Last month, Uganda made international headlines when it became the 76th country in the world to make homosexuality illegal.
Following the new ‘anti-gay bill’, signed on 24 February 2014 by the country’s long-serving president Yoweri Museveni, the penalty for gay sex or same-sex marriage is life imprisonment for men and seven years for women.
Any “attempt to commit homosexuality” can result in a seven year sentence, as does the aiding and abetting of a gay relationship.
If things were already difficult for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community in Uganda – a conservative, East African, mainly Christian nation of 36 million people – the anti-gay bill has made it significantly harder.
“I had to change locks in my house, I receive threating phone calls at night and couple days ago when driving on a boda boda (a Ugandan motorcycle taxi) someone threw stones at me,” says Pepe Julian Onziema, who is one of Uganda’s best-known LGBTI activists.
He says the organisation he works with, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), has already noticed an increase in the number of violent attacks suffered by members of the LGBTI community since the law was signed.
It will take about a month for the law to be ‘gazetted’ and put fully into force. Human rights activists are currently petitioning the constitutional court to stop the passage of the bill but in the meantime, Onziema is anxious.
“People won’t wait until the law is put in force before they start to act. I am afraid the hatred will escalate,” he says.
Others are afraid too. SMUG has evidence of eight attempted suicides related to the February bill.
“Kill the Gays”?
The Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 actually began life as a private member’s bill, introduced by David Bahati MP in 2009.
It because known in the media as the “Kill the Gays” bill because it initially proposed the death penalty for acts of “aggravated homosexuality”.
The bill was put forward, according to Bahati, as a means of “strengthening the nation’s capacity to deal with emerging internal and external threats to the traditional heterosexual family.”
Museveni himself said he consulted a team of “experts” who had convinced him that people are not born gay; that homosexuality is an undesirable “social behaviour”.
But it is not just Uganda that has a problem with homosexuality. Gay sex is illegal in 38 out of 54 African nations and Nigeria recently passed its own repressive anti-gay legislation.
And outside of the continent, India and Russia are just two countries that have done similar.
In the face of more pressing issues such as unemployment, poverty and corruption, there are many who wonder why so many countries are focusing on anti-gay laws.
There appear to be a number of explanations. Firstly, there is the political angle. Both Nigeria and Uganda are preparing for elections and anti-gay rhetoric has proven to be a widely popular – as well a great distraction.
Evangelical Christians from the US have also played a big part in spreading the idea that homosexuality is “ungodly” and “unnatural” and this has been taken up enthusiastically by evangelists across the continent.
There is also the idea of “preserving African culture” from western interference.
According to a recent World Values Survey, Uganda’s anti-gay bill reflects popular feeling in the country, where 90 per cent of people interviewed said that homosexuality was “never justified”.
Popular discourse has also linked homosexuality with paedophilia. In 2010 a popular, now defunct, tabloid newspaper published a list of gay Ugandans with the sub-head: "Hang them; they are after our kids!"
Gay rights activist David Kato, who was a close friend of Onziema’s, was amongst those named. Shortly afterwards, he was murdered.
Indeed, the more populist sections of the Ugandan media have been key in creating a climate of fear and hysteria, publishing lists which out actual or perceived gay Ugandans.
But beyond the hysteria and the fear-mongering, people are coming out to denounce both the homophobic laws and the cynical politics behind them.
Kenyan writer and social commentator Binyavanga Waianana recently came out in response to Nigeria and Uganda’s anti-gay laws and attacked the idea that homophobia is somehow “African”.
Another leading African writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie also came out strongly against Nigeria’s anti-gay laws.
“A crime is a crime for a reason. A crime has victims. A crime harms society. On what basis is homosexuality a crime? Adults do no harm to society in how they love and whom they love,” she wrote in a widely published essay.
Nikilas Mawanda, Executive Director of the Trans Support Initiative (TSI), agrees: “I think that our culture teaches us to be hypocrites,” says Mawanda.
“Homosexuality existed on this continent long before white people came here,” he says.
Western governments have strongly condemned the bill. US President Barack Obama warned Uganda that the US will withdraw its aid, while Sweden, Norway, Holland and Denmark have already done so.
Uganda depends on donors for about 20 per cent of its budget. Although Museveni has said that this is of no consequence (“We are a rich country,” he told the media), ordinary Ugandans are worried about the impact this will have on their daily lives.
This, according to Mawanda, has resulted in people blaming the gay community for “causing trouble”.
Talking to several people on the streets of Kampala, Equal Times found that the majority of people sided with the government when it came to the bill.
“I have never seen a homosexual in my life, they hide,” said Julius, a taxi driver. “I realise they are in danger but they either need to stop what they do or they need to leave the country.”
Others say it is Uganda’s right to pass the laws it deems appropriate.
“Western countries have been exaggerating a small issue that is the concern of President Museveni and his people,” says Roger, a local business owner. “Every country has its own culture and norms.”
But the bill also has its detractors. “It’s wrong and it violates our human rights,” says Pius, a politics undergraduate.
International human rights organisations have also expressed their deep concern over the bill.
“Recent incidents of people being ’outed’ in the media, and of others being attacked in their communities, suggest that a disturbing witch-hunt against people, purely on the basis of their perceived sexual orientation, has already begun,” Gemma Houldey, Amnesty International’s Uganda researcher, told Equal Times.
One of the most worrying aspects of the new law is the criminalisation of the “promotion” of homosexuality. This means that a person could go to prison for up to seven years, simply for expressing a positive opinion about homosexuality.
This puts local and international NGOs doing advocacy work on human rights in danger of falling foul of the law.
In an interview with Equal Times, Uganda’s Minister of Ethics and Integrity, Simon Lokodo called these bodies “perpetrators of evil. Nobody should go to Uganda and fight for LGBT rights. On the contrary,” he said, “they should help us to help those people to become normal.”
He also added that he frequently met with parents whose children had been forced to have gay sex in order to earn money for their families, and it was people like this that the law intended to help.
In the face of such attitudes, what will Uganda’s LGBTI advocates do?
Scotland has announced plans to offer asylum to gay Ugandans but when asked if they will leave Uganda, both Onziema and Mawanda said no.
“I am willing to die for this cause” said Mawanda.
Onziema also said he wouldn’t stop with his work. “I cannot stop. I have to make sure that one day we will have justice”.