What’s Going On Special: The Cruelty of Uganda’s new anti-gay laws

Targeted violence that endangers people for being who they are

Let’s call it what it is: State-sanctioned homophobia is targeted violence. In many African countries, where ultraconservative values are regularly championed, being anti-gay is so rampant that laws backing this form of hate have been enshrined into the constitutions of over 30 countries. The penalties are often made even more brutal whenever those laws are visited and amended. It is not enough that people are pressed against the margins for who they are and who they love, a significant portion of African society—led by cruel leaders—want to persecute queer individuals as violently as possible.

About a week ago, Ugandan lawmakers approved a new anti-homosexuality bill that consists harsh penalties for a variety of “crimes” attached to being queer. In the bill, openly identifying 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” is grounds for imprisonment for up to 10 years, while anyone convicted of “promotion of homosexuality” is liable for a prison term of up to 5 years.

The headliner of the bill, and easily the most discussed since its approval, is the death penalty submission for “aggravated homosexuality,” a broad term used to describe sexual acts without consent and under duress, against children, involving, and/or by a “serial offender.”

Introduced by opposition lawmaker Asuman Basalirwa, with the aim of protecting “our church culture; the legal, religious and traditional family values of Ugandans from the acts that are likely to promote sexual promiscuity in this country,” only two out of the 389 MPs voted against the bill. It is currently waiting to be signed into law by Yoweri Museveni, the authoritarian president who’s in his 38th year in power. Museveni recently called queer people “deviants,” so it’s expected that the anti-homosexuality bill would be gleefully signed in coming days.

This bill isn’t the first time Ugandan lawmakers and leaders have attempted to brutally criminalise being queer up to the point of the death penalty. In 2009, a bill was proposed to include a death sentence for gay sex, and the country’s lawmakers passed a bill in 2014 that replaced the death penalty with life imprisonment. It was eventually annulled by the Ugandan constitutional court on procedural grounds. While Uganda’s penal code already has punishments laid out for “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” adopted from the country’s colonial past, Basalirwa says his draft of the bill is to “have it in tandem with the current situation.”

Basalirwa’s reference to “the current situation” is an acknowledgement that we live in a better enlightened world where queer people are increasingly proud of and comfortable in who they are. Like many African countries, though, that liberal outlook is being actively countered in favour of “traditional values.” It’s not dissimilar to the rhetoric many African lawmakers and executive leaders have used in whipping up support for anti-gay laws, claiming that the LGBTQ+ community is a danger to family life and societal morals. To top it off, the opium of the people—religion—is always invoked as a way to claim the moral high ground.

This continent-wide wave of queerphobic propaganda led by lawmakers has seen a consistent stream of happenings in the past few years, with very few bright spots. In late 2021, Botswana’s Court of Appeal upheld a landmark ruling that decriminalised homosexuality, infamously repealing a relic of colonial values and attitude towards queer people. Earlier this year, the Kenyan Supreme Court ruled that the country’s constitution barred the discrimination based on sexual orientation, upholding verdicts by lower courts that the government could not lawfully refuse to register the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) as an organisation.

The Kenyan Supreme Court’s ruling has proved divisive, especially as President William Ruto and many lawmakers have condemned the verdict. Currently, there’s a second case making its way through Kenyan courts that challenges the constitutionality of the penal code that bans sex “against the order of nature,” another proof that a large part of the laws criminalising and demonising homosexuality and queer people were directly handed down from colonial rule. Amidst the rampant queerphobia in East Africa, Rwanda has vehemently refused to criminalise homosexuality, ceding to citizens’ private rights even though there are currently no protective laws to counter the persecution of queer people.

In the African context, Rwanda’s somewhat neutrality is a stark contrast to the state-backed homophobia being perpetrated by its neighbours—and you could even argue that neutrality is not enough. When same-sex relations are punishable by life imprisonment in Tanzania and 24 people were recently charged with “homosexual practices” in Burundi, along with anti-gay laws in Nigeria and Ghana, Uganda is following a trend that makes neutrality to queer rights look revolutionary. What happens after President Museveni signs the anti-homosexuality bill into law is an easy guess: Queer people already living in fear of their lives will be in even more grave danger.

Persecution isn’t enough; total erasure is the only acceptable outcome for these lawmakers and their supporters. It’s evident in the wording of the bill, especially as it deals with the “aggravated homosexuality” part that will result in the death penalty. By mentioning non-consent and relations with minors, there’s a blatant conflation of queer relationships with problematic sexual assault, echoing the terrible (and popular) idea that queer people can’t have relations that are devoid of toxicity.

When Uganda’s constitutional court struck out the initial anti-gay bill, there were sentiments that Museveni was using homophobia as a means of currying political favour from the Ugandan citizenry. Almost a decade later, and a few years after facilitating one of the worst elections Africans have seen in recent times, there’s a sense that he’s inciting the same emotions even as he grows increasingly unpopular with the youth. However, claiming that this bill is a deflection from the many administrative and economic issues in Uganda trivialises the simple, plain fact that these hostile (soon-to-be) laws are a form of targeted violence that should always be condemned.