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Uganda's anti-gay legislation, explained

What exactly does Uganda's anti-gay legislation say?

On October 14, 2009, David Bahati, a member of Uganda's parliament, introduced Bill No. 18, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. It begins like this:

"The object of this Bill is to establish a comprehensive consolidated legislation to protect the traditional family by prohibiting (i) any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex; and (ii) the promotion or recognition of such sexual relations"

The bill criminalizes sexual activity between people of the same sex. It also criminalizes the promotion or recognition of such activity by any individual, governmental entity or non-governmental entity either inside or outside of Uganda.

The bill separates gay sex acts into two different categories:

a) aggravated homosexuality: This is where one of the people engaged in gay sexual activity is HIV-positive, or a minor, or disabled. When the bill was first introduced, the punishment for aggravated homosexuality was death. Now, the punishment is life in prison.

b) the offense of homosexuality: This category is very loosely described, and includes those who "promote" or "recognize" homosexuality, as well as those who attempt to engage in it. The punishment is ten years in prison.

The bill was signed into law on February 24th, 2014, by Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni. You can read Uganda's Bill No.18 in its entirety here.

On August 1, 2014, the law was declared "null and void" by Uganda's Constitutional Court who ruled that the bill should never have been voted on in the first place due to a lack of quorum — the minimum number of required members for a vote. However, according to Neela Ghoshal, Senior Researcher for the Human Rights Watch, the judges' ruling may just be a "temporary respite." As she notes, "The law was nullified on procedural grounds and could be presented again in Parliament, and passed in a [legal] way."

What happens if someone is found breaking the law?

According to the now-nullified law, first-time offenders will get 14 years in prison. Repeat offenders will get life in prison. Also, any Ugandan who breaks the law outside of the country will be extradited to Uganda for prosecution.

The first proposal of the bill called for the death penalty for repeat offenders, and others found guilty of "aggravated homosexuality." But this language was dropped amid harsh international criticism. Early drafts also criminalized the failure to report gay people, but this language did not make it into the final draft signed into law.

Why is it called the "Kill the Gays" bill?

When the original law was proposed back in October 2009, the bill called for the death penalty for all Ugandans found guilty of "aggravated homosexuality." As a result, some in the media started calling it the "Kill the Gays" bill.

After its introduction to Parliament, the bill was revised to substitute life imprisonment for capital punishment.

Is this the first anti-gay law in Uganda?

No. Uganda's laws against "buggery" go back to the British Colonial period, and have never been repealed.

Before this legislation was proposed, anti-sodomy laws were already on the books in Uganda. Section 145 of the Penal Code Act of 1950 reads:

Any person who-
(a) has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature;
(b) has carnal knowledge of an animal; or
(c) permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature, commits an offence and is liable to imprisonment for life.

The punishment for committing any of these offenses is "liable to imprisonment for seven years," according to section 146. The phrase "against the order of nature" refers to sexual activity that is deemed unnatural — for instance, sodomy.

The new anti-gay law differs from the 1950 act in that it broadens what constitutes offenses, and introduces even harsher punishments. Notably, the new law introduces the term "aggravated homosexuality" to describe a host of same-sex sexual activities — sex with an HIV-positive person, for example — that were not covered in the 1950 act. The new law also criminalizes the "promotion" of homosexuality, which, according to BBC, is where "activists encourage others to come out." Other criminalized activities in the new law include the "conspiracy to commit homosexuality," as well as "aiding and abetting homosexuality," which is vaguely defined as offering your property or other "moveable assets for purposes of homosexuality."

How do Ugandans feel about the law?

According to a recent Pew Poll, 89 percent of Ugandans think homosexuality is morally unacceptable. While the anti-gay bill was being stalled during the legislation process, the Ugandan Speaker of Parliament claimed that Ugandans were growing impatient, and were "demanding" the new anti-homosexuality bill to be signed. "Ugandans want that law as a Christmas gift," she said. On April 2, 2014, The Guardian reported that 30,000 Ugandans gathered for a celebration at a stadium in Kampala to "give thanks" to the president of Uganda for passing the anti-gay law.

There are a few notable Ugandans speaking out against the law. Bishop Christopher Senyonjo has spoken publicly against the law, and so have representatives from Uganda's Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights.

Uganda isn't alone in its condemnation of gay sex. Homosexuality is considered a criminal offense in 38 nations in Africa. In February 2014, the President of Gambia said, "LGBT" stands for "Leprosy, Gonorrhea, Bacteria, and Tuberculosis," and vowed to fight gay "vermin" as fiercely as he fights malaria-causing mosquitoes. Also in February, Nigeria signed a similar anti-gay bill into law.

How does this law affect Ugandans?

Estimates currently project that there are over 500,000 LGBT people in Uganda. And public hostility toward these LGBT people is empowered by this legislation. But according to one Ugandan trans woman, her country was anti-LGBT long before this bill was introduced: "The law did not bring homophobia. The law will not make it disappear."

Studies have shown a connection between increased HIV rates and LGBT stigma. The forced HIV tests that the new law forces "aggravated offenders" to undergo are only going to enhance the stigma associated with HIV — which is already a huge problem in Uganda.

According to Pepe Julian Onziema, program director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, since the introduction of the law to parliament, violence towards LGBT people has increased. "We've seen our friends leave the country. We've seen people attempt to commit suicide. We've seen communities attempt what we call mob attacks. Now that [the bill] has become law we just expect that to increase."

A statement from the White House said that this law negatively impacts the heterosexual community in Uganda, too, since it "reflects poorly on the country's commitment to protecting the rights of its people." The statement also said the law "will undermine public health, including efforts to fight HIV/AIDS."

Has anyone in Uganda been killed or arrested as a result of this law?

Yes, at least one person. In October 2012, in celebration of the anniversary of the new law, the Ugandan weekly tabloid paper Rolling Stone (which has no relation to the US magazine) published a "leaked" list of the names, addresses, and pictures of the Top 100 "homos" in Uganda. Three months later, one of the people outed by the tabloid — a gay activist named David Kato, whom the New York Times has called "the most outspoken gay rights activist in Uganda" — was murdered, beaten to death by a hammer. As the New York Times reported, "Police officials were quick to chalk up the motive to robbery, but members of the small and increasingly besieged gay community in Uganda suspect otherwise." According to the BBC, the priest presiding over Kato's funeral "condemned gay people."

Giles Muhame, the editor of Uganda's Rolling Stone, told CNN that he published the list so Ugandans would turn gay people in to the authorities. He hoped "the police would investigate them, prosecute them, and hang them." Muhame says he didn't want members of the public to take the law into their own hands. Muhame also said there was no need for anxiety and overreaction. "We should not overblow the death of one," he said.

Frank Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, blamed Kato's death on the American evangelical Christians who visited Uganda in 2009 to lead what many have called anti-gay workshops. "The blood of David is on the hands of American preachers who came to Uganda," said Mugisha. "They share much of the blame for presenting us as less than human."

In April 2014, The Guardian reported the first arrests since the passing of the new law. Kim Mukisa and Jackson Mukasa have been in prison since December, when they were charged with violating the 1950 Penal Code Act by "having sexual knowledge of a person against the order of nature." Their trial began in May, and has been postponed several times.

Who has criticized the law?

In the US, President Obama has consistently condemned this legislation. He says Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's signature on the anti-gay bill "complicates" the US/Uganda relationship. The US alone gives them $400 million annually, but Uganda has said it doesn't want any aid with moral strings attached.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron also put pressure on Uganda to reject the law. As quoted in BBC, Cameron said all recipients of UK aid must "adhere to proper human rights." John Nagenda, adviser to President Museveni, fired back that Uganda is "tired of these lectures" from Western powers. If Cameron and others stop sending money, "so be it," said Nagenda.

In a powerful speech delivered to the United Nations in December 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called upon every nation to eliminate laws that criminalize homosexuality. She declared that "gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights." Even though she didn't mention Uganda by name, the point of her speech was made evident from the first line: "It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished." Ugandan presidential adviser John Nagenda reacted negatively to "that woman" — referring to Clinton — trying to interfere with his country: "If the Americans think they can tell us what to do, they can go to hell."

Catholic Cardinal Peter Turkson, Vatican official and president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has criticized the legislation. He said "homosexuals are not criminals," but urged the international community to continue to send financial aid to Uganda.

On February 20, 2014, Human Rights Watch urged the US to recall its ambassador to Uganda. The groups also encouraged America "to conduct strategic consultations on the US/Uganda relationship."

Secretary of State John Kerry called the law "morally wrong" and said the US government is beginning an "internal review" regarding its relationship with Uganda.

On March 11, 2014, a group of Ugandans filed a constitutional challenge to the law. According to the Human Rights Watch, the petitioners included a law professor, one current and one former member of parliament, a journalist, a medical doctor, several LGBT activists, and two nongovernmental organizations.

The World Bank has postponed a $90 million loan to Uganda in response to the law.

The global LGBT rights group All Out has been circulating a petition called "Stop Uganda's anti-gay bill." There are currently more than 250,000 signatures.

How were American evangelical Christians involved with the bill?

Many people think that David Bahati, the Ugandan legislator who introduced the bill, was influenced by several prominent American evangelical Christians, including some ex-gays — people who claim to have been "healed" of gayness — and an anti-gay minister named Scott Lively.

In March 2009, Lively and other Evangelicals went to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to host a conference called "Seminar on Exposing the Homosexuals' Agenda." The New York Times obtained recordings of the conference and wrote about it in detail. An Anglican priest from Zambia who is sympathetic to LGBT causes, Rev. Kapya Kaoma, attended the conference "undercover" in the hopes of exposing what was happening behind closed doors. He then wrote in Public Eye Magazine that the conference convinced Ugandan lawmakers that homosexuality was "evil" and "needed to be tackled with force." Kaoma also posted video footage of the conference. According to Kaoma, attendees left the conference with a renewed passion to enact anti-gay legislation.

