As a gay Ugandan, Frank Mugisha has endured insults from strangers, hate messages on his phone, police harassment and being outed in a tabloid as one of the country's "top homos". That may soon seem like the good old days.
Life imprisonment is the minimum punishment for anyone convicted of having gay sex, under an anti-homosexuality bill currently beforeUganda's parliament. If the accused person is HIV positive or a serial offender, or a "person of authority" over the other partner, or if the "victim" is under 18, a conviction will result in the death penalty.
Members of the public are obliged to report any homosexual activity to police with 24 hours or risk up to three years in jail – a scenario thathuman rights campaigners say will result in a witchhunt. Ugandans breaking the new law abroad will be subject to extradition requests.
"The bill is haunting us," said Mugisha, 25, chairman of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a coalition of local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex groups that will all be banned under the law. "If this passes we will have to leave the country."
Human rights groups within and outside Uganda have condemned the proposed legislation, which is designed to strengthen colonial-era laws that already criminalise gay sex. The issue threatened to overshadow the Commonwealth heads of government meeting that ended in Trinidad and Tobago today, with the UK and Canada both expressing strong concerns. Ahead of the meeting Stephen Lewis, a former UN envoy on Aids in Africa, said the law "makes a mockery of Commonwealth principles" and has "a taste of fascism" about it.
But within Uganda deeply-rooted homophobia, aided by a US-linked evangelical campaign alleging that gay men are trying to "recruit" schoolchildren, and that homosexuality is a habit that can be "cured", has ensured widespread public support for the bill.
President Yoweri Museveni appeared to add his backing earlier this month, warning youths in Kampala that he had heard that "European homosexuals are recruiting in Africa", and saying gay relationships were against God's will.
"We used to say Mr and Mrs, but now it is Mr and Mr. What is that now?" he said. In a interview with the Guardian, James Nsaba Buturo, the minister of state for ethics and integrity, said the government was determined to pass the legislation, ideally before the end of 2009, even if meant withdrawing from international treaties and conventions such as the UN's Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and foregoing donor funding.
"We are talking about anal sex. Not even animals do that," Butoro said, adding that he was personally caring for six "former homosexuals" who had been traumatised by the experience. "We believe there are limits to human rights."
Homosexuality has always been a taboo subject in Uganda, and is considered by many to be an affront both to local culture and religion, which plays a strong role in family life. This stigma and the real threat of job loss means that no public personality has ever "come out".
Even local HIV campaigns – which have been heavily influenced by the evangelical church with a bias towards abstinence over condom use – have deliberately avoided targeting gay men for both prevention and access to treatment.
"This means many gay men here think Aids is a non-issue, which is so dangerous," said Mugisha, who together with a few colleagues, has risked arrest by agitating in recent years for a change in the HIV policy.
At the same time, some influential religious leaders have warned about the dangers of accepting liberal western attitudes towards homosexuality.
Both opponents and supporters agree that the impetus for the a more hardline law came in March during a seminar in Kampala to "expose the truth behind homosexuality and the homosexual agenda".
The main speakers were three US evangelists: Scott Lively, Don Schmierer and Caleb Lee Brundidge. Lively is a noted anti-gay activist and president of Defend the Family International, a conservative Christian association, while Schmierer is an author who works with "homosexual recovery groups". Brundidge is a "sexual reorientation coach" at the International Healing Foundation.
The seminar was organised by Stephen Langa, a Ugandan electrician turned pastor who runs the Family Life Network in Kampala and has been spreading the message that gays are targeting schoolchildren for "conversion". "They give money to children to recruit schoolmates – once you have two children, the whole school is gone," he said in an interview. Asked if there had been any court case to prove this was happening, he replied: "No, that's why this law is needed."
After the conference Langa arranged for a petition signed by thousands of concerned parents to be delivered to parliament in April. Within a few months the bill had been drawn up.
[In an email to the Guardian on 30 November, Scott Lively said, "I have stated publicly that I do not support the bill as written. It is far too harsh and punitive. My purpose in addressing members of the Uganda parliament in March was to urge them to emphasise therapy, not punishment in their anti-homosexuality law." His long-standing position was, he said, that public policy should "actively discourage homosexuality but only as aggressively as necessary to prevent its public advocacy, much the way laws against marijuana are used in various states here in the US: the law is very lightly enforced, if ever, but the fact the law is on the books prevents advocates of the drug from promoting it, for example, in public schools."]
