On May 29, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni gave his assent to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (now Act), 2023. While same-sex relations were already criminalized under Uganda’s Penal Code, the new legislation goes much further, posing a grave threat to LGBTQ+ people in the country.
Under the law, “a person who commits the offense of homosexuality”–defined solely as “the performance of a sexual act by a person on another person of the same sex”–will be sentenced to life imprisonment.
The offense of “aggravated homosexuality”–defined in the Act as circumstances including if “the offender is a serial offender,” or if the sexual act involves people living with HIV–carries the death penalty.
The Bill was rushed through Parliament in an apparent violation of its own rules of procedure which dictate that a legislation must be considered for at least 45 days at the parliamentary committee level, to provide time for consultations.
While a petition has already been filed in the Constitutional Court to strike down the Act, its impact on the lives of LGBTQ+ Ugandans is already visible, emboldened by a persistent campaign of hatred, disinformation, and dehumanization.
Speaking to Peoples Dispatch, Steven Kabuye, a young gay rights activist in Uganda, who was forced to move to a safe location amid threats to his life, said,
People in the [LGBT+] community have already been attacked. My coworker, at Coloured Voice Truth to LGBTQ, was attacked and almost burned, because they [the attackers] wanted him to disclose my location.
People have come out and said that they are being trailed and attacked. This will not stop today. Homophobia is being fueled and it is state-sponsored… They think LGBTQ+ people don’t matter.
It is high time that we come out to fight against this… The government is openly letting people send death threats online… These things do not stop online. People are going to die.
What does the Act say?
The Ugandan parliament had approved the Act in its current form on May 2, with all but one lawmaker voting against it. An earlier draft of the bill, which would have criminalized even identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer, was finally amended to state that “a person who is alleged or suspected of being a homosexual,” without committing a sexual act,
does not commit the offense of homosexuality.
“The consent of a person to commit a sexual act shall not constitute a defense,” the text declares, turning it rather into an “an admission of offense,” as journalist and researcher Jackline Kemigisa has said.
A child convicted for offenses described under the law can be sentenced to up to three years in prison.
Kabuye warned of a heightened risk to the lives of LGBTQ+ children once the Act came into force, including children dying by suicide, in circumstances where their families had openly threatened them with violence if they came out as gay, trans, or any other queer identity.
Any person found to be knowingly allowing the use of any premises “for purposes of homosexuality” or other offenses under the Act can be imprisoned for seven years. Marriage, defined as “the union, whether formal or informal” between two people of the same sex stands prohibited. Any person who “purports to contract,” preside over, or attend or participate in preparing of such a marriage can be imprisoned for 10 years.
This violent erasure of LGBTQ+ peoples is not only by way of imprisonment and death, but by the broader criminalization of the mere mention of these identities. The Act punishes the “promotion” of homosexuality, including the “advertisement, publication, printing, broadcasting, or distribution by any means” of materials deemed to be “promoting [or encouraging] homosexuality.”
Other actions mentioned include providing financial support to “facilitate activities that encourage homosexuality or the observance or normalization of conduct [emphasis added] prohibited under this Act,” and even leasing or renting of buildings or homes to LGBTQ+ people.
A person convicted under this section could face imprisonment for up to 20 years. “Legal entities” could face a fine and have their license suspended for 10 years or even canceled.
“There is a situation where the LGBTQ+ community has nowhere to go. We are in a country where people’s incomes are not even enough to save money for themselves. If you have just US$100 or $200 in your bank account, how will you leave the country?” Kabuye asked
“Even if you manage to leave, the immediate country to run to is Kenya. When you reach Kenya you end up at the Kakuma refugee camp, and we know what has been happening there.” Located in northwestern Kenya, the refugee camp has been a site of repeated attacks on LGBTQ+ asylum seekers.
Organizations found to be guilty of promoting homosexuality stand to face a 10-year ban. An earlier version of the Bill also included a “duty to report acts of homosexuality” to the police, including on grounds of “reasonable suspicion.” According to news reports, this was later amended to limit the duty to suspected cases involving children and “vulnerable people.”
For a person convicted of the “offense of homosexuality,” the Act contains provisions for “rehabilitation,” understood to be a reference to the widely-discredited and violent practice of conversion therapy.
Implications for access to healthcare
The ambiguity of the offense of “promotion of homosexuality” inevitably broadens the scope of activities that can be criminalized to include critical public health interventions and education and awareness campaigns, especially when it comes to diseases such as HIV/AIDS.
On May 29, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, the Jointed United Nations Programme in HIV/AIDS, and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) issued a statement warning that “stigma and discrimination associated with the passage of the Act had already led to reduced access to prevention as well as treatment services.”
“If a person is going to seek health-related services, including contraceptives or treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), they are at risk of being reported and convicted. LGBT+ peoples will stay away from seeking care, they will be denied the right to access public health care,” Dr. Catherine Kyobutungi, the Executive Director of the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), told Peoples Dispatch.
“This whole ‘debate’ around homosexuality has brought out such hate and violence… it does something to society. With this level of dehumanization, even if this unconstitutional Act is struck down, people might take matters into their own hands,” she added.
Meanwhile, the United States has suspended some aid to Uganda’s health sector, with the Health Ministry reportedly blocked from accessing funding to purchase antiretroviral (ARVs) drugs and testing kits for HIV. Washington is also considering imposing sanctions and visa restrictions on Ugandan politicians.
Time and time again, evidence has shown that whether “targeted” or not, sanctions imposed by the U.S. are arbitrary, ineffective, and have a devastating impact on the lives of poor and vulnerable communities across the world, violating the very human rights that they are purportedly used to “defend.”
This talk of sanctions also says nothing of the fact that President Museveni has been a key ally of U.S. interests in the region, and how the U.S. maintained support Uganda even as the latter has continued, alongside Rwanda, to back proxy forces waging war on neighboring DRC. In reality, the U.S. has used sanctions as a selectively-deployed mechanism of control.
The impact of the sudden withdrawal of aid and other funding will be drastic. Following the weakening of the public health system through neoliberal restructuring (promoted by west-dominated international financial institutions such as the IMF), Uganda’s health sector is heavily donor-dependent—almost half of the health budget is financed by the European Union and the U.S., the latter accounting for nearly one-third of annual health spending in the country.
“The budgetary allocation from the central government towards the health sector is between 5 to 6%. Around 75% of the health budget is being financed by donors… Now these donors might pull this funding suddenly and politicians are asking us to brace ourselves, but brace ourselves for what? There is no plan to support the health sector,” Denis Bukenya from Peoples Health Movement-Uganda told Peoples Dispatch.
He added that almost 90% of funding for drugs for the treatment of HIV/AIDS came from donor funding.
We are going to go back to having to address issues of access, of the availability of these drugs. The programs of recruiting people to provide services, of traveling to villages to provide drugs and care… all of this goes away.
So now whatever little money people have been able to keep to use for food [or other basic needs] is going to have to go towards treatment. Even then, they will not have enough resources to even purchase the entire course of treatment.
According to Kabuye, gay people account for 30% of people affected by HIV/AIDS.
How do you expect these people to now go and access medication? How many people in Uganda can afford to buy ARVs every month—a few of them. There is a danger of a surge in the spread of HIV and related deaths.
“We, as activists who have been fighting for the right to health, do not know if our actions will now be criminalized… but we are going to continue fighting,” Bukenya stressed.
If we fear to speak out against injustices, our people are going to die.
Exporting anti-LGBTQ+ violence: the role of Evangelicals
In 2014, Uganda’s Constitutional Court struck down a previous iteration of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill on purely procedural grounds.
Writing against the backdrop of the legislation’s introduction and the “selective” invocations of culture to justify the criminalization of homosexuality, prominent scholar and activist Professor Sylvia Tamale wrote,
It is not homosexuality that is un-African but the laws that criminalized such relations… what is alien to the continent is legalized homophobia, exported to Africa by the imperialists…
“The mistaken claim that anything is un-African is based on the essentialist assumption that Africa is a homogeneous entity,” she wrote. Even in the present context, activists have rejected constructions of “African culture” as something that is static or even monolithic.
Other justifications such as the protection of “family values,” which are often rooted in invocations of Christianity, also speak to the context and history of how Christianity was introduced, or even imposed, across the African continent, and more importantly, the role that extremist Evangelicals have continued to play in pushing brutal anti-LGBTQ+ policies not only within the U.S. but across Africa.
An investigation in 2020 found that over 20 U.S. Christian groups fighting against LGBTQ+ rights and the right to abortion had spent at least $54 million in the African continent since 2007. The biggest amount of money was spent by the The Fellowship Foundation (a shadowy religious organization otherwise called The Family), which pumped over $20 million into Uganda between 2008 and 2018 alone, and is closely associated with anti-LGBTQ+ bills in the country.
The Fellowship Foundation hosts the National Prayer Breakfast in the U.S., where U.S. President Joe Biden delivered a virtual address back in February. Also reportedly invited to the National Prayer Breakfast was Uganda’s First Lady, Janet Museveni.
“Family Watch International is supporting an upcoming genocide. Imagine sponsoring a Bill saying that you want to protect children, but the same bill hands a three year prison sentence to a child and forces them into conversion therapy?” Kabuye said.
We have Tim Kreutter [who also holds Ugandan citizenship and is a leading figure in The Fellowship’s projects in the country], who prepares the National Prayer Breakfast Day in Uganda… The money that is sponsoring all these bills is passing through him. We want sanctions imposed on him.
[U.S. Secretary of State] Blinken announced that the U.S. might impose sanctions on different politicians in Uganda, he did not mention the NGOs that have sponsored this Bill [now Act]. We want the U.S. to condemn these organizations that have done nothing but spread hate and bigotry in Africa, they must be stopped.
Another looming general election also brings into question the timing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act and the ruling administration’s support for it, especially when large swathes of the country are facing poverty and unemployment. “The government wants people to divert their hate towards the marginalized,” Kabuye said.
Kyobutungi also stressed that “This Act is unconstitutional. It is a disheartening game of political chess, a way for politicians to score points while creating this hate among people.”
“It is a baseless Act, it was informed by political pressure, and it is something that politicians need to reconsider… They need to talk to communities and address what this means for people’s rights,” said Bukenya.
As activists, we need to write and document these processes, to share what is happening with the people, and to engage with politicians and communities…and to challenge this Act from coming into force.