This is the eighth in a series of articles from Uganda by Xtra freelance reporter Kaj Hasselriis.

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Did you sign an online petition against Uganda's anti-gay bill?

If so, your opposition to the draconian legislation is officially on the record in Uganda's Parliament.

This morning, five gay rights activists marched into the Speaker's office and presented him with the names of 450,000 people from around the world who don't want Ugandans to be executed because of their sexual orientation.

Activists emerged from the 15-minute meeting hopeful that, at the very least, Parliamentarians will amend the bill.

"The Speaker said there are issues that need to be revisited," said Florence Buluba, leader of an advocacy organization for women with HIV. "I don't think the bill will be rejected. But some of the more hostile parts of the law, like the death penalty, will hopefully be relaxed a bit."

Buluba and the others, including a fellow HIV/AIDS advocate, two clergymen and a gay community leader, stressed that the bill should be eliminated.

Speaker Edward Ssekandi refused to give his opinion on the controversial legislation but made it clear that he opposes homosexuality.

"He said he thinks that men should be with women, period," said Rubaramira Ruranga, leader of another HIV/AIDS organization. "Like most Africans, he runs short of knowledge on human sexuality." At one point, Ruranga said, the Speaker even compared gays to drug addicts, as if both groups could kick their habits.

However, Ruranga said he was pleased that Ssekandi asked several questions about how the anti-gay bill might affect services for people with HIV/AIDS. (There will be more on that issue later this week on Xtra.ca.)


Above: Rev Canon Gideon Byamugisha presents the petition to Speaker Edward Ssekandi. (photo: Benedicte Desrus / Sipa Press)



After presenting the petition, the activists walked across the street to Kampala's National Theatre for a press conference. But one important player didn't follow.

The gay community leader who went to the Speaker's office declined to attend the media event. That left four straight people to speak out against the bill.

According to Buluba, the five activists agreed before the press conference that the presence of an openly gay man would derail the event.

"If he had been here, the focus would have been on him to explain 'What is a homosexual?' and 'How do you do it?'" she said.

Ruranga, a retired army major who fought in the Ugandan civil wars of the early 1980s, also defended the gay leader's absence from the press conference. "When bullets are coming your way, you may need to take cover for a while," Ruranga said. "There is nothing brave about allowing yourself to die before you fight the war."

At the packed press conference, most of the reporters were Ugandan. Their first question was, "How many Ugandans signed the petition?" The activists said they didn't know, but it's assumed that only a fraction of the names came from within the country.

Jocelyn Edwards, a Canadian who attended the event, said that Ugandans are suspicious about outside involvement in the gay rights issue. "My Ugandan boss asked me how many Ugandans signed it, too," she said. Edwards is a journalist from Alberta who has been interning for the past five months at a Ugandan newsweekly.

"A lot of people think it's just the gay and lesbian lobby from the West who are opposing the bill," she said.

But Edwards thinks that international pressure is important. "I think it shows that the rest of the world is concerned," she said. "If the bill passes, there will be a lot of backlash in the donor community."

For his part, Ruranga said he appreciates all the signatures and support that have come from abroad. "These signatures send a message that homosexuality is a way of life everywhere in the world and we can't deny it," he said.

Despite having a personal meeting with the Speaker of Parliament, gay rights activists still don't know when the bill will be debated. "It's possible they could just keep putting it off forever," said Edwards.

Get the latest update as soon it's posted:
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