Explaining his decision Tuesday to sign a parliamentary bill making homosexual acts punishable by life imprisonment, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni groused that Westerners had vexed the country by importing homosexuality into it.
It’s a laughable complaint, of course, and doubly wrong. Not only does Uganda have no legitimate grievance against Western homosexuals, it has reason to be hugely grateful to them. If it weren’t for Western homosexuals, hundreds of thousands of Ugandans alive today almost certainly would be dead. The anti-HIV drugs that keep them healthy were a direct result of gay activism.
Uganda was hard-hit by HIV in the early years of the pandemic. At the worst point, as much as 30 percent of the population was infected. Such a status meant almost certain death.
Gay activists in the United States pushed drugmakers and government officials to accelerate research. They persuaded the Food and Drug Administration to make experimental drugs more available to the severely ill and to speed product review and approval.
By the mid-1990s, a new class of anti-retroviral drugs, used in combination, could turn HIV infection into a manageable, nonfatal condition. But only if patients had access to them.
In recent years, Uganda has benefited from the global movement to make ARVs accessible to everyone who needs them, a campaign in which gay Westerners have played an integral role.
It’s true, Uganda’s HIV epidemic isn’t characterized by homosexual transmission; fewer than 1 percent of infections in Uganda are attributed to gay sex. This is not just a matter for gay men. Infections in this community are more likely to spread to the heterosexual community in a society such as Uganda’s in which gay men must pretend to be straight.
Wherever gay HIV activism has flourished, it has benefited all the victims of the pandemic. If Museveni and the parliamentarians who passed this awful law can’t be grateful for the Ugandan lives saved by Western activism, at least they should consider the advantages of allowing Uganda’s gays to live openly and advocate freely.Lisa Beyer is a Bloomberg View editorial board member.