in many African countries.
The American Jewish World Service, a U.S.-based group, also promoted the global protest against the Ugandan legislation. The group, which supports groups working to advance human rights of vulnerable and marginalized communities, sent a letter to Museveni from 400 rabbis asking that the legislation not be signed.
“Jews were marginalized for centuries and the history of the Europe’s Jews during the 20th Century reminds us that stripping away the rights of minorities by states is often a prelude to the worst kind of treatment,” Stuart Schear, a spokesman for the group, said by email.
Uganda’s constitution gives the president 30 days to sign a bill or return it to parliament for amendments. But some bills have stayed with Museveni for months – even years – apparently because the “law is silent” about what happens when the president is slow to make a decision, said Ugandan lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi, who has represented gay Ugandans in court.
If the bill is returned to lawmakers, Rwakafuuzi said, they could still pass it into law with a two-thirds majority vote. But that can only happen when Museveni officially returns the bill to the speaker of parliament.
“Museveni can keep the bill for a long time,” said Rwakafuuzi, who predicted upcoming court cases over the legislation.
Museveni has opposed the bill as harsh, but gay activists say Museveni’s other recent thoughts on the matter – that gays are often “abnormal” people who should be “rehabilitated” – fuel discrimination against gays in a country where homosexuality is already illegal.
The bill is popular with lawmakers and Christian clerics who say it is needed to deter Western homosexuals from “recruiting” in Uganda.
In Kenya, demonstrators held signs and chanted slogans outside Uganda’s High Commission on Monday in hopes their message would reach Museveni.
“President Museveni, from the letter he sent, he sounds like a man who wants to be persuaded by science and research,” Gitari said. “I’d want to persuade him with scientific evidence that in 1992 the World Health Organization struck homosexuality from the list of diseases. He should know that homosexuals are not sick people.”
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