KAMPALA, UGANDA — When police raided Mukiibi Henry’s community health center on the outskirts of town last year, authorities told him the arrests were due to violating coronavirus restrictions on gatherings.
It’s no coincidence, he believes, that the facility had been sheltering two dozen “Kuchu” people — Ugandans who, like himself, identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex (LGBTQI).
After the charges were dropped, he quietly resumed his daily routine: work as the Children of the Sun Foundation’s executive director, family life as a husband and father of three, and a relationship with his male partner of five years. But on May 3, the 31-year-old’s freedom was jeopardized once again: Uganda’s Parliament passed a Sexual Offences Bill with a section explicitly banning same-sex relationships.
“They can’t rest until they make laws that punish us more by expanding criminalization and increase penalties against the LGBTQI community,” Mukiibi says, keeping his voice low as his staff laughs and chats in the background.
Uganda already outlaws a range of “sexual offences,” but the updated legislation, first introduced in 2019, further criminalizes specific behaviors between consenting adults. In the final Clause 11 language approved by lawmakers, “penetration of another person’s anus” and “sexual acts between persons of the same gender” are each punishable by up to 10 years in prison, says Jacob Oboth Oboth, head of the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee.
If President Yoweri Museveni signs the bill into law, human rights and Kuchu activists predict a new surge of discrimination and hate crimes.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Richard Lusimbo, 34, a gay man who is national coordinator for the Uganda Key Populations Consortium, says that even people wrongly suspected of being Kuchu will be attacked.
“There will be violence by people who feel they are entitled to hurt the LGBTQI community,” he says.
Uganda ranked 113 out of 174 countries for social acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and issues for 2014-2017, the most recent period covered by the 2019 Global Acceptance Index produced by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles. A 2019 survey by Afrobarometer, a pan-African research network, reported that 86% of Ugandans said they would strongly dislike having a gay neighbor; the 2016 ILGA-RIWI Global Attitudes Survey found that 53% agreed that homosexuality should be a crime and 54% agreed that “same-sex desire” is a “Western world phenomenon.”
Sexual Minorities Uganda, a national advocacy network, estimates that more than 4 million people could be arrested under Clause 11. The organization has publicly urged Museveni not to sign the bill, stating that “Parliament’s attempt at streamlining all laws on sexual offences by adopting new language to cater and name the sexual offences is applaudable if only the Bill does not criminalize same-sex relations.”
A previous Anti-Homosexuality Bill, introduced in 2013 and passed in 2014, led to a 1,900% increase in Ugandans being arrested, beaten, threatened or disowned by their families, according to the advocacy network’s “From Torment to Tyranny” report. The nation’s Constitutional Court overturned the law within months, determining that it had passed without the minimum required votes.
Lawmaker Oboth Oboth says the quorum was correct this time, and therefore he does not foresee any legal challenges related to the parliamentary process.
The bill also has the backing of religious leaders, including the Catholic Church, Uganda’s largest denomination.
“The Bible is very clear when it comes to relationships,” says the Rev. Joseph Mukasa Nkeera, director of communications for the Kampala Archdiocese. “God created man and woman. If he’d intended for same-sex relationships, too, he would have catered for that, too, in his creations — perhaps a community of only females or males.”
Political efforts to clarify and increase penalties for “unnatural offences“ also appeal to conservative local voters like Namukwaya Esther, 36, a Kampala woman who says the bill aligns with her traditional Ganda culture, devout Anglican faith and protective nature as the mother of two boys.
“The anti-homosexuality law is way overdue,” she says. “We need it as of yesterday, and this bill provides some hope that as a country we stand for morals and need to protect our children from Western influence.”
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Homophobia itself could be interpreted as a Western phenomenon, however, argues Nicholas Opiyo, a human rights lawyer who has studied British colonial-era laws and missionary efforts to convert Ugandans to conservative Christianity. By institutionalizing it, he says, “we are providing a basis for violence and assault.”
The bill’s supporters may not have considered its potentially negative impacts on Uganda’s reputation globally and personal privacy, adds Adrian Jjuuko, a lawyer and executive director of Uganda’s Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum.
“In essence, passing the Sexual Offences Bill communicates that as contemporary Uganda, we believe that people of the same sex cannot have consensual sexual relations with each other and have no right to privacy in matters concerning their sexuality and sexual expression,” he says.
Mukiibi and other Kuchu Ugandans hope Museveni will decline to sign the bill as written.
“Send it back to Parliament and seek to amend it so it includes provisions of equality and exercise of sexual rights to all Ugandans,” Mukiibi says, “regardless of their sexual orientations.”