by Shiva Ivaturi
“Of course, homosexuals are disgusting”, said President Yoweri Musaveni of Uganda to a CNN correspondent in 2016. The subject of much controversy, at the time individuals simply thought of this as an incredibly disparaging and blatantly homophobic remark. Yet, it has culminated into a law today that is believed to be the most oppressive modern-day law against LGBTQ+ individuals in the world.
The proposed 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Bill was introduced in Uganda, that would have criminalized homosexuality with sentences of life imprisonment. The bill also targeted those who promote homosexuality or fail to report homosexual activities to the authorities, including medical professionals and human rights advocates. The bill generated widespread international condemnation, with many countries, including the United States, threatening to cut off aid to Uganda if the bill was passed (Al Jazeera, 2014).
On March 9, 2023, Asuman Basalirwa, a member of parliament, introduced the 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Parliament (Atuhaire, 2023). This bill is a revised and more extreme version of the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act. The 2023 bill, however, expands on the criminalization of same-sex acts and is considered one of the most extreme anti-LGBTQ+ laws in the world (Human Rights Watch, 2023). Its provisions include criminalizing people for holding out as a lesbian, gay, transgender, or any other sexual or gender identity that is not in line with the binary categories of male and female (BBC News, 2023).
The 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Bill follows months of hostile rhetoric against sexual and gender minorities by public figures in Uganda, as well as government crackdowns on LGBTQ+ rights groups, human rights groups, government critics, and civil society (Human Rights Watch, 2023). Uganda’s penal code already punishes “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” which is interpreted to mean homosexual relations, with a punishment of life in prison, although the provision is rarely enforced (Shaw, 2023). In introducing the bill, Basaliriwa said its purpose was to “look at this colonial law and have it in tandem with the current situation” (BBC News, 2023).
What is the law?
The maximum penalty for homosexual acts is life imprisonment, while the maximum penalty for attempted homosexual acts is imprisonment for 10 years. Furthermore, people convicted of homosexuality or attempted homosexuality cannot be employed in childcare facilities even after their release. Knowingly renting premises to people who wish to engage in homosexual acts on such premises is punishable by imprisonment for 10 years. The maximum penalty for promoting homosexuality is imprisonment for 10 years. Purporting to contract a same-sex marriage, as well as knowingly attending a purported same-sex marriage ceremony, would also result in imprisonment for up to 10 years (Atuhaire, 2023).
Moreover, the bill would make it a crime to “promote” homosexuality, which could include anything from expressing support for LGBTQ+ rights to providing health care services to members of the community. This provision would have far-reaching implications, as it would effectively criminalize the work of LGBTQ+ organizations and healthcare providers who offer critical services to a marginalized community (Human Rights Watch, 2023).
The bill also contains a provision that would require individuals to report any knowledge of homosexual activity or risk facing imprisonment for up to six months. This requirement would apply to a wide range of individuals, including doctors, teachers, and parents, and could create a culture of suspicion and fear that would make it even more difficult for LGBTQ+ individuals to seek out support and care (Shaw, 2023).
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, has called the bill “devastating and deeply disturbing” and urged President Museveni not to sign it into law. In a statement, Türk said that the adoption of such a discriminatory bill was a “deeply troubling development” and warned that it would have far-reaching consequences for human rights and the rule of law in Uganda (Muhumuza, 2023; Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2023).
What is the law based on?
The 2023 Anti Homosexuality Bill in Uganda aims to “protect the traditional family” through measures that, according to the bill, strengthen the nation’s capacity to deal with emerging internal and external threats to the traditional, heterosexual family (Human Rights Watch, 2023). Literature evaluating the effects of changes in legal recognition of same-sex couples on heterosexual marriage in the U.S. found that same-sex marriage had no meaningful effect on individuals in different-sex households (Shaw, 2023). Additionally, studies from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and the Netherlands have shown that extending relationship recognition to same-sex couples had no obvious impact on the marriage rates or divorce rates of different-sex couples (Shaw, 2023).
In Uganda, there has often been a notion that homosexuality makes children and youth vulnerable to sexual abuse. Research suggests that most pedophiles who prey upon young people identify as heterosexual, and their victims are more likely to be female (BBC News, 2023). Moreover, research has found that children raised by gay or lesbian parents are as well-adjusted psychologically, emotionally, and socially as children raised by heterosexual parents (Human Rights Watch, 2023; Shaw, 2023). The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Sociological Association both agree that children raised by same-sex parents fare just as well as children raised by different-sex parents (Shaw, 2023).