Less than a month after Lively's event, Parliament passed a resolution allowing Bahati to submit a bill designed to crack down on homosexuality. Bahati set to work right away to draft the bill, and then submitted it in October 2009.

Uganda's Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit against Scott Lively, holding him accountable for inciting crimes against humanity. According to the Washington Post, during his conference in Uganda, "Lively not only advocated bad ideas in an abstract context but helped various Ugandans conceive and manage a campaign of persecution." In other words, the lawsuit alleges, the human rights abuses permitted by the anti-gay law are a direct result of Lively's work in Uganda. Currently, Lively is awaiting his trial.

What is 'God Loves Uganda'?

God Loves Uganda is a 2013 documentary by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams. The documentary follows Christian missionaries from the Kansas City-based International House of Prayer on their first trip to Uganda, flashing back and forth between Uganda and Kansas City. The film explores the connection between Uganda's anti-homosexuality law and American Evangelicals, and ultimately suggests that the Ugandan legislation is a manifestation of American culture wars. According to a reviewer at the Washington Post, the film "strongly implies" that the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda is the direct result of talks given there by Evangelical Scott Lively. (Lively is not a member of the International House of Prayer.)

Film reviews have been mixed, praising Williams for his bringing attention to an underreported issue, but wondering about his creative license. The Hollywood Reporter reviewed the film favorably overall, though noted that it "might have benefited from a bit more nuance … Surely not all Christian efforts in Uganda are not reprehensible." Slate made a similar point: "The story God Loves Uganda tells is damning. … It is, nonetheless, worth asking whether the anti-gay views of the American church can be so clearly blamed for what is happening in a society where homophobia was already prevalent." Christianity Today went one step further, calling the film "propaganda" instilling "evangelophobia."

In May, Williams spoke to Vox for an interview about his film and the controversy surrounding it.


Are there any organizations working with LGBT people in Uganda?

Yes. Sexual Minorities Uganda is an umbrella organization consisting of many LGBT advocacy groups in Uganda. The advocacy group has been awarded the Rafto Prize for Human Rights for their continuing work for LGBT activism. SMUG was founded in 2004 by Victor Mukasa, a transman and LGBT activist, and is currently headed by Frank Mugisha, the executive director. In 2011, Mugisha was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for his activism on behalf of Uganda's LGBT community.

On March 14, 2012, SMUG filed a lawsuit in federal court in Massachusetts against Scott Lively — the American Evangelical whom they claim is responsible for initiating Uganda's antigay law. Lively was sued under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows the federal court to hear lawsuits from non-US citizens who have survived human rights abuses.

One of the LGBT groups under the umbrella of SMUG is Freedom and Roam Uganda, which was founded in 2003 by Ugandan lesbian and advocate Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera. When the Ugandan newspaper Rolling Stone published a list of the "Top Homos" in Uganda, Nabagesera filed a petition with the High Court against the article. On November 1, 2010, Nabagesera's petition was successful. High court judge Vincent Musoke-Kibuuka claimed that the printing of the "Top Homos" article was an "invasion of the right to privacy," and ordered the paper to stop publishing the names and pictures of people it alleged to be gay.

Ugandan Bishop Christopher Senyonjo is a straight LGBT ally. In 2001, the Anglican Church of Uganda caught wind of his pro-LGBT outreach, and barred him from conducting services. Senyonjo was ultimately expelled from his church, which resulted in the loss of his pension. Senyonjo was "outed" on Rolling Stone's "Top homos" list due to his LGBT activism. He is the founder of Integrity Uganda and St. Paul's Foundation for International Reconciliation, programs which provide healthcare, education, and counseling services to LGBT people. Senyonjo has received international recognition for his ongoing work on behalf of Uganda's LGBT community, including the Clinton Global Citizen Award in 2012.

Other LGBT organizations in Uganda include Ice Breakers Uganda, Spectrum Uganda, and Transgender Initiative Uganda. In May 2012, Ice Breakers helped open the first LGBT clinic in Uganda.

What did Uganda's president say about repealing the law?

Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda, had the power to repeal the law. However, the president has repeatedly said he had no plans to do so: "I don't like orders from anybody outside Uganda."

You didn't answer my question!

This is very much a work in progress. It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge.

So if you have additional questions or comments or quibbles or complaints, send a note to Brandon Ambrosino: brandon@vox.com

How have these cards changed?

This is a running list of substantive updates, corrections, and additions to this card stack. These cards were last updated on August 1, 2014. Here is a summary of edits:

  • May 9: Card 9 has been corrected. It originally stated that Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma was a Ugandan priest. In fact, he is from Zambia.
  • August 1: The card stack has been updated to reflect that Uganda's Constitutional Court has nullified the Anti Homosexuality law.
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