News | Gender Relations - Participation / Civil Rights - East Africa - Queer-Trans Legally Mandated Homophobia

One year ago, Uganda passed a law making homosexuality a punishable offence. What effect is it having?



Kerstin Fuchs,

An LGBT pride parade in Entebbe, Uganda, 9 August 2014.
An LGBT pride parade in Entebbe, Uganda, 9 August 2014. Such a demonstration would be impossible in Uganda today. Photo: picture alliance / AP

The roads in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, are flooded because of the rainy season, and the many large potholes make it difficult to carry on a conversation in the taxi. My Ugandan companion had already told me anyway to lower my voice in the presence of the taxi driver so as not to put ourselves at risk. We are on our way to a secret meeting of Ugandan LGBTQ activists My companion will accompany me to the destination, but, for security reasons, won’t take part in the conversation.

I have already met some of the participants online — others I don’t know yet. It is very important to all of them to be there so that they can share their experiences with me, and thus with an international audience. I’m here to find out how their lives and society at large have changed since the Anti-Homosexuality Act was introduced. It turns into a long evening, as we share traumatic experiences on a very emotional journey together. Again and again, we have to hold each other in order to remain grounded in reality.

One of the Harshest Anti-Homosexuality Laws in the World

A year ago, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signed a law criminalizing homosexuality. It is considered one of the harshest in the world, even allowing for the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”. Advocating for homosexuals can be punished with a prison sentence of up to 20 years. Even the failure to report a homosexual act is a prosecutable offence. In short, the law criminalizes everything that can in any way be associated with homosexuality.

The fact that this part of the law is deliberately worded in an unclear way gives law enforcement enormous scope. But, as one of my contacts tells me, this has not stopped activists from trying to take action against it. He is part of a group of lawyers who have filed a petition against the law. Although it looked hopeful at first, the Constitutional Court rejected their arguments, declaring instead that it found no contradiction between the law and the human rights enshrined in the constitution. A new appeal to the Supreme Court is currently in the works, but its chances of success are considered slim.

Despite the repressive way in which President Museveni has ruled the country for the past 38 years, Uganda actually has a relatively broad-ranging and active civil society, which, as long as the president or members of his family are not criticized, can make its voice heard in public and influence political decisions. Nevertheless, there was no significant resistance when the act was passed in May 2023 —only one vote was cast against it in the Ugandan parliament. Ugandan society is extremely homophobic, which is due not least to the long-standing influence exerted by radical evangelical groups in the country.

An Anti-Queer Gauntlet

The law targeting homosexuals has dire consequences for the safety and lives of those concerned. Its impact extends far beyond this, however, as its vague wording means that what is considered to “promote homosexuality” can be defined in an utterly arbitrary way.

At the same time, clear patterns are emerging in how the law is being applied. People are being evicted from their homes or fired from their jobs without notice, and a considerable number have even been disowned by their families. As a result, a large proportion of queer Ugandans have become homeless and unemployed in the past year. LGBTQ organizations are in danger and have to operate in secret, queer people are attacked and beaten up on the street with impunity. It is hardly possible for citizens to intervene in such cases, as they would then be subject to the accusation of supporting homosexuality.

Hatred of LGBTQ people, which is being vigorously stoked by religious leaders, is particularly widespread in rural areas. Trans people in particular — and ultimately anyone who does not conform to the heteronormative stereotype — are seen as a provocation that justifies violence. If the victim is taken to the hospital, the medical staff can even refuse to treat them — most commonly, as one hospital employee told me, simply by leaving the treatment room on the grounds that their culture or religion does not allow them to treat this person.

The American pastor Scott Lively is thought to have masterminded an earlier version of the law.

The fact that even just talking about homosexuality is considered illegal serves the purpose of preventing public expressions of solidarity with the queer community. Within a year, this has created a system of fear, violence, denunciation, and mistrust. Anything that is somehow different, it seems, is subject to ostracization, denunciation, and punishment. Some have even felt entitled by the law to seek retaliation against people they don’t like, thus “getting one over on them”, which is one reason why the number of charges filed has risen so sharply of late.

The law has also meant that offences committed against queer people by the police, who are considered particularly homophobic, are hardly ever prosecuted. If someone presses charges anyway, they are seen as opponents of the law, which makes them liable to prosecution. This means that if the police suspect someone of violating the law, they can enter unhindered into their home in order to search for evidence of homosexual behaviour. Even just the possession of condoms, body oils, or dildos can serve as sufficient evidence. One person I spoke to reported that, in practice, this means that after a search, the accused has to pay a large sum of money to the police in order to avoid prosecution.

I was also told that the police use social media to seek out parties they expect queer people to attend in order to obtain bribes under threat of imprisonment. Anyone who is unable to pay usually ends up in prison. Legally, people can be held there for up to 60 days without being charged — in practice, it is often longer.

The ban on any form of sex education means that there is blatant disinformation surrounding the topic of homosexuality as a whole. At the same time, the law legalizes and systematizes homophobia — it is downright demonized and consistently associated with bestiality, paedophilia, and even necrophilia. Bogus studies characterizing homosexuality as a “curable” illness are circulated, and both priests and medical staff carry out “conversion therapies”, often without the consent of those being “treated”. These “therapies” can be incredibly brutal. I was told, for instance, about a lesbian woman whose parents were coerced by the local community into locking her in a room where she was gang raped for the purpose of “healing”.

National Law and Geopolitical Interests

The influence of churches and sects on the development of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act has long been recognized. These evangelical and Pentecostal groups, most of them originating from the US, hold extremely conservative beliefs about gender roles and gain their influence by targeting Ugandan church communities with ideological messaging. The American pastor Scott Lively, for instance, is thought to have masterminded an earlier version of the law. A second factor is the money that comes from non-profits like Family Watch Africa and Family Watch International, which are said to have excellent connections to the First Lady of Uganda.

In recent years, Russia has also come to be suspected of supporting the anti-LGBTQ policies of the government and the churches. Insiders think that by now more money is coming into the country from Russia than from the US. This is hardly a coincidence, as the Ugandan law is in line with Putin’s policies. Thus a law was introduced in Russia in 2013 that, similar to the “propaganda ban” in Uganda, criminalizes positive statements about homosexuality (such as in the media). While the democratic countries, particularly in Europe, strongly condemn the Ugandan legislation and its contempt for human rights, Putin seeks to build on a shared, extremely heteronormative value system. This is allowing him to establish political proximity and an alliance with Uganda that his regime is trying to use for its geopolitical agenda.

Sometimes, they say, it is just a matter of being in a safe place for a while in order to recharge their batteries and then continue the fight.

The people I spoke to conveyed to me with great urgency that there is no longer any security or protection for queer people in Uganda. Many have already been detained numerous times and are under constant surveillance by the authorities. The spaces in which they can move freely are becoming narrower every day, while the danger they are exposed to is increasing. Many of them have left the country because the pressure of being in constant danger was so great.

But actually — and there is broad agreement here — they don’t want to leave their country. Who will continue their work if they leave? Who will take care of all the traumatized people?

Sometimes, they say, it is just a matter of being in a safe place for a while in order to recharge their batteries and then continue the fight. But, as I’m told, a humanitarian visa is required to leave the country, and is currently almost impossible to obtain.

On the way back from the meeting, I reflect on the courage of these activists who, even under such adverse circumstances, don’t give up, but continue fighting. It has made a big impression on me. They were very clear about the importance of international solidarity for them and their work — a call that we should all take to heart.

This article first appeared in nd.aktuell in cooperation with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Translated by Millay Hyatt and Anna Dinwoodie for Gegensatz Translation Collective.