Another major notion fundamentally assumed by the bill is that same-sex attraction is not an innate and immutable characteristic. While there is little consensus on the exact reasons why an individual has a heterosexual or homosexual orientation, current scientific and professional consensus reflects the understanding that homosexuality is not a choice, but rather a complex interplay of genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural factors (Shaw, 2023). Therefore, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill’s recognition that same-sex attraction is not an innate and immutable characteristic is not supported by scientific research.
The 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Bill is a deeply concerning piece of legislation that represents a significant setback for human rights and the rule of law in Uganda (Human Rights Watch, 2023). Its provisions have now criminalized same-sex relationships and identities, stigmatized LGBTQ+ individuals, and created a culture of fear and suspicion that are already making it difficult for individuals across the country to seek out care.
International condemnation of the bill has been swift and unequivocal, with human rights organizations and governments around the world calling on Uganda to abandon the legislation (Al Jazeera, 2014; Muhumuza, 2023; Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2023; Stout, 2023). Ultimately, these efforts were not successful as the bill was signed into law.
The anti-homosexuality law in Uganda will have devastating effects on the LGBTQ+ community, with individuals facing persecution, violence, and even death (Human Rights Watch, 2023). Frank Mugisha, Uganda’s most prominent LGBTQ+ rights activist, has experienced firsthand the dangers of being openly gay in Uganda. He explains, “The Ugandan population has been radicalised to fear and hate homosexuals” (Reuters, 2023). This anti-gay sentiment has been fanned by politicians and religious organizations, culminating in the passage of a bill that would criminalize even identifying as LGBTQ+ (Atuhaire, 2023). The bill, which Mugisha fears will be signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni, would punish the “promotion” of homosexuality with up to 20 years in prison and impose the death penalty for so-called aggravated homosexuality, including having gay sex while HIV-positive (Atuhaire, 2023; Human Rights Watch, 2023).
Mugisha has received numerous death threats and has even had a colleague and friend, David Kato, bludgeoned to death in 2011 (Al Jazeera, 2014). Mugisha refuses to back down despite the dangers he faces, saying, “I guess I am going to be in trouble a lot because I am not going to stop” (Reuters, 2023). He feels a sense of obligation to fight for the rights of LGBTQ+ Ugandans, many of whom have fled the country or their homes for safe houses since the bill was passed (Reuters, 2023). Mugisha believes that the anti-gay sentiment is not Ugandan but is Western in nature, citing that homosexuality was first outlawed under British colonial rule and that Ugandan individuals were initially wary of homosexuality but did not have the intent to harm homosexual individuals under the full force of the law (Reuters, 2023).
Mugisha’s story highlights the immense bravery and resilience of the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda, who continue to fight for their rights despite facing immense persecution. As he explains, “Looking at this legislation, I do not think it will survive” (Reuters, 2023). We must support the efforts of activists like Mugisha and stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda and around the world, fighting against discrimination and hate.
Uganda: New anti-gay bill further threatens rights. Human Rights Watch. (2023, March 9). Retrieved April 9, 2023, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/03/09/uganda-new-anti-gay-bill-further-threatens-rights
Al Jazeera. (2014, June 20). Uganda Aid Cut over anti-gay law. News | Al Jazeera. Retrieved April 9, 2023, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2014/6/20/us-cuts-aid-to-uganda-over-anti-gay-law
Atuhaire, P. (2023, March 22). Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill: Life in prison for saying you’re gay. BBC News. Retrieved April 9, 2023, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-65034343
Muhumuza, R. (2023, March 22). Un rights chief calls Uganda anti-gay Bill ‘deeply troubling’. PBS. Retrieved April 9, 2023, from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/un-rights-chief-calls-uganda-anti-gay-bill-deeply-troubling
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2023, March 22). Uganda: Türk urges president not to sign shocking anti-homosexuality Bill. United Nations. Retrieved April 9, 2023, from https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/03/uganda-turk-urges president-not-sign-shocking-anti-homosexuality-bill
Reuters. (2023, April 13). Ugandan LGBTQ activist readies for the fight of his life. Reuters. Retrieved April 16, 2023, from https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/ugandan-lgbtq-activist-readies-fight-his-life-2023-04-13/
Stout, N. (2023, March 22). White House threatens to pull aid to Uganda over anti-LGBTQ bill. Courthouse News Service. Retrieved April 9, 2023, from https://www.courthousenews.com/white-house-threatens-to-pull-aid-to-uganda-over-anti-lgbtq-bill/
Shaw, A. (2023, April 5). Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2023. Williams Institute. Retrieved April 9, 2023, from https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/uganda-anti-homosexuality-2023/