[Charlie Rounds is managing director at Out Think Partners, where he leads efforts to improve the lives of LGBT people globally. Charlie served for more than three years in Peace Corps Cameroon. He lives in Minneapolis with his husband.]
Last week I attended a breakfast with Prime Minister Rugunda of Uganda. The Humphrey Institute of the University of Minnesota had invited a few of us to hear him talk about development initiatives, as well as peace and security issues in Uganda and Southern Africa. The Prime Minister was encouraged to visit the University by the current US Ambassador who is a native Minnesotan and graduate of the University. Knowing that there was a strong human rights contingency in the room I mostly wanted to see how he would react when the anti-homosexuality law was brought up. I was tense but pleased when we were all asked to state our names and what we did before the Prime Minister spoke: Charlie Rounds. I am a consultant for companies and governments on global LGBT rights issues.
During his talk the Prime Minister focused on the improving health situation of Ugandans including the drop in infant mortality, much more successful tactics against malaria and HIV, as well as the defeat of war lords who had inflicted incredible damage on the people of Uganda. While he was talking, all I could think about was that normally I would be thrilled to hear this (I spent years living in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer) but I was very conflicted. On one hand I very much want the people of Uganda to lead healthier, happy lives. On the other I have seen the videos, heard the recordings, and read the writings of Ugandans who have made life hell for their LGBT brothers and sisters. Quite frankly if the Ugandan Supreme Court had not struck down the Anti-homosexuality bill – life would be even worse for our community there.
Once he finished speaking it was opened up for Q&A and I very much wanted to NOT ask the gay question as I felt it would be more effective coming from someone else. Fortunately a professor of human rights at the University asked: “Mr. Prime Minister – my human rights students’ number one concern is the treatment of LGBT people globally – please tell us what is going on in Uganda around LGBT rights?” The Prime Minister came back with what we hear all of the time – that it is “the West” that has brought the laws – either the British through their colonial “buggery” statutes – or currently the American Evangelicals who helped craft the actual bill. This really was not easy to hear and made me question who is running Uganda – [Antigay U.S. evangelical] Scott Lively, Henry the VIII, or President Museveni?
To use the lives of the most vulnerable of your people for political gain is wrong – I criticize it when the Tea Party does it here with food stamps and basic health care for the working poor – and I have to criticize it in Uganda where our community has suffered because of the anti-homosexuality law.
In the end the Prime Minister explicitly expressed that the worst was over and that cooler heads needed to, and would prevail. He stated that homosexuals had always lived in Uganda and always would and if foreign influences on each side could just stay out that the people of Uganda would be able to find a path forward that could, and should, improve the lives of the LGBT community.
I think that all of us want a better life for all Ugandans. I actually do think that through dialogue we can achieve this. Mark Twain stated “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” Prime Minister Rugunda is less prejudice after traveling to Minnesota and I believe that if we can safely take more and more openly LGBT people, our friends, and families to Uganda – we also can be less prejudiced.
So my hope is that, in fact, the worst is over, and that as LGBT Americans we can lead the way in improving the lives of all Ugandans – but “all” must mean “all.”