The stretch of 16th Street in upper Northwest D.C. where the Embassy of Uganda sits usually sees no more commotion than the rush of commuters twice daily. Thursday, Nov. 19, was a rare exception as about 30 people offered heated protest, marching with rainbow flags, homemade signs and banners as they chanted against draconian anti-gay legislation currently before the Ugandan Congress.
The action was in solidarity with Sexual Minorities Uganda, which requested international support in fighting the proposed bill that would greatly expand the nation's laws criminalizing homosexuality. Consensual sex between men is currently punishable by 14 years in prison, but the new law would require people to expose to authorities those they know to be gay, expand the penalty for homosexuality to life in prison, and add the death penalty for HIV-positive men who engage in consensual gay sex -- what the bill calls "aggravated homosexuality."
"This is the most homophobic law that's been introduced in recent times," says Mark Bromley, who helped organize the protest with his Council for Global Equality, the D.C.-based organization he formed in 2008 to promote LGBT equality via U.S. public and corporate policies. "This is one of the most significant attacks on human rights in years, and it will undermine public health in the country."
The protest was endorsed by more than 20 local and national groups ranging from the AIDS Institute to Human Rights Watch, and was one of several throughout the world.
''Regardless of their effect on the legislation, I'm hoping these protests show the LGBT Ugandans they have people abroad fighting for them,'' said Chloe Schwenke, a University of Maryland professor of ethics. Schwenke is transgender, and began her transition during a Fulbright professorship in Uganda.
"It's really shocking how strong so many Ugandans are in their conviction that gay people are inhuman, or an abomination, or beneath contempt. They use all these words freely," she said.
''It definitely helps to show that there's international support for gay rights,'' said Katherine Roubous, a journalist who covered the gay-rights movement in Kampala, Uganda's capital, during a prominent 2007 privacy case. She said that after an article of hers quoted an openly gay person, a religious leader held a rally of several hundred people to demand her deportation. Although that initial protest was not successful, she believes she would not be allowed to re-enter Uganda today.
Toward the midpoint of the afternoon protest, Bromley was given an audience with Ambassador Charles Ssentongo, for what Bromley later referred to as a ''useful and informative discussion.'' According to Bromley, Ssentongo said the bill had been introduced by a private party and that the government had not taken a position. He also said, Bromley added, that he believed the debate was healthy and important, and that the discussion would take place in a tolerant manner.
Notably, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, in office since 1986, has garnered headlines in the past for his bigoted characterizations of gay people.
"I'm sure [Ambassador Ssentongo] doesn't want this kind of homophobia to be law," said Donald Hitchcock, of Advocates for Youth, "but the bill literally criminalizes allies. How can you debate publicly when there's going to be a witch hunt afterwards?''