At the start of this week Uganda’s President heralded a new low for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in the country by passing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The repugnant discriminatory law that’s hung around on the sidelines of Uganda’s parliament for the last five years has been tweaked - death sentences ‘softened’ to life sentences for the most serious ‘offences’ of homosexuality - but it is now law. Prior to this week, it was already illegal to be gay in Uganda, but this law extends sentences for gay marriage, ‘promoting homosexuality’, ‘aiding and abetting homosexuality’ – and more. LGBTI individuals deemed to be ‘serial offenders’ (ie. frequently convicted of having sex with someone of the same sex or ‘related convictions’) face a lifetime behind bars, as do those with HIV who have consensual same-sex relations. If you host two people who engage in same-sex relations in your house, you could be found to be running a brothel and dealt a seven-year prison sentence.
‘the homosexuals have lost the argument in Uganda. They should rehabilitate themselves and society should assist them to do so.’
The Anti-Homosexuality Act's many victimsMy heart goes out to so many people in Uganda. To the LGBTI activists I met at London’s Gay Pride last summer, who danced and cheered at an event that welcomed them. To the individuals all over Uganda who will live their lives being told their feelings are abhorrent and abnormal, who face criminal punishment if they even hint at revealing a sexual orientation or gender identity that ‘deviates’ from heterosexuality, who live in a society that will ‘assist’ in ‘rehabilitating’ them. To the health workers, police officers, aid workers and so on who now face ethical dilemmas around reporting or not reporting suspected same-sex conduct of individuals seeking their help. Despite approving a law that actively discriminates based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Uganda’s Health Minster claims that LGBTI people won’t face discrimination when accessing healthcare. Right. The financial implications of the law are already being felt, with the withdrawal of international funds to Uganda. Last week, Obama warned Museveni of the negative consequences of signing the Bill on US relations with Uganda. Today, the World Bank halted a $90 billion loan set to fund healthcare services in the country. Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands have cut aid intended for services including Uganda’s legal system on the back of this new law. Others will follow. The value of the Ugandan shilling has dropped in the last couple of days. With fewer rights and resources pulled from legal and health services within days of the law’s existence, it’s ordinary Ugandans who lose out – regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity. There’s no discrimination there.
Nature or nurture? African or Western?In the last few weeks President Museveni appeared to conduct a bit of a public sweepstake to help him unravel the cultural and scientific evidence behind this 'being gay' thing. He settled on the decision that same-sex relations are a social aberration, and while people may be born gay, the state can cure them of it. In response to Obama’s warning, Museveni did, in a slight to ‘Western intervention in African matters’, remind him the law’s colonial origins: ‘homosexuality…should continue to be criminalised because the British had already done it [in Uganda]’. He’s not wrong. As with many African states, same-sex relations were not illegal until European colonisation. However, by questioning whether one is born or created LGBTI, whether homosexuality is a Western concept and social import, Museveni merely created distractions from the real issue. The debate he should have engaged with is whether he wanted to guarantee his citizens human rights or not. It’s that simple. Instead, he chose to arbitrarily curtail basic rights for a chunk of the population based on allegations about one aspect of an individual’s identity.
The witch-hunt beginsLast month Nigeria strengthened its anti-gay laws and immediately set about rounding up and punishing those suspected of same-sex relationships. The day after Museveni passed Uganda’s equivalent law, Ugandan tabloid paper Red Pepper recklessly published a list of the ‘top 200 gays’ in Uganda. Many of them were being outed for the first time. A few years ago, the now-defunct Rolling Stone paper published its own list of purported gay Ugandans. Months later, gay rights activist David Kato was murdered in his home. This is no coincidence. Kato did successfully bring charges against Rolling Stone, but by then it was too late. This was before the Anti-Homosexuality Bill became law; those named have fewer rights now. Red Pepper should also face charges – the law cites the duty of editors and broadcasters to protect confidentiality; the maximum fine for outing someone in a newspaper is around £1,175.One of the men outed in the Red Pepper spoke to the BBC about how he can no longer speak to his family or return to Uganda after his name appeared on the list. LGBTI activist Frank Mugisha appealed to the police for protection:
Uganda Police Do some thing about the press on gay people in uganda,I plead please you know our society it's like throwing them to wolves
— Dr. Frank Mugisha (@frankmugisha) February 26, 2014
Meanwhile, in Zambia…On the day that Red Pepper was endangering the lives of 200 Ugandans, there was some good news as a leading gay rights activist was acquitted of ‘promoting homosexuality’ after defending gay rights in a TV debate. Next week, the same court is due to deliver a verdict to Philip Mubiana and James Mwape, both 22, and both accused of homosexual relations. If found guilty, they could serve 14 years behind bars. Since they were detained last May, Philip and James have been forced to undergo anal examinations without their consent to ‘prove’ the charges – scientifically pointless while invasive and cruel. I hope that on Thursday, if the verdict is delivered it is a positive one. The LGBTI community in sub-Saharan Africa desperately needs some good news right now.