More than 450,000 people have signed an online petition urging Uganda's parliament to drop a bill that would impose the death sentence for the crime of "aggravated homosexuality" - when an HIV-positive person has sex with anyone who is disabled or under the age of 18.
Presenting the petition to the speaker of Uganda's Parliament, Edward Ssekandi, on 1 March, AIDS activists - including founder of national NGO, The AIDS Support Organization, Noerine Kaleeba and Canon Gideon Byamugisha, the first religious leader to publicly declare that he was living with HIV - said if the bill was passed, it would roll back the gains made in fighting HIV in Uganda.
Responding to the petition, Ssekandi said it could not be withdrawn at this stage, not even by the MP who tabled it; but he assured the activists that their concerns would be passed on to the legislature.
The Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009 - a private member’s bill first tabled by ruling party MP David Bahati in October 2009 - is due for discussion this month. Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, but the new law would impose more stringent punishments for homosexual activity, while compelling people in authority with knowledge of such activity to report it or face criminal charges.
"The bill creates a situation where [homosexual] people living with HIV will be denied treatment," said Major Rubaramira Ruranga, a retired army officer who has lived publicly with HIV for more than two decades. "We do not need a new law that picks one section of society and says this should be punished," he added.
However, Ruranga said there was one positive aspect to the controversy. "[The bill] is an opportunity - whether it is passed or not - because people will begin to talk about sexuality," he said.
"It is not easy to access medical services; we have private people who treat us but they charge us [a great deal] because they are very few," said Julian Pepe Onziema, programmes coordinator of the rights group, Sexual Minorities Uganda. "When you go to the doctor you have to give them a medical history; the bill will make this even harder."
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AIDS activists also argue that the continued stigmatization of homosexuality will drive homosexuals and bisexuals further underground, reducing their access to HIV prevention and care services and increasing their vulnerability to HIV. Men who have sex with men are considered a most at-risk population, but there are no national HIV strategies addressing their needs.
"If the government does not come out to help minorities, HIV is coming back; I know many married people who are bi-sexual," said Dennis Wamala, programmes coordinator for Ice Breakers, a local gay rights organization.
Debate on the bill will go ahead despite Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni distancing himself from it amid calls from international leaders for its withdrawal. President Barack Obama in February referred to the bill as "odious", noting that it was "unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are".
Despite international outrage, the bill has remained fairly popular in Uganda, where proponents argue that homosexuality goes against the country's "family values". In February, hundreds of residents of the eastern city of Jinja held a demonstration supporting the bill, with protesters’ signs admonishing western leaders such as Obama to "leave Uganda alone".
The bill’s agenda is to strengthen the nation's capacity to deal with "emerging internal and external threats to the traditional heterosexual family" and to protect Uganda's "cherished culture".
Roman Catholic and Anglican leaders have rejected the bill, but have said they will back it if the death penalty clause is removed.