Can President Obama Save Uganda’s Oppressed Gays and Lesbians?

Chatham House has an illuminating and disturbing report on the domestic and regional politics of Uganda’s anti-LGBT oppression. Bottom line: pressure from the West to stop the nation’s brutal anti-homosexuality bill — which mandates a life sentence for gays and lesbians – might only foster bigoted actions in the short run.  Equality for LGBT people is regarded by many Uganda elites as “colonialist decadence.” Now, that’s decadence I can believe in!

But what to do? At this point, the administration’s best option is to order the US Embassy in Kampala to start processing LGBT Ugandans for humanitarian parole. According to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, humanitarian parole can ”bring someone who is otherwise inadmissible into the United States for a temporary period of time due to a compelling emergency.” USCIS may grant parole temporarily “to anyone applying for admission into the United States based on urgent humanitarian reasons or if there is a significant public benefit for a period of time that corresponds with the length of the emergency or humanitarian situation.” Humanitarian parole does not bring with it immigration status, although it is very rare for parolees to return their country of origin.

Of course, there is one obvious threshold question: how would the Embassy determine whether someone is actually threatened?  The best first approximation would be to consult with NGOs inside Uganda who serve the population.  (Full disclosure and kvell: I’m proud to be working with the American Jewish World Service, which has close ties with many NGOs in Uganda that do this work, and which has developed a major campaign around LGBT and women’s rights.).

This would obviously be an imperfect way of identifying people at risk of incarceration, but in many ways, this is a feature, not a bug.  Two decades ago, Larry Lessig wrote an important article on “The Regulation of Social Meaning.” The law, Lessig, can at times change not only what is prohibited or allowed, but the meaning of actions. For example, before anti-discrimination laws, lunch counters that wanted business from African-Americans would be pressured into segregating from the local Conservative Citizens Council.  But after the Civil Rights Act, the owner of the lunch counter — who did not need to be a saint, but rather just someone out for a buck — could respond to such pressure by saying, “Oh yeah? And are you going to pay my legal bills when I’m sued?” The meaning of an integrated lunch counter changed after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Back to Uganda.  It would be salutary to see thousands of Ugandans claiming to be LGBT if they thought it would get them into the United States.  The very ambiguity of who is LGBT and who is not could do some work in reducing anti-LGBT sentiment in the country.  We might call it a Spartacus moment:

And oh yes — allowing humanitarian parole in these circumstances could save hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives.  Note to the President: No Congressional authorization necessary.