A few days ago, Uganda announced that the first charges of “aggravated homosexuality” had been brought against two men under its draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023. If they are convicted, these individuals could face the death penalty. How did Uganda end up on the frontlines of state-sponsored homophobia and transphobia?
The Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023 is the culmination of a decades-long campaign by religious conservatives to heighten the repression and prosecution of non-heterosexual, non-cisgender persons and their organizations in Uganda. Frank Mugisha, a well-known gay activist and the founder of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), said in a recent Channel 4 interview in the UK that, even before the bill was introduced in Parliament earlier this year, “the anti-gay groups that are heavily supported by extreme religious groups from the United States had radicalized Ugandans into hatred.”
Same-sex practices, trans and non-binary identities have been documented in Ugandan and African cultures for centuries. Yet in the 19th century, Britain criminalized male homosexuality across its empire, including in its African colonies. While England repealed those provisions at home in 1967, Uganda’s Penal Code continues to uphold life imprisonment for “unnatural acts” between persons of the same sex, although no convictions have been reported since Uganda became independent in 1962.
Beginning in the 1990s, religious right-wing actors began agitating for more repression. In 2005, the Constitution of Uganda was amended to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. After four years of debate, Parliament went on to adopt a first, harsh Anti-Homosexuality Act (2014) despite widespread international condemnation. Fortunately, later that year, the 2014 Act was nullified by Uganda’s Constitutional Court on procedural grounds. It was only a reprieve.
The 2014 law was largely inspired by US religious right-wing actors who have been active in Uganda since the 1980s—figures such as Rick Warren, John Ashcroft and Scott Lively. Lively traveled to Uganda in 2009 and 2010 to make the case against gay rights and for stringent legislation, a posture that was welcomed by Uganda’s lawmakers and its president, Yoweri Museveni. At the time, Lively actively lobbied MP David Bahati, the main sponsor of the 2014 bill, as well as Pastor Martin Ssempa, founder of Makerere University Church and a well-known anti-gay preacher.
The Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023, introduced in Uganda’s Parliament in early March, is clearly modeled on the 2014 law. Yet it is even more repressive. The initial draft of the bill imposed up to ten years in prison for anyone identifying as “a lesbian, gay, transgender, a queer [sic] or any other sexual or gender identity that is contrary to the binary categories of male and female,” a provision that was eventually dropped after public criticism in Uganda and abroad. But the final version retained the death penalty for those previously convicted of homosexuality (so-called habitual offenders), and for other cases of “aggravated homosexuality.” These include same-sex acts between minors—since the Act specifies that a minor’s consent does not constitute a defense—as well as those involving a person aged 75 or above or a person with a disability, even when these acts are consensual.
The Act also directs anyone (including health personnel) who knows or suspects that the “offence of homosexuality” has been or is about to be committed to denounce the alleged perpetrator to the police. Failure to do so when a minor is involved can result in up to five years’ imprisonment. Under the 2023 Act, courts can order those sentenced to undergo “rehabilitation” services, which could include harmful conversion therapies. And its broad definition of “promotion of homosexuality” easily encompasses the distribution of health materials and information related to same-sex intercourse, including materials for the prevention of HIV among LGBTQ populations. "Promotion of homosexuality" can result in twenty years’ imprisonment. Among other disastrous effects, Uganda's remarkable progress in diagnosing and treating its 1.3 million people living with HIV and AIDS could easily be reversed.
Once again, US evangelical groups played a major role: Arizona-based Family Watch International and its leader, Sharon Slater, were found to be deeply involved in promoting the law. In early April 2023, Family Watch International, the Ugandan Parliamentary Forum on Family and the African Bar Association hosted a three-day inter-parliamentary conference in Entebbe, Uganda on “family values and sovereignty,” with Slater as one of the speakers. The conference was attended by conservative lawmakers and delegates from 22 African countries, including Zambia, Ghana, Sudan, Kenya and Sierra Leone, as well as the UK and US. The day after the conference, President Museveni praised the Ugandan Parliament for passing the anti-gay Act and promised “never to allow the promotion and publicization of homosexuality in Uganda,” which he ascribed to Western imperialism. The irony of US religious involvement was obviously lost on him.
