Standing in Solidarity With LGBT Ugandans

As the mother of a lesbian woman, a committed Jew, and a life-long advocate for human rights, I am alarmed that the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda has resurfaced, and may be voted upon as early as next Monday. First introduced by a member of the Ugandan Parliament in 2009, this hateful bill is a grave threat to LGBT people and organizations in Uganda. It also undermines all in that country who wish to build a robust civil society based on rights.

We learned during the height of the AIDS crisis in New York that silence equals death. I am afraid that the same is true today when it comes to this horrific bill, and that's why I am speaking out.

As president of American Jewish World Service, I have traveled to Uganda many times to visit our grassroots partners there who are fighting for human rights in a political climate fraught with violence, corruption, and fear. I've listened to lesbian activists in Uganda talk about how they were expelled from school and fired from jobs; about feeling terrified to come out to their parents for fear of being kicked out of their homes. I've heard appalling stories about aggressive anti-gay media campaigns, which pushed the country's LGBT citizens deeper into the closet, while sometimes forcibly "outing" public figures against their will. And, in 2011, I learned of the brutal murder of David Kato, one of Uganda's leading LGBT rights activists. His death was a devastating reminder of the impact of unchecked bigotry and government-sponsored discrimination.

Given this record of bigotry against LGBT people in Uganda, you may wonder why I was alarmed by the reintroduction of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Hard to believe as it may be, this bill -- like Germany's anti-Jewish laws of the 1930s -- will make life that much worse for people who belong to a despised minority. In fact, if enacted, this horrific bill may even punish LGBT people by death, though it remains unclear whether the death penalty will be a feature of the new proposed legislation.

Among this bill's many cruel and unconscionable provisions is one that is so ominous that it stops me cold. It requires three years in prison for any person who fails to report, within 24 hours, the identity of anyone perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. The bill also seeks to criminalize the "promotion of homosexuality," which the bill defines very broadly, including funding organizations that serve and support LGBT people and provide treatment to people with HIV. That includes AJWS, the organization I lead.

Despite how angry I am, I remain hopeful. I am awe-struck by the courage and perseverance of Ugandan activists who are voicing opposition to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill even in the face of such dire risk. But I also know that their efforts alone are not enough to stop the bill from becoming law. The international community must listen to and join with people in Uganda to urge elected leaders everywhere to advance human rights and justice for all people. We cannot be silent and allow a despised minority to be attacked.

That's why, earlier this week, I called upon President Obama to condemn the bill, which he has thankfully done before. Please thank President Obama for his steadfast commitment to LGBT rights and for standing firmly against Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

The most tragic chapter of Jewish history teaches all of us that the stripping away of human rights from any minority group can be a precursor to its targeted destruction. The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a preeminent Jewish thinker and civil rights activist who deeply inspires me and my work, once said, "Few are guilty, but all are responsible." In other words, our silence equals death for others. To stand idly by is to be complicit with injustice. Our global community must stand in solidarity with LGBT Ugandans and support defenders of human rights who are working to make justice and human rights a reality for everyone.

Ruth Messinger is the president of American Jewish World Service.