It’s never been safe to be gay in Uganda. In this east African nation, homosexuality is punishable by up to 14 years in prison and gay and lesbian advocates have faced perennial harassment by authorities. Still, before the country’s notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill was proposed in 2009, it was not uncommon to see two straight men holding hands. And for gays and lesbians who stayed quiet about their sexuality, it was at least possible to avoid identification and harassment.
After the introduction of the bill, which would institute the death penalty for the offense of “aggravated homosexuality,” the situation for the Ugandan LGBTQ community became exponentially worse. While the legislation has languished in parliament for four years, still never having made it to debate, its public announcement provided license for all manner of discrimination against gays. In the bill’s wake, people in the gay community faced eviction, job loss, estrangement from their families and physical and verbal assault.
Frank Mugisha, of the advocacy group Sexual Minorities Uganda, explained that the bill brought with it harassment for gays and lesbians who had previously lived peacefully in their communities.
“I’ve been to two rural areas where I asked the people, why did you choose to give these people [gays and lesbians] to the authorities after living with them for a very long time, and they told me because Uganda has come up with a law that you are supposed to arrest homosexuals,” said Mugisha in 2010. “These are people who have grown up in the same place, lived in the same place and for over 15 years been known as homosexuals and have never been harassed—but when the bill was introduced, they were harassed.”
In one particularly high-profile incident, a Kampala tabloid, Rolling Stone, outed several gays and lesbians under the headline “Hang Them.” Among those pictured were a Ugandan bishop supportive of the gay and lesbian community and a lesbian who was later stoned by her neighbors.
The 2009 bill, introduced by a backbench MP of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, quickly drew condemnation from the international community, with President Obama referring to it as “odious,” and both the United States and Britain threatening to cut aid if it was passed. No doubt fearing a loss of the aid that still comprises over 25 percent of the country’s budget, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni distanced himself from the legislation. It stalled in parliament, dying when MPs went on recess for elections.
Then in 2012, a modified version of the law, which removed the death penalty but retained jail terms of up to life in prison, was introduced. Prohibiting the “promotion” of gay rights, it would punish anyone who “funds or sponsors homosexuality” or “abets homosexuality.” The bill has remained in the draft stages in the parliamentary and legal affairs committee of Uganda’s parliament for over a year. The committee’s head has admitted that it is not a priority.
Still, the bill enjoys widespread support in Uganda. In a country where 85 percent of the population identifies as Christian, Ugandan pastors have been among bill’s most vocal supporters. As a result, homophobia has become almost universal.
While much of Uganda’s homophobia is homegrown, people in the gay community in Uganda blame an American for the bill’s inception.
Scott Lively, a conservative evangelical pastor and author of a book called The Pink Swastika, came to Uganda in early 2009. At a conference organized by Uganda’s Family Life Network he described the gay movement as an “evil institution.” A coalition of Ugandan gays and lesbians have brought a lawsuit against him in the United States for allegedly committing crimes against humanity by inciting the persecution of homosexuals in their country.
Meanwhile, in the four years since the bill was introduced, reasons for hope have emerged in the midst of persecution. The increased oppression has actually caused some formerly closeted gays and lesbians to come out, explains John Wambere of the gay rights organization Spectrum Uganda. “When the bill first came out, people were scared and they went underground. Of late they have gained confidence and they have come face to face with reality,” he said.
Gays and lesbians have also found increasing support among their fellow Ugandans. Wambere says he himself has seen a change in his own family’s attitude toward him. “I used to have a lot of issues with them, but now they have come to accept and live with the fact [that I am gay].”
Being gay in the country is still not without risk, and Wambere says the LGBTQ community won’t feel safe until the modified bill is dead. But perhaps the biggest evidence that some strides have been made is the country’s second annual pride parade, which occurred in August. While the first event was marked by arrests, this year’s celebration, complete with colorful costumes, was allowed to proceed without incident.