Theodoros Benakis

Interview: Uganda’s anti-LGBTQ+ law causes fear and anxiety with many in need of mental health support

Stella Nyanzi @drstellanyanzi
Protest against the Anti-Homosexuality law in South Africa,

Several nations punish homosexuality throughout the world and it is not uncommon for politicians and political parties to demonize homosexuality. But the most dangerous place for LGBTQ+ people on the planet today is Uganda.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, proposing the death penalty, life imprisonment, or up to 20 years in prison for offences of ‘‘homosexuality’’ and/or what is termed its ‘’promotion’’, was signed into law by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni on 26 May. This came little more than three weeks after the Ugandan Parliament, for the second time, voted on the proposed legislation on 2 May.

Earlier, the European Parliament had already declared that such measures would violate Uganda’s Constitution, including provisions spelling out the country’s obligations in relation to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, as well as international law.

Put simply, LGBTQ+ people in Uganda now find themselves living in a state of terror. Not that anti-LGBTQ+ laws and acts are new to the country.

European Interest had the chance to discuss the situation with Gibson, a Ugandan activist, and a member of the country’s LGBTQ+ Community. (For reasons of security other names withheld).

Gibson explains how the anti-LGBTQ+ legislation was first introduced and then evolved into the Bill; how government and opposition cooperated; why the Anglican Church supported the proposed law; and why, when it comes to influencing the Catholic Church in Uganda on the matter, Pope Francis has such limited scope.

Gibson also cites the problems associated with being both a member of an LGBTQ community and a refugee.

European Interest (E.I.): The criminalization of homosexuality in Uganda is not new. But the new law intensifies discrimination and punishments to the point where it even includes the death penalty as a sanction. Could you explain the reasons behind the adoption of such a law?

Gibson (G): For a long time, homosexuality has faced rejection and has been considered illegal in Uganda. This was true even before the first attempt in 2013 to institute a law against the LGBTQ+ community. The legislation, which also had stringent measures such as the death penalty as punishment for homosexuality, faced international condemnation. The Ugandan High Court overturned the law. This led to escalated attacks on the community from a wide range of institutions in Uganda, including security operatives, judiciary, civil society organizations, religious groups, and executives.

In 2022, the Ugandan NGO Bureau issued a report investigating the activities of prominent human rights organizations supporting the LGBTQ+ community and sought to scrutinize the activity of other civil society organizations. The Bureau has since forced such organizations as Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) to shut down due to their work allegedly “promoting homosexuality”, and other activities that were criminalized. The main drivers of this inhuman law claim that LGBTQ+ activities represent a threat to traditional values and are opposed to religious beliefs.

Uganda’s government is currently known for its lack of proper leadership of the country. There is increased corruption, poor service delivery, discrimination, and poor infrastructure. Many think this law is a diversion — an attempt to avoid being held accountable. Politicians in Uganda are using the legislation as a populist move among homophobic voters to campaign for re-elections.

E.I. – It is understandable that the party of Yoweri Museveni, which controls national politics with 336 members in the 529-seat Parliament, voted for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. However, there are some opposition parties that cite the need to defend democratic and human rights. How did they react to the adoption of this law?

G. – Unlike other laws pushed through by the government, the anti-homosexuality bill, to our great dismay, attracted support from both sides of the parliament. It was led by the speaker, who clearly wanted the law to be tabled. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2023 was tabled by the opposition lawmaker Asuman Basalirwa, who said: “The objective of the bill is to establish a comprehensive and enhanced legislation to protect traditional family values, our diverse culture, our faiths, by prohibiting any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex and the promotion or recognition of sexual relations between persons of the same sex.”

Lawmaker Fox Odoi-Oywelowo, a former senior legal counsel to President Museveni, is the only parliamentary member to have been vocal against the bill. He said it contravenes established international and regional human rights standards and it unfairly limits the fundamental rights of LGBTQ+ persons. He has filed a petition in court against the Anti-LGBTQ+ law. Despite that, the new bill criminalizes people simply for being who they are as well as further infringing on the rights to privacy and freedom of expression and association that have been compromised already in Uganda. Opposition members who claim to fight for democracy but fear backlash from their homophobic constituents supported the Bill.

E.I. – The leader of the Anglican Church in Uganda, Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba, praised the new law. At least one Catholic diocese has supported it. Although the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed dismay over this position, and Pope Francis has declared that homosexuality is not a crime, the Christian churches in Uganda support a fundamentally anti-Christian law. Why?

