President Joe Biden’s journey on LGBT+ rights, from supporting restrictions to becoming the first top Democrat to come out in support of gay marriage, has been praised by a top US diplomat as a “very American story” and a “beautiful thing”.
Mr Biden joined the chorus of outrage after the passing of Uganda’s draconian anti-gay law, calling for its immediate repeal and threatening sanctions if no action is taken.
“The enactment of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act is a tragic violation of universal human rights—one that is not worthy of the Ugandan people, and one that jeopardizes the prospects of critical economic growth for the entire country,” he said in a statement on Monday.
“I join with people around the world — including many in Uganda — in calling for its immediate repeal. No one should have to live in constant fear for their life or being subjected to violence and discrimination. It is wrong.”
The bill was signed into law on Monday by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. The law includes the death penalty for what’s referred to as “aggravated homosexuality” – meaning those having sex while being HIV positive, those having sex with minors or others considered to be vulnerable.
Under the law, an individual found guilty of “attempted aggravated homosexuality” can be sent to prison for 14 years.
Mr Museveni sent the law back to the national assembly in April, requesting amendments to clarify the difference between identifying as LGBT+ and taking part in homosexual acts. That prompted pushback from some legislators, who appeared concerned that Mr Museveni would veto the bill as he faced a pressure campaign to do so from abroad. The amended version of the bill was passed early last month.
Under a law from the colonial era, homosexuality was already illegal in the East African country as being “against the order of nature”, and with a possible punishment of life behind bars.
Mr Biden said that since the new law was introduced, “reports of violence and discrimination targeting Ugandans who are or are perceived to be LGBTQI+ are on the rise. Innocent Ugandans now fear going to hospitals, clinics, or other establishments to receive life-saving medical care lest they be targeted by hateful reprisals”.
“Some have been evicted from their homes or fired from their jobs. And the prospect of graver threats — including lengthy prison sentences, violence, abuse — threatens any number of Ugandans who want nothing more than to live their lives in safety and freedom,” he added.
“This shameful Act is the latest development in an alarming trend of human rights abuses and corruption in Uganda. The dangers posed by this democratic backsliding are a threat to everyone residing in Uganda, including US government personnel, the staff of our implementing partners, tourists, members of the business community, and others.”
Mr Biden said he has asked the National Security Council to review what effect the new law will have on the US relationship with Uganda, including the ability of the US to “safely deliver services under the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and other forms of assistance and investments”.
The president said his administration is looking at possible sanctions and restricting entry into the US for anyone “involved in serious human rights abuses or corruption”.
Mr Biden noted in his statement that “In total, the US government invests nearly $1bn annually in Uganda’s people, business, institutions, and military to advance our common agenda”.
As vice president, Mr Biden forced the hand of the Obama administration when he went off-message during a May 2012 TV interview, becoming the highest-ranking Democrat to publicly support gay marriage.
Mr Biden’s evolution on gay rights was a long time in the making. As a senator, he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which blocked the federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Earlier in the 1990s, he voted to remove federal funding for schools that taught acceptance of homosexuality. In 1973, he was captured wondering aloud if gay people may be security risks while serving in government or military roles.
In an interview with The Independent, the State Department’s Chief of Protocol Rufus Gifford said that the president’s journey on gay rights is a “very American story”.
“I think about my own evolution on equality, I think about my parents’ evolution on equality. And it’s a beautiful thing,” the 48-year-old said.
The former US ambassador to Denmark describes his current role as “the first handshake and the American welcome for leaders” from around the globe. Mr Gifford advises the president and vice president on diplomatic protocol - and he travels with Mr Biden on all official international trips.
Mr Gifford added that the president “opened his heart and mind to new ideas. And isn’t that all we want from our leaders?”
“I mean, sure, let’s debate the evolution to a certain extent. But let’s lean into the fact that this evolution is real, it’s meaningful, and it’s actually impacting our lives,” he said.