The stakes are high for Rev. Mark Kiyimba and his fellow gay-rights activists.
And their allies at home in Uganda are few, says Kiyimba, who will be in Portland Nov. 5-7 as part of a U.S. tour to spread awareness about homophobia in his country of 32 million people. Kiyimba, a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church, estimates nine out of 10 Ugandans is anti-gay.
A bill introduced in Uganda's parliament last year would give the death penalty to any homosexual person who tests positive for HIV, and up to three years in jail for anyone who knows a gay person and does not report them. The proposal emerged after ex-Oregon Citizens Alliance communications director Scott Lively spoke to Uganda's parliament.
Kiyimba, one of a small number of straight supporters of gay rights in Uganda, has risked his life by holding an LGBT conference last February in Kampala, attended by 200 people. His church runs a school for 150 orphans who lost their parents to HIV and AIDS, as well as an orphanage for 22 children infected with the virus.
Kiyimba, 32, spoke with WW by phone.
WW: What would Americans be surprised to learn about Ugandans' views on gays and lesbians?
Rev. Mark Kiyimba: When someone is identified as a gay person in Uganda, he or she can't live in that place anymore.... Either he will be attacked by the community or will face any kind of prejudice just because of his sexuality.
Have you ever been threatened in your work?
Very much so. I have received so many phone calls. I have received emails. I have been intimidated on the street. But when I go to the newspaper, I don't say, "Gay people in Uganda should have their rights," because I am an educated man. I know how much my community understands. They don't understand the issue of human rights.
So how did you and your parishioners come to hold the views you did?
Our church goes in with the approach of saying, "Look, these people do it differently, but they don't need to be eliminated." …I am telling people in Uganda from the point of view of a minister, "Look, these are human beings."
Has violence gone up since this bill was introduced?
Before this bill was introduced, people knew that gay people existed in Uganda, but there was [not] any kind of hate which was so much going on like it is now. It wasn't there. But since the bill was introduced to Parliament, my friend, it got worse. It's a loss. So, the bill actually helped so much to instigate gay violence in my country.
Did Ugandans notice the anniversary of the anti-gay bill's proposal two weeks ago?
A few people did—like me, I did. But the larger part of the community did not. I did because I remember how it was introduced and how it was passionately debated. But people in Uganda don't keep records so much as in the U.S.
On a much different note, what do you think about the gay marriage debate in the United States?
I would be happy if all of the states would allow people to get married in a civil way. Marriage is an agreement between two people. We can be married politically. We can be married sexually. There are so many marriages. It shouldn't be a big problem to see two people married.... They should look at it just as two people agreeing to be together, but they want to be married legally.
What do you make so far of gay culture in the United States?
They are free. They have freedom. They can be able to speak for themselves. That is something that can't be in my country for the next 20 years.
Rev. Kiyimba will give a lecture Friday, Nov. 5, at 7 pm at Portland Community College's Cascade Campus in the Moriarty Building, 705 N Killingsworth St. He also will give a presentation Sunday, Nov. 7, at 1 pm in First Unitarian Church's Buchan Reception Room, 1034 SW 13th Ave. For info, visit firstunitarianportland.org.