‘Gays, Gods and Governments': homophobia in Uganda

The drama playing out in Kampala over the tabling of the Anti Homosexual Bill for its first reading in the Ugandan Parliament represents a complex interplay of historical, political and religious factors, says Rachael Crook

Rachael Crook
20 February 2012

Nine months after campaigners declared it dead, the Anti Homosexual Bill has been ‘resurrected’. At the beginning of this month the proposed legislation was tabled for its first reading in the Ugandan Parliament. The proposals, originally drafted by the MP David Bahati in 2009, aim to further criminalise homosexuality and introduce a raft of new offences that prohibit any information about same sex relations reaching the public domain. While it is unclear whether it will be required to undergo review in committee again one thing is clear: this invasive and discriminatory Bill is well and truly back.

The ramifications of the proposals should they become law, are manifold.

Under existing legislation two men in a sexual relationship can be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison. If Bahati's Bill becomes law this penalty could increase to life imprisonment. Failure to report (within twenty four hours) two men suspected of being in a sexual relationship carries a sentence of up to three years in prison. A woman picking up a leaflet at an ngo explaining how to have safe sex with another woman would be guilty of ‘conspiracy to engage in homosexuality’ and could be sentenced to seven years in prison, even if she hadn't actually had sex. The ngo worker could be convicted of 'promoting' homosexuality and also sentenced to seven years. The ngo would be forcibly shut down. The Bill targets not just lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people but their families and friends, neighbours and colleagues. It also affects landlords, doctors, teachers and stifles civil society activists who seek to provide help and support to those in need. It polices the private sexual acts of individuals and the public discussion of sex and sexuality in general.

For Ugandan lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists fighting to prevent its passing, Bahati’s Bill is not a particular anomaly but the representation of decades of state sanctioned and publicly endorsed homophobia. It sits at the apex between the rapid surge in Pentecostalism in Sub-Saharan Africa, the legacy of colonial laws and the politics of gender identity. Intriguingly, the Director of the Refugee Law Project based in Kampala, Chris Dolan suggests that the proposal of the Anti Homosexual Bill has had the unexpected effect of providing an opening to discuss issues of sexuality in Uganda, and has increased protection for LGBT people due to international media attention. Indeed the Rolling Stone magazine which became infamous for publicly ‘outing’ gay men was publicly condemned for its actions by a Ugandan High Court their actions and closed down in 2010.

Interviews conducted while working for the Ugandan Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law set up in October 2009 to oppose the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, reveal the deeply personal consequences of the homophobia underpinning the legislation.

Take the case of Simon* who told how he was drugged and gang raped, before being delivered to a police station and imprisoned; or Fred* who reported being secretly abducted by police officers, beaten, raped and urinated on after attending a gay rights rally; or even Patrick’s* discovery that his new online boyfriend was a police officer luring him to his arrest. This climate of homophobia has led to a chronic lack of information sharing and poor documentation of complaints, making it even more difficult to prevent such abuses happening again.

These stories illustrate the dramatic consequences of homophobia that prompt Presidential statements and Amnesty International campaigns. However, there are more mundane, everyday, consequences of the lack of acceptance of sexual minorities in Uganda. Numerous young men in Kampala recounted how they were forced to leave school following intimidation, and forced out of their neighbourhoods, becoming internally displaced. Without qualifications and with very basic literacy skills unemployment is rife. If a LGBT person secures a job or a place to live, should an employer and landlord be made aware of their sexuality they are likely to be forced to leave. Many people have fled into neighbouring states only to find themselves subject to equally homophobic laws and populations. This combination of events has led to the two most common problems faced by LGBT people in Uganda: poverty and blackmail. All those interviewed reported being blackmailed. The lack of financial resources, poor self esteem and ill health, makes mobilising against the Bill increasingly difficult.

The lack of available treatment for HIV/Aids that has led to many premature deaths among young men. This is compounded by the American Department for Disease Control and Prevention’s finding that the majority of men that have sex with men are also in heterosexual relationships. Many men described how doctors would refuse to treat them without their (assumedly female) partner present.