The role of US ultra-right religious figures has been underscored again and again by Ugandan political commentators and activists. In an interview on openDemocracy in March 2023, Member of Parliament Fox Odoi-Oywelowo, one of only two MPs to vote against the bill, pointed to the Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast as the source of the effort. “The initial point of entry was the [Breakfast], a collection of religious and radical people here who introduced that ideology of hate. They sit over breakfast and pray and make radical hate speeches. They also introduced some money. They hold fellowships in expensive hotels, attended by MPs. They also sponsor trips for MPs—to Jerusalem, for example—and basically indoctrinate them.” David Bahati, who sponsored the 2014 Act, is currently the Chair of the Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast Fellowship. Odoi-Oywelowo also noted that over 100 Ugandan MPs simply did not vote on the 2023 Act, suggesting they had concerns with the law but were afraid to cast a “no” vote. Uganda’s National Prayer Breakfast was launched 25 years ago with help from the Christian group the Fellowship Foundation, also known as The Family, which hosts the original National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.
A. Akello (not their real name), a Kampala-based lawyer and human rights defender, told me in July that “Sharon Slater’s fingerprints have been all over this process, in terms of the language of the law and of her 'family defense' handbook. She’s been in and out of the African continent since 2007, at least, especially with attacks on sexuality education in the name of protecting parental rights and children.” Akello requested anonymity in order to track conservative forces more effectively.
Akello felt that Slater’s convening of the inter-parliamentary conference in Entebbe at the height of the debates on the Act “was not a coincidence!” They also pointed to Entebbe participants from other countries, suggesting that this campaign could reach well beyond Uganda: “The eventual mover of the Kenyan bill [a similar Anti-Homosexuality Bill was tabled by MP Peter Kaluma in the Kenyan Parliament in April 2023] was one of the speakers in Entebbe. The first iteration of the Kenyan bill is very similar to the Ugandan bill. Sam George, the mover of [a similar] bill in Ghana, was also at that conference. And the mover of the Kenyan bill went to Arizona to be trained by Family Watch International. Sam George too. All of them are recipients of that ‘capacity-building’ or as I call it, indoctrination,” said Akello.
The strategic thinking behind these bills is evident to Akello: “I don’t know whether there is a connection between [Asuman] Basalirwa [the sponsor of the Ugandan bill] and Slater, but we do know the choice of the person to move the Ugandan bill was well calculated. He is a sponsor of many laws, a lawyer, a Muslim man. Not a Catholic. The right messenger had to be chosen. It couldn’t be obvious. And I think that’s a strategy that was thought through by someone who’s been doing this work, who understands how to circumvent political blowback.”
As was the case in the early 2010s, debate and passage of the law has resulted in a spike in arrests and attacks against LGBTQ activists and groups. While identifying as LGBTQ is not supposed to lead to penalties, the reality is much different. Because of the way “promotion” is defined in the Act, LGBTQ groups face loss of funding and closure of their activities for providing information and support to their communities. Moreover, because the law makes it an offence to lease space to anyone suspected of promoting homosexuality, eviction of LGBTQ persons and groups from their homes and offices is a growing concern. In February 2023 alone, before the law was even adopted, 110 LGBTQ individuals reported various incidents to SMUG including arrests, sexual assaults, evictions, and being forcibly stripped in public. Since the Act was adopted, hundreds of attacks and evictions have been reported to community-based groups. Transgender people are disproportionately affected, said a spokesperson for SMUG.
Betty Balisalamu, the Executive Director of Women with a Mission (WWM) in Mbale (Eastern Uganda), told me that WWM has been under investigation by the Ugandan NGO Bureau since 2022. In February 2023, WWM was named in a Bureau report that listed organizations allegedly promoting the LGBTI community and homosexuality. “They call us for security meetings, to bring donor documents to show we are not promoting homosexuality,” she explained. “But how can you prove you’re NOT doing something? This is impossible.”
Balisalamu confirmed the increase in “human rights violations against the [LGBTQ and sex worker] communities, especially since the passing of the law. We've met with the police and have provided legal aid in several cases of arrests, torture and blackmail.” Balisalamu noted that, between February and July, WWM helped 35 LBTQ persons who had been gang raped by individuals who claimed to want to check whether they were “actually men or women." WWM referred the victims for safe abortions and post-abortion care. Some of the staff of WMM have now faced eviction from their homes, as landlords fear they will be accused of promoting homosexuality if they rent to persons associated with the LGBTQ community. The week I met with Balisalamu, police came to WWM’s office demanding information about past and current funders, as well as bank statements and financial reports. They wanted to know about WWM’s work with the LGBTQ community and whether WMM was promoting the right to abortion. “We are scared, because we don’t know what the future holds. They might try to freeze our accounts. We are the LBTI community, the sex worker community… but we are doing service delivery, legal aid, HIV and sexual and reproductive health services. We are not ‘promoting’ anything,” she lamented.