G. – Uganda is a predominately conservative cultural and religious country — 97% of the population is either Christian or Muslim. The people’s religious views and beliefs influence their everyday lives, affecting perception, relations, and values. Most Ugandans you talk to will tell you that homosexuality is a sin according to the holy scripture but fail to even think that any form of homophobic or discriminatory attacks might be sinful. Like many other religious leaders, Archbishop Stephen thinks that homosexuality is an evil act enforced on the people by Western countries that are experiencing a decline in population growth that leads to the collapse of countries, cultures, civilizations, and economies.

E.I. – How has this affected the lives of LGBTQ+ people in Uganda? Could you describe some representative cases?

G. – As an LGBTQ+ advocate and someone who belongs to that community, I have experienced the backlash from my family, friends, and the public. Some consider LGBTQ+ people as second-class citizens who do not even deserve fundamental human rights. Homosexuality has always been condemned socially and treated as illegal in Uganda, but the new law introduces harsher punishments, including the death penalty for “aggravated” offences. I have received many threatening phone calls and messages and been subjected to intimidation since the new law was legislated because of my human rights advocacy for my fellow queer people. I was arrested and detained before for allegedly promoting homosexuality and I have since gone into hiding, seeking and taking safe relocation measures and relief but without any success as yet. A friend of mine (who wishes to remain anonymous) was dismissed from his workplace after commenting about the law on certain international media.

It’s a very tough time to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda. The homophobic violence suffered by LGBTQ+ people is extreme. There are so many cases of homophobic harassment, intimidation even death threats. The public is so extreme against gay people. A few days ago, a Trans woman called Zainabu Muchunguzi, was arrested by police for allegedly dressing as a woman, yet people claim that he is a man. There are mass arrests of LGBTQ+ people and mob violence against them, leaving people scared of being outed and killed. Some victims are going through mental health challenges. The fear and anxiety they are experiencing is so deep. Imagine pretending to be who you are not (heterosexual ) to survive. My phone, Email, and other social media platforms are flooded with urgent cries for help from the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda, people who are facing eviction, arrests, violence, and other threats. We feel betrayed and oppressed in our own country.

E.I. – Can we expect an increase in LGBTIQ refugees from Uganda? It would appear that refugee camps in Africa are also hostile to them. According to reports, the LGBTQ+ community in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya suffers unimaginable horrors daily. Are there other countries that could offer them asylum?

G. – There are only six African countries where same-sex relationships are allowed ( South Africa, Botswana, Angola, Mozambique, Eswatini, and Seychelles) This makes it very difficult to seek asylum elsewhere in Africa if you belong to the LGBTQ+ family. There is much work to be done to ensure all people are treated with dignity and respect in Africa. The only safe spaces for LGBTQ+ members to seek asylum are the Western countries.

E.I. – Last April, the European Parliament denounced the anti-LGBTQ+ Bill, suggesting that EU-Uganda relations would be at stake should the President sign the Bill. The US and the UN also condemned Museveni’s intentions in this regard. Can the EU successfully press the president and the government to withdraw the law? Will this law come with a cost for the country?

G. ¬ The law will carry a heavy cost for the country, especially the vulnerable communities that have benefited from international aid. The US has clearly stated that the enactment of the anti-homosexuality law will hinder the USAID partnership with Uganda and the Ugandan people in the fight against HIV/AIDS and also will deter advancement to inclusive development across many sectors. The government has also started losing foreign direct investments while the tourism industry is also affected.

E.I. – Yet even though the Uganda law is unprecedented, Africa does seem to be a homophobic continent. From the Maghreb countries to Kenya, Ghana, and Niger, just to mention a few, LGBTQ+ people face what seems to amount to systemic discrimination and persecution. Is there an explanation for this?

G. – African countries are deeply grounded in their cultural and traditional beliefs, which can make them homophobic to any modern evolution. There is a widespread belief that homosexuality is somehow a part of the West’s agenda…since many African states were colonized by Western countries. This history is still alive given the atrocities and inhumane nature of how they were treated as, for example, in the slave trade.

E.I. – Catholics in Uganda represent 40% of the population. Could the Pope significantly affect the situation? Does Pope Francis have the power to change the Catholic clergy’s mindset in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa?

G. – The Pope’s influence cannot be underestimated, given the position he holds that transcends from St. Peter the Apostle. His representation is for the equality of the entirety of humanity regardless of colour, race or sex. His comments on not criminalizing homosexuality notwithstanding, many people in Africa regard homosexuality as an evil and demonic act, highly condemned by God as evidenced when, according to Holy Scripture, he burned the city of Sodom and Gomora to the ground. Regardless of the position he holds in the Catholic Church, the Pope cannot undo this general belief…For a long time now, the clergy and other religious leaders have opposed same-sex relationships.

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