Many young men and young women have formed smaller organisations to improve the standard of living for LGBT people in Uganda. Reacting to the death of their friend from Aids after doctors refused him treatment, a group of twenty five young gay men living in the slums of Kampala set up the Youth on Rock foundation, which holds regular loud and proud social events and provides protection for its members. Other organisations set up to represent LGBT people include Frank and Candy, who focus on providing treatment for those affected by HIV/Aids, and Ice Breakers Uganda, which aims to provide a safe place for young people coming to terms with their sexuality. These organisations provide vital advocacy services, the opportunity to improve literacy skills, and a sense of community for those who have lost contact with their families and friends.

Most of these organisations are small young and under-resourced - most receive little or no funding. For those who do receive funding they are often the subject of blackmail by ‘friends’ or police who demand cash in return for silence about their sexuality, and/or the threat of prosecution. Despite increasing attention being paid to the persecution of sexual minorities, international governments and aid agencies struggle to fund these groups as they cannot be legally registered ngos due to their focus on LGBT issues.

Opposition by Ugandan civil society to the Bill continues to grow. The Civil Society Coalition for Constitutional Law and Human Rights opposing the Bill is made up of 47 civil society organisations including human rights, feminists, HIV-focused, LGBTI, media and refugee groups Contrary to widely propagated myths in Uganda that homosexuality is an ‘un-African’ and ‘western’ import, international bodies are only invited to participate as partners. Coalition statements are signed, written and distributed only by Ugandans. Networks of support and emergency procedures for when a person loses their home or their income are spreading, although these remain under funded and insecure. And activists are developing two way relationships with foreign embassies whereby resources and training flows from foreign governments to local LGBT groups, who provide and local information and legitimacy in return.

Nevertheless, as Rahul Rao has so eloquently stated, it is important to note that many of these struggles are not unique to the LGBT population. Ill health and poverty are endemic in Uganda. In fact, LGBT activists receiving international support from foreign governments have faced persecution not because of their sexuality but because they are seen to be gaining wealth in highly unequal society. This was a claim stated informally by a LGBT activist in reference to the murdered activist David Kato in memory of whom President Obama spoke out. Thus as, Rahul Rao argues, separating out LGBT people as individually entitled to an apology for colonialism, as Peter Thatchell has suggested, or as a reason for reducing foreign aid can only further entrench division among the population where LGBT people come to be identified as benefiting from their sexuality through foreign handouts.

Recording the personal tragedies homophobia prompts and the widespread activism it inspires is baseless without asking why such hatred occurs. The drama playing out in Kampala represents a complex interplay of historical, political and religious factors. The stunning rise in Pentecostal Christianity, documented by the Pew research Centre, has led to increasingly public protestations of homophobia by church leaders. As Jenny Morgan notes, aided by the tithing of their congregations, these churches have amassed great political clout and often fill the gaps in state service provision, providing social networks and healthcare. In addition, many consider the Bill to be a cynical attempt to distract attention away from the growing levels of public dissatisfaction with the existing political establishment. This scape-goating of gay people for all of society’s ills is reflected in the narratives of proponents of the Bill who present homosexuality as a ‘threat’ to Ugandan children and as a diversion from African cultural norms. This is a profoundly ironic argument given that the laws that criminalise homosexuality were written, imposed and enforced by British hands.

While such narratives may appear abstracted, the consequences of failing to understand their impact are all too real. In such a complex and high stakes environment exploring the multifaceted political and historical sources of homophobia in Uganda and worldwide is not only a practical necessarily but a moral imperative. After all it is this interplay between colonial encounters, historical interpretations of scripture, gendered understandings of theory and practice and the contemporary impact of the HIV/Aids pandemic that is playing out every day on the street of Tehran and Tel Aviv, Beirut and Baghdad, and London and Los Angeles. It is thus a global story with decidedly personal implications and it is to the vital task of understanding this story that we now must turn.

This is the first of two articles: 'Gays, Gods ,and Governments: the multifaceted sources of homophobia' will be published in March.

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData