Western Diplomacy Supports Ugandan Gay Rights, But Do Ugandans?

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The LGBT movement, having steadily gained mainstream visibility in the U.S., is taking the fight international. But what can it really do?

In developing nations, dangling the carrot of foreign aid is an effective if not troubling tactic to affect policy. Fearing economic ramifications, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni made a big show condemning his government’s recently passed anti-gay legislature–a bill that would make homosexual acts punishable by life imprisonment.

Don’t bust out the rainbow confetti just yet. In an open letter to the parliamentary speaker, Yoweri made it perfectly clear how he really feels about homosexuality. “You cannot call an abnormality an alternative orientation,” he writes. “It could be that the Western societies, on account of random breeding, have generated many abnormal people.” Oh, and the reason women become lesbians? “Sexual starvation,” he insisted. Okay, now.

As you might imagine, the news isn’t exactly hopeful for Ugandan gay rights advocates. Activist Pepe Julian Onziema told BBC News, “Him not assenting to the bill makes us happy,” but that, “it encourages the community to attack people like me.” And he’s not speaking in metaphor–in 2011, prominent gay rights leader David Kato was found murdered in his bed after appearing on the front page of Ugandan tabloid Rolling Stone’s (no, not that Rolling Stone) Top 100 Gays feature.

Still, the potential suffering that the bill’s rejection prevents makes this a clear victory for LGBT people already living in secrecy and fear under Uganda’s harsh social climate. And for the millions like them in other economically unstable homophobic nations, the fact that leaders must balance their derogatory beliefs against self preservation will likely continue to result in improvements in quality of life.

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 11.42.54 AMBut globalization is a tricky beast, and aid dependence doesn’t ultimately give nations the tools to build stability. And some argue that as “developing countries have become more integrated into the world economy, and less dependent on aid,” the already dicy conditionality leverage will loosen. Which, if Uganda’s Museveni really had it his way, would mean a big fat signature on his government’s antigay bill.

So what to do when the path to changing hearts and minds winds endlessly across generations, but so many are suffering in the here and now? Given the choice, we’ll take small victories like this one in Uganda any day, and hope that these iffy seeds of change manage to take root under the African sun.

Photo via Flickr