P. Sanyu, a lawyer and the founder of a group working with young women in eight districts across Uganda, said fear and suspicion are rampant, and violence has escalated: “There is lots of fear, and it’s very dangerous. You are holding hands, you are sharing a room… everything is suspicious. Yet most people can’t afford to live alone, we’re a poor country. People share accommodation, but now this is a potential criminal offence.” The Act, she feels, was designed to “shrink communities. We’ve gone back to: everyone for themselves, everyone trying to survive. It’s my office, my life, my house.” She shook her head: “But we can’t thrive without community.” Her organization brings young feminists together in their struggle and resistance for their rights.
“It’s happening! ”said Akello. “People are losing their homes, are being chased out of their offices, are losing their livelihood. We are seeing actions by landlords and by the community itself. They don’t want to be seen as providing accommodations to someone who’s perceived or suspected to be LGBTQ. That could be ‘promoting.’ So people are outing others, because if you suspect someone is LGBT, you feel you should denounce them. The damage to community-based organizations, which provide much needed services to marginalized people, is immense,” said Akello. “Community organizations are not able to work. Health care and legal aid services are all in jeopardy. Just recently, the Protestant Medical Bureau defunded a drop-in center for LGBT people.”
The law has enabled people to act openly on their prejudices. “It’s like: Now we can openly say we don’t like you. You have no right to exist,” Sanyu told me. “Insults and hateful words fly on social media. Catcalling in public—oh my goodness, look at the lesbian, because I’m wearing a certain lipstick, or have tattoos. Those are the lesbians!” Sanyu added that, in addition to the LGBTQ community, sex workers and heterosexual and cisgender persons associated with those communities have suffered increased violence.
Akello noted that “Schools are now teaching poems against homosexuality, as immoral and not African… indoctrination is going on as we speak. The media has played a huge role in fueling this anti-homosexuality movement, and the Media Council and media associations have not held them to account for their disinformation. But ultimately, it’s the state that has sanctioned and sponsored this narrative by adopting this law.”
When asked how young women were reacting to the Act, Sanyu replied, “Fear is the emotion, across the country. Especially among our lesbian, non-binary young women. You have to shrink yourself, hide, your identity is being taken away from you. You have to pretend to be someone else to exist peacefully. It’s dehumanizing for them, causes mental challenges. Depression is on the rise. We try to support our girls. The sisterhood is there. We care, we are here, you can talk to me. We check in with them. We are holding one another. Care is critical. ‘How can I love you today?’ is sometimes all I can offer them.”
Ugandan activists point to international funding as one of the enabling factors behind the anti-LGBTQ campaign. Akello noted, “Slater is on the board of the Political Network for Values (PNfV), whose former director is President Katalin Novák [of Hungary]. Slater knows many African lawmakers via PNfV, and she seems to have a lot of money these days. US-based activists should be tracking this.”
Sanyu noted that “Anti-human rights movements have been around for a while, but they are getting more and more aggressive, and are heavily funded. You can’t do the things they are doing without that kind of money. You can’t influence an entire Parliament to pass a law without serious money.” She also underlined that the Act was part of a much broader campaign to roll back progress for human rights in Uganda. “The Act is only one measure. Many other steps have been taken. Refusing to decriminalize abortion. Adopting a very regressive Sexual Offences Act. Human rights and women’s rights defenders have been disappearing, are being murdered regularly for several years now.”
In a joint statement following the adoption of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, the Heads of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, UNAIDS and the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) reacted with “deep concern” and said progress on tackling HIV and AIDS was “now in grave jeopardy.” “The stigma and discrimination associated with the passage of the act has already led to reduced access to prevention as well as treatment services. Trust, confidentiality and stigma-free engagement are essential for anyone seeking health care. LGBTQI+ people in Uganda increasingly fear for their safety and security, and people are being discouraged from seeking vital health services for fear of attack, punishment and further marginalisation,” the statement indicated.
But these very donors may have inadvertently fanned the flames of hatred. Balisalamu bemoaned the fact that international donors have, for decades, funded religious groups indiscriminately in Uganda. “Mistakenly, they think they are funding a good cause, but these same organizations denounce us to the authorities, they go around saying we promote homosexuality and abortion.” Akello agreed. “We have to reflect on the impact of US funding, both private and public. I’ve also seen UNFPA, UNDP, German government funds go to conservative groups in Uganda. You can’t just fund groups to deliver services, without checking whether they oppose rights for LGBTQ, for women… Funds to respond to HIV and AIDS in Uganda through PEPFAR are ‘not benign’ in this respect,” added Akello. And indeed, "faith-based" groups have received tens of millions USD from the US government since 2003, when PEPFAR was first set up.
In July, the Ugandan Ministry of Health reacted to these concerns by issuing two circulars to clarify that the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023 does not prohibit health information and services to LGBTQ populations. Akello was skeptical this would help. “Public health facilities have become very unwelcoming, even worse than before. LGBT persons are shamed, undressed, given humiliating exams, made fun of. The law has sanctioned that kind of behavior within the public health system. But if someone goes rogue out there, the Ministry can point to the circulars and say ‘it’s not our fault.’ It provides plausible deniability. It’s a way to cover themselves.”
Meanwhile, the World Bank suspended any new funding to Uganda in August, and the US government has imposed visa restrictions on Ugandan officials who are behind the Anti-Homosexuality Act, although it remains unclear who that will affect. The UN Secretary-General has condemned the Act, as has the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
But so far, donors have not responded by directing more funds to local groups. “Donors are holding back now. They’re withholding money because they fear bank accounts will be seized,” said Balisalamu. She noted that local feminist and reproductive health groups have been supportive privately, but muted publicly.
Ugandan activists have called on the international community to continue to speak out. They are afraid the issue will slip out of the news. “International support is very important to us. Currently, we are mapping out who can support us among the international community. Advocacy is about numbers, so we need more support,” said Balisalamu. “There are some things we can’t say here because of the law. But you [the international community] can say those things. Are you calling out the wrongs? Can you write about it? Can you check-in with the local groups?” asked Sanyu.
Activists are looking to Uganda’s Constitutional Court as another avenue of redress, although they recognize this might take years. At least one petition has been filed so far to challenge the Act’s constitutionality. “Every article, every word of this law needs to be challenged!” exclaimed Sanyu. Akello agrees: “This law is unconstitutional on so many levels. We’re particularly concerned with the vagueness and sweeping nature of the Act. Anyone can be a victim of this law. All that someone needs to do is to say ‘I suspect.’ And the Act protects those who denounce others as whistleblowers. You can easily use the law to attack your enemies or minority groups. And since it is a very populist issue, there is no guarantee you’ll get a fair day in court. The judges and magistrates could play to the gallery, feel they have to toe the national position.”
Moreover, the Act very likely doesn’t meet Ugandan constitutional and international law standards regarding when it is acceptable to restrict human rights: “The law is not necessary to meet an urgent public policy objective. There is no evidence there was a problem that could only be solved by curtailing people’s human rights. And the test of whether the measures taken [to achieve that non-existent objective] are reasonable and proportional is not met,” added Akello.
In the meantime, organizers have to re-think how they work, said Sanyu. “We are learning to organize better, to step back. What does care look like, what does love look like today? It’s bad, but we need better strategy. Litigation of course, all the tools. We also need to check in with each other, to look out for each other. Care for each other. If your bank account is frozen, can we help? If you need a place to stay, can we help? That, for me, is feminism. Some people have started to say ‘I see you. I might not agree with you, but I see you, and I’m here to help.’”
Conversations with moderate religious leaders are also on the table, added Sanyu. “The anti-rights movement’s narrative is that they are promoting good families with this law. ‘Good family’ being a father, a mother, and their children. We have to create a counter-narrative with religious leaders. What is love? Is it denying people a family, pushing them out of their homes? How is that love? Is that what God wants?! It’s a long stretch, but we have to have those conversations.”
“Given what we went through in 2014 [over the previous law], the good track record of Uganda on public health, but also given our own Bill of Rights, we didn’t expect to see this come back,” said Akello. “We’re facing a lot of governance issues in Uganda, as well as poverty and the very high cost of living. This law is an attempt to distract from the actual accountability of the government for the very real lived realities and difficulties faced by Ugandans today.” Unfortunately, these cynical tactics will harm many people in the process.
If you are based in the US and want to support the LGBTQ community and their organizations in Uganda, please consider donating via Outright International’s Uganda Fund.
In feminist solidarity with Betty, A. and P. and all the brave and beautiful human rights defenders and LGBTQ community members of Uganda,