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This 1986 photo of Ken Meeks – taken three days before he died of AIDS – put a human face on the ‘gay plague.’ (Alon REININGER/CONTACT Press Images)
This 1986 photo of Ken Meeks – taken three days before he died of AIDS – put a human face on the ‘gay plague.’ (Alon REININGER/CONTACT Press Images)

How the advent of AIDS advanced gay rights Add to ...

Dr. Semugoma decided to come out himself two years ago, for a couple of reasons. Gay activist David Kato, a close friend, had been murdered and he felt like a hypocrite. Also, he was treating large numbers of patients with HIV-AIDS but realized that men who have sex with men were reluctant to seek help for fear of being found out. Rates of HIV-AIDS in men who have sex with men in Africa are about 10 times those of the heterosexual population.

“I was gay, I was having sex and nobody knew about it,” Dr. Semugoma says. “But I realized that, with HIV-AIDS, silence is literally death, so I couldn’t be silent any more.”

As in the West, he adds, the AIDS epidemic is pushing gay men out of the closet and thrusting them into the public eye. But, unlike in the West, the evangelical movement that is so rabidly homophobic, holds much more sway, and corrupt, dictatorial governments are far less likely to “do the right thing” by extending rights to a beleaguered, oppressed minority. On the contrary, gays are a handy scapegoat.

“In Uganda, the anti-homosexuality law was presented as pro-African, anti-West legislation. It’s us versus them,” he says. “But I reject that. I’m a gay man. I’m a Ugandan. I’m an African.”

But the situation is not altogether dire, he notes. South Africa was one of the first countries in the world to legalize gay marriage and one of the few countries where discrimination against gays and lesbians is barred in the constitution. Uganda, because of its anti-homosexuality laws, is also becoming a human-rights pariah, in much the same way that South Africa’s apartheid regime was isolated and pressured to change.

“All this discussion is forcing people to recognize that there are gays in Africa, just as there are everywhere in the world,” Dr. Semugoma says. “We will always be a minority, but one day we will be a minority with rights.”

“Even in Uganda?” he is asked.

“It’s my country,” he replies pensively. “Whether it’s two years, 20 years or 50 years, I will return some day as a full citizen.”

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