50.50: Opinion

Why I’ve joined the court challenge against Uganda’s anti-gay law

This genocidal law targeting queer Ugandans seeks to disown both our past and present

Jackline Kemigisa.jpg
Jackline Kemigisa
2 June 2023, 10.44am
Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters picket against Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill at the Uganda High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa on April 04, 2023. Uganda's ambassador to South Africa joined the court petition challenging the law
Frennie Shivambu/Gallo Images via Getty Images

This week president Yoweri Museveni enacted our country’s latest attempt to outlaw LGBTIQ Ugandans, with the assent of the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023.

In its genocidal fantasies, the law prescribes life imprisonment or death for what its framers call “aggravated homosexuality” – and there is much more in it that beggars belief.

Three days ago I joined eight other Ugandans to file a petition with our Constitutional Court to challenge this odious law. The group includes the only two MPs to vote against the bill in parliament, Fox Odoi-Oywelowo and Paul Kwizera Bucyana; Jane Nasiimbwa, one of the courageous mothers of queer Ugandans who in March wrote an open letter to the president urging him to veto the bill; seasoned human rights activists Pepe Onziema and Frank Mugisha; feminist lawyer Linda Mutesi; diplomat Kintu Nyago; and journalist Andrew Mwenda. (Another petition has been filed by the Ugandan Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, and others.)

I joined the petition because the law’s vaguely defined offence of “promotion of homosexuality” endangers my work and freedom as a journalist and researcher covering queer and feminist movements in Uganda.

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Should my work, in which I write about minority communities with fairness and dignity, be deemed ‘promotion of homosexuality’ under section 11 of the new law, I would face up to 20 years in prison.

Media outlets that carry such work would face heavy fines, suspension of their licences for up to ten years, or permanent closure.

Apart from one conglomerate that is partially state-owned, media companies in Uganda are small- to medium-sized attempts at capitalism. Their profit motive means they are likely to cower under this kind of legislation, which means that any injustices against sexual minorities will not make it into the news.

The Ugandan government has long groomed media owners to bow to pressure, with hostile policies towards independent journalism outlets including arbitrary closures that cost them the little money they have. The anti-media provisions in the Anti-Homosexuality Act are a continuation of that assault on journalistic liberties, including freedom of expression and association, and independence of the press – all of which are central to my practice.

It is anti-Black to class queer Ugandans as non-humans

This law, and its politicised ignorance, could also hinder my academic freedom to study the coloniality of gender and sexuality. The poorly defined offence of “promotion of homosexuality” could apply to subjects such as decolonial theory, queer theory, feminism, and gender studies, which would make them no-go zones for many researchers. Ultimately, the law could erase gender analysis, contextualisation of homosexuality in Ugandan history studies, and any number of other research practices from our academic culture.

Our education system itself would then produce students with no critical analysis of gender, sexuality or their coloniality within our society.

This is already a significant problem given that our education system was founded by Christian missionaries, and their restrictions on what should or should not become known about the world and ourselves is partly why misinformation about African genders and sexualities is so widely accepted in Uganda.

I am also petitioning against this law simply because I am a Black African, and it is anti-Black to class queer Ugandans as non-humans deserving of life in prison or even death. Many contemporary Ugandans are queer (as even those who legislate against them know). And queerness is well documented in our historical societies, including in the royal court of the Buganda kingdom, the nucleus around which colonialists cobbled present-day Uganda. To disown queer Ugandans is to disown both our past and our present.

Will our petition succeed?

Does our petition stand a chance in the Ugandan courts? I honestly can’t say. I take solace from a few good signs.

First, as we say in the petition, the Ugandan Parliament violated its own rules of procedure to pass the law. Under these rules, every bill should be considered for at least 45 days at the committee level. This law was fast-tracked through Parliament in about 30 days, without allowing for meaningful public engagement or scrutiny. The Constitutional Court annulled an anti-homosexuality law in 2014 for violation of parliamentary procedure during its passing, so we have favourable precedent on that.

The law also does not seem to enjoy much support from the executive arm of government, which is facing pressure from international donors. The attorney general’s office, which is supposed to defend the new law in court against our petition, told Parliament in March that the bill was redundant and later advised the president not to assent to it. Although he did ultimately assent to it, the president showed some hesitancy towards the law.

Without executive interest trying to tip the scales behind the scenes, chances of judicial independence are higher. And the Anti-Homosexuality Act does attempt to reverse constitutional gains that the Ugandan courts have previously defended, such as the right to privacy (even when the violated people were LGBTIQ-identifying), as it mandates reporting anyone suspected of homosexuality.

But whatever the outcome in the courts, the petition itself is a win in resistance for me, because while the law seeks to legislate us into hate or silence, we have stood up to say we disagree and will make that disagreement public. We are saying that we will not slide merrily down this slope of genocidal practice legislated in the name of our cultures.

The petition is part of the Black radical tradition of refusing the silence that oppressive regimes demand of anyone on the margins of society – including women and sexual minorities.

It is resistance that finds fellowship and inspiration in the words attributed to American novelist, anthropologist and feminist Zora Neale Hurston: “If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

Related story

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Only two MPs voted against Uganda’s anti-LGBT bill, passed this week. We talk to one of them, Fox Odoi-Oywelowo

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An activist delivers remarks at a protest outside the Ugandan Embassy over the Uganda's parliamentary Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2023 on April 25, 2023 in Washington, DC| Getty Images
US and EU have been vocal in condemning Uganda’s anti-gay bill – but silent about their own ‘culture war’ exporters

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