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Uganda’s extreme anti-LGBTQ legislation, explained

Just months after a version of Uganda’s “kill the gays” bill became law, the first person was charged under one of its most extreme provisions.

Protestor holds up red protest sign. Sign reads: Uganda — Kill the Bill Not the Gays. Equality!
Uganda’s queer activist Papa De raises a fist outside the Ugandan High Commission during a picket against the country's anti-homosexuality bill in Pretoria.
Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

One of the world’s strictest anti-LGBTQ laws is starting to bear out real, potentially deadly consequences.

This month, the first person was charged under Uganda’s new law criminalizing “aggravated homosexuality,” an offense that could result in the death penalty.

Uganda was already one of several African nations where it is illegal to be queer; the nation enacted its Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014, which allowed for life imprisonment for some homosexual acts between consenting adults, and codified the repression of LGBTQ Ugandans. That legislation was annulled in court in 2014, though homosexuality was still illegal per previous law, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

But in May, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a bill that took Uganda’s anti-LGBTQ policies much further, punishing LGBTQ advocacy with up to 20 years in prison and proposing the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” — homosexual acts involving children or members of other at-risk groups, or involving a person who is HIV positive. A person convicted of “attempted aggravated homosexuality” can be imprisoned for up to 14 years, and “attempted homosexuality” could land a person a 10-year prison sentence. (After Museveni sent the bill back, lawmakers added a provision clarifying that the punishments are not for being homosexual but require having same-sex relations.)

The social effects of the law were clear and harmful, even before it was actually enforced. Not only was there an uptick in police and civilian harassment and violence against LGBTQ Ugandans while the law was debated, but it also posed dangers to the rest of Ugandan society by threatening the country’s progress in treating and preventing HIV, as Vox’s Keren Landman explained. Now, in a development first reported by Reuters, a 20-year-old man is the first charged directly under the law’s aggravated homosexuality clause. Per Reuters, the charging documents did not specify why.

Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policy are nothing new in Uganda or other former British colonies. The British Empire imposed its colonial penal code, including the anti-sodomy law Section 377, on the territories it had claimed. Since former African colonies gained independence in the 1960s, few have repealed the colonial anti-sodomy laws, instead enacting harsh policies including life in prison — a trend encouraged by American evangelical groups.

But under the new law, Uganda became the fourth African nation in which homosexuality is punishable by death, according to a Reuters report.

When it was signed, US President Joe Biden in a statement called the new law a “tragic violation of universal human rights — one that is not worthy of the Ugandan people, and one that jeopardizes the prospects of critical economic growth for the entire country.”

Rhetoric and advocacy around the bill even before it was signed had already forced LGBTQ people to flee the country, fearing for their lives. Mbajjwe Nimiro Wilson, a 24-year-old gay man, fled the capital city of Kampala after a crowd of people threatened him as he bought groceries. “They kept saying, ‘We will hunt you. You gays should be killed. We will slaughter you,’” he told the New York Times this week. “There was no option but to leave.”

Uganda has a history of anti-LGBTQ laws and public sentiment

Uganda was already hostile to LGBTQ people, even before the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act; colonial influence was baked into the penal code, and a 2009 bill colloquially called the “kill the gays” bill sparked international outrage for a provision that would allow gay people to be hanged. The bill also required citizens to spy on their neighbors, friends, and family members and report those they suspected of being LGBTQ or advocating for gay rights or face a three-year prison sentence, according to a Human Rights Watch report at the time.

That bill, along with the 2014 legislation — which Museveni signed into law — eventually became the bill that parliament is adjusting to the president’s orders.

Ugandan society had already been mobilized against LGBTQ people at least since the 2009 bill; according to Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, a Ugandan LGBTQ rights group, there were 23 arrests of LGBTQ people between 2007 and 2011. Immediately after the passage of the 2014 bill, 17 people were arrested, according to Human Rights Watch. If past is prologue, LGBTQ Ugandans could be denied housing and healthcare, among other potential dangers.

All but two members of Uganda’s Parliament who were present for voting on the 2023 bill backed it, according to the Associated Press. Recent events including the Church of England’s decision to bless same-sex marriages and allegations of sexual abuse at boarding schools in the country have inflamed anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the country.

The government shut down Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a high-profile group for LGBTQ causes in the country, last year, claiming that it had failed to properly register as an NGO. Nigerian journalist Caleb Okereke, writing in Foreign Policy in March, also described a social media campaign against SMUG claiming that the organization lured young people into becoming LGBTQ.

The 2023 legislation has attracted widespread international condemnation.

“The signing of this deeply repressive law is a grave assault on human rights and the Constitution of Uganda and the regional and international human rights instruments to which Uganda is a party,” said Flavia Mwangovya, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for East and Southern Africa, in a statement when it was passed.

The 2023 bill also applies to trans and gender-nonconforming people, punishing with up to 10 years in prison anyone who “holds out as a lesbian, gay, transgender, a queer, or any other sexual or gender identity that is contrary to the binary categories of male and female.”

Museveni meanwhile paints the country’s anti-LGBTQ policies as anti-imperialist, telling a meeting of lawmakers this spring, “Europe is lost. So they also want us to be lost,” according to footage released on UBC, a Ugandan broadcast network. “It is good that you rejected the pressure from the imperialists. And this is what I told them. Whenever they come to me I say, ‘You, please shut up.’”

American evangelical groups have played a role in pushing hateful policies

In reality, the US in particular has influenced or supported anti-LGBTQ policies and attitudes in Uganda, particularly via evangelical groups like the Fellowship Foundation, which had a hand in crafting the 2009 “kill the gays” bill, according to a 2020 report from Open Democracy.

In 2012, SMUG sued American evangelist Scott Lively in a US court for his role in promoting the anti-LGBTQ agenda that influenced the “kill the gays” bill and led to the persecution of LGBTQ people in Uganda. Though the court eventually dismissed the case, ruling that it could not be tried in the US because the alleged crimes took place elsewhere, the presiding judge, Michael Ponsor, affirmed that Lively contributed to “a vicious and frightening campaign of repression against LGBTI people in Uganda.”

US evangelical groups are also instrumental in pushing an “ex-gay” narrative in Uganda — contributing to the idea of “rehabilitation” that Museveni previously spoke about writing into the 2023 bill.

Okereke described the grip that the ex-gay narrative has taken in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa. “The prodigal son parable has propped up the ex-gay movement in Uganda, ensuring there are open arms to gay people who can speak about previously being in that life of ‘sin’ and denounce their gayness publicly,” Okereke wrote. “It seems that as the ex-gay movement lost its grip in the United States, it started to reach for relevance elsewhere.”

The evangelical Christian group Family Watch International held an event on “family values and sovereignty” in Entebbe in March, the Guardian’s Alice McCool reported at the time. Family Watch International is listed as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and supports so-called “conversion therapy” for LGBTQ people.

At the event, Museveni called on Africa to “provide the lead to save the world from this degeneration and decadence, which is really very dangerous for humanity. If people of opposite sex [sic] stop appreciating one another then how will the human race be propagated?”

Other African nations, including Kenya, Zambia, and Ghana, have begun to pass similarly draconian legislation, and legislators from more than a dozen other African nations attended the Entebbe conference, pledging to advocate for anti-LGBTQ policies in their own countries, the New York Times reported in April.

“The wave of homophobia and transphobia in Uganda, and the region, has nothing to do with Ugandan or African values,” Ugandan human rights activist and lawyer Nicolas Opiyo told the Guardian. “It is a disguised campaign by American evangelicals through their local actors. Their campaigns have now been organized under what appears to be local professional entities such as Christian lawyers’ groups, parliamentary forums and so forth.”

Despite the hostile rhetoric, draconian policy, and repression, LGBTQ rights activists and their allies — including members of Parliament — have vowed to fight the discriminatory policies in Uganda and the region.

“If the state chooses for a human being who to fall in love with,” Fox Odoi-Oywelowo, one of two legislators who voted against the bill and a former senior counsel to Museveni, told the Times, “that would be the greatest abrogation of our most basic rights.”

Update, August 29, 10:55 am ET: This story was originally published on April 23 and has been updated multiple times, most recently with news of the first “aggravated homosexuality” charge under the law.

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