Christopher Senyonjo, a retired Anglican bishop, said the bill would push Uganda towards being a police state. "This law is being influenced by some evangelicals abroad," he said. "There's a lack of understanding about homosexuality – it's not recruitment, it's orientation."
But among religious leaders of all faiths his is a rare voice. Langa, the pastor, said the only thing lacking in the legislation was a clause for "rehabilitation" of homosexuals, whom he "loves" and wants to help. Gay rights had the potential to destroy civilisation, as the west could soon find out, he said.
"As one parent told me: 'We would rather live in grass huts with our morality than in skyscrapers among homosexuals'."
• This article was updated on 1 December 2009 to add a later comment by Scott Lively. A sub-heading - US evangelists are main activists behind measure - was amended to clarify that the evangelists were pressing for tougher laws, rather than specifically for the death penalty.
The Pope has faced a backlash after urging Catholic bishops in England and Wales to fight the UK's Equality Bill with "missionary zeal".
Pope Benedict XVI said the bill - which could end the right of the Church to ban gay people from senior positions - "violates natural law".
But gay and human rights campaigners condemned his comments, and Labour MEP Stephen Hughes said he was "appalled".
Gordon Brown said he respected the Pope but commenting would be inappropriate.
The prime minister's official spokesman said Mr Brown had "enormous admiration and respect" for the pontiff, who will this year make the first papal visit to the UK since 1982.
The Pope told the Catholic bishops of England and Wales gathered in Rome: "Your country is well-known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society.
"Yet, as you have rightly pointed out, the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs.
Religious leaders should be trying to eradicate inequality, not perpetuate it
Stephen Hughes Labour MEP
"In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed."
Jonathan Finney, from gay rights group Stonewall, told BBC Radio 5 live: "People should not be denied access to services and employment purely because they are gay.
"We've got to guard against sweeping exemptions seeming to protect one person's freedom, which actually really impact on other people's."
He added: "What you can't start doing is saying that religious people have hard-won freedoms, we'll now restrict those, we won't give them to gay people, we won't give them to women."
Mr Hughes, speaking in Rome, said: "As a Catholic, I am appalled by the attitude of the Pope. Religious leaders should be trying to eradicate inequality, not perpetuate it."
He said the pontiff should ensure existing EU legislation was applied in the Vatican, rather than attacking equality in the UK.
The British Humanist Association said his "uninformed" and "homophobic" remarks came as no surprise and it would oppose his visit later in the year.
Head of public affairs, Naomi Phillips, said the Pope was seeking to discriminate against others in employment, services and education "unfettered by the laws that everyone else in society must abide by and respect".
But the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, said the Pope's words would resonate with many people who felt "uneasy" about the consequences of recent legislation.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme religious belief and practice had been driven into "the sphere of the private only", and the Pope wanted to express the "unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities".
The Archbishop said: "He's [the Pope] not getting engaged in party politics... but he wants his reasoned voice - formed by the treasures of the Christian heritage which is deeply embedded in our culture - to be heard."
Religious leaders have voiced concern that the Equality Bill could force churches to employ sexually active gay people and transsexuals when hiring staff other than priests or ministers.
The National Secular Society said it would mount a protest campaign made up of gay groups, victims of clerical abuse, feminists, family planning organisations and groups supporting abortion choice, among others.
What the Pope is doing is trying to encourage the bishops to keep their resolve in very fluctuating morals in cultures and societies today
Robert Mickens Rome correspondent, The Tablet
President Terry Sanderson said: "The taxpayer in this country is going to be faced with a bill of some £20m for the visit of the Pope - a visit in which he has already indicated he will attack equal rights and promote discrimination."
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said the Pope's comments were a "coded attack on the legal rights granted to women and gay people".
"His ill-informed claim that our equality laws undermine religious freedom suggests that he supports the right of churches to discriminate in accordance with their religious ethos," he said.
"He seems to be defending discrimination by religious institutions and demanding that they should be above the law."
But Catholic MP Ann Widdecombe said: "This isn't a debate about homosexuality, this is a debate about religious freedom."
She told BBC Radio 5 live: "If a faith teaches, as major faiths do, that something is wrong, then quite clearly you cannot have somebody who believes that it's right actually occupying a very senior position.
"That we have accepted as natural justice for a very long time."