I had never heard of California state Sen. Roy Ashburn before he made headlines earlier this month by getting arrested for driving while intoxicated after leaving a gay bar in Sacramento. But even though his name was not well known, there was something awfully familiar about his situation: a closeted Republican who made his mark opposing gay-friendly legislation suddenly outs himself, accidently, with some foolish public act. To his credit, Ashburn, quickly came clean. He apologized and took responsibility for the incident. A few days later, in an interview with a sympathetic and supportive conservative radio host, he announced he was gay and asked listeners to pray for him.
His votes, explained Ashburn, reflected his "duty to represent my constituents," the vast majority of whom, in his opinion, were against various rights for gays. Left unasked and unanswered was the natural follow-up: at what point does catering to a presumably bigoted constituency (particularly by one who belongs to a group that is the object of that bigotry) become not just hypocritical but downright immoral? The question, of course, is not just one for Ashburn, but for politicians everywhere who seek political gain from advocating discrimination.
For most human-rights advocates, the answer is obvious (at that point where bias trumps both logic and compassion), which is one reason a measure before the Ugandan Parliament has been condemned around the world. The proposed law, supposedly designed to protect Ugandan culture, its vulnerable children, and "traditional family values," would harden the country's already tough laws against homosexuality. It sanctions life imprisonment for those who engage in same-sex marriage or for anyone who touches another person with the intention of "committing the act of homosexuality." It allows executing those who engage in homosexual acts with certain classes of victims. And it would jail those who encourage or counsel others who engage in homosexuality.
The Ugandan proposal (which few expect to pass in anything like its present form and which, interestingly enough, was undergirded by arguments from certain American evangelicals) is so over the top that no serious thinker believes it to be remotely enforceable. Also—according to a brief filed by the London-based Equal Rights Trust—it violates both the Ugandan Constitution and the country's obligations under various international agreements.
Dimitrina Petrova, executive director and founder of Equal Rights Trust, believes the timing of the proposed legislation is suspect. "Homosexuality has been around in African cultures for centuries, as well as in non-African cultures," she told me. "Why now, given that homosexuality is already prohibited?" The answer, she says, is politics. "At this time when Uganda has a number of political problems and insecurities … poverty is horrible, security is horrible, sexual crime in unaddressed … the focus on the issue of homosexuality is a way of distracting attention from the real problems of the country."
In a brave and powerful speech delivered in Uganda, Sylvia Tamale made much the same point. Homosexuals had nothing to do with the country's serious economic or medical problems, pointed out. Tamale, dean of the Makerere University law school in Kampala. Yet anyone "who cares to read history books knows very well that in times of crisis, when people at the locus of power are feeling vulnerable and their power is being threatened, they will turn against the weaker groups in society. They will pick out a weak voiceless group on whom to heap blame for all society's troubles."
Uganda's leaders, Tamale noted, had a long history of scapegoating vulnerable populations. "Dictator Idi Amin blamed Asians for Uganda's dire economic problems and expelled all Indians in the early 1970s." Former president Milton Obote's demonized refugees. "The lesson drawn from these chapters in our recent history," Tamale said, "is that today it is homosexuals under attack; tomorrow it will be another exaggerated minority."
When I asked Petrova her view of the future globally for gays and other sexual minorities, she reflected on the year that had just passed: "Consider in the second half of 2009. There were two days, two very different days … The second of July 2009, the Delhi high court decriminalized homosexuality in India; on 14th of October … the absurd antisexuality bill was introduced in the Parliament of Uganda … I personally think that what will be happening more and more is something of the nature of what happened in India."
Petrova is probably right. Blatant discrimination is becoming less and less acceptable in more and more places. But as Professor Tamale makes clear, we are far from a world in which the rights of the vulnerable can be taken for granted. Scapegoating will always serve someone's political interests. Still, however much you gain in the short term by pandering to prejudice, the shredding of one's country—or one's soul—is an awfully high price to pay.
Ellis Cose is the author of Bone to Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation, and Revenge and The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America.