Retired Uganda bishop speaks at UN, calls for global decriminalization of homosexuality
"The criminalization of homosexuality remains the most significant barrier that needs to be dismantled to reduce the spread of AIDS," said Senyonjo, during a panel discussion that formed part of an informal interactive hearing at the U.N. "We need to make our laws and agreements more binding. We need to ask if our laws or beliefs help or prevent the spread of HIV and hinder or support families caring for loved ones."
Senyonjo noted that more than 80 countries still criminalize homosexuality "and see it as a crime against God and nature. Denying people their humanity puts us all at risk because AIDS spreads fast in the darkness of ignorance."
The panel was moderated by Mark Schoofs of the Wall Street Journal, and also featured presentations by Eric Goosby, Global AIDS Coordinator for United States; Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook and executive director of Jumo.com; and Pardamean Napitu, co-founder of Indonesia Social Changes Organization.
The day-long event brought together a diverse mix of non-governmental organizations, faith-based organizations and the private sector, governmental leaders and other observers to weigh in on issues to be tackled at the U.N. General Assembly's High-Level Meeting on AIDS, which will be held June 8-10 in New York.
Senyonjo was ousted by the Anglican Church in Uganda in 2007 for his ministry serving the marginalized and oppressed, including the gay community, in a society where corruption and intimidation are commonplace. Through the Kampala-based St. Paul's Centre for Equality and Reconciliation, Senyonjo ministers to those in need regardless of their gender, social background or sexuality.
The center also runs programs in illiteracy and education, and provides support to single mothers and those living with HIV.
In Uganda, current laws on homosexuality carry sentences of up to 14 years in prison. In October 2009, a controversial bill was proposed to the Ugandan Parliament that called for broadening the criminalization of homosexuality in the East African country and introducing the death penalty in certain cases.
Following international public condemnation, the bill has been temporarily withdrawn, but is expected to be reintroduced. In March 2010, Senyonjo was among those who delivered to the Ugandan Parliament an online petition containing more than 450,000 signatures of people opposing the law.
"We need to decriminalize homosexuality globally. Further we need to remove laws that criminalize sex workers because these laws are often used to prevent education and services being given to these stigmatized populations," Senyonjo said, calling for the creation of a "gay/straight alliance ... [to] win the battle against this prejudice. We have to defeat the prejudice before we can defeat the virus."
"We leaders in the faith community must teach one another to listen and to live with differences," Senyonjo added. "We must work hard to not to impose our religious values on the whole society. It begins as simply as couple counseling before marriage and, on a larger scale, to respect human rights and avoid scapegoating a vulnerable minority."