The Ugandan parliament has passed a new Anti-Homosexuality bill into law. Leah Eryenyu writes that as the Speaker’s gavel sounded the death knell for LGBTQ+ persons in Uganda, their elected representatives cheered on.
The Hansard entry for 21st March 2023 will record the many vile and crass statements made, but it will omit a more frightening and yet crucial detail, the festivity that punctuated the debate, the derisive laughter, and the celebration of the misrecognition of people. The triumph of hatred and hysteria.
Regarding the content of the new bill, its provisions show great disregard for humanity and are startling in their overzealousness to penalise to the maximum extent possible. A person convicted of homosexuality, defined in the bill as the ‘performance of a sexual act on another person of the same sex’, even where consensual, would carry a sentence of imprisonment for life. Offenders convicted of aggravated homosexuality (sexual acts with minors under 14, people with disability, etc) would suffer death. Children convicted of the offence of homosexuality can be jailed for up to 3 years. Landlords can get 10 years for knowingly allowing their premises to be used for the purposes of homosexuality.
Promotion of homosexuality is also an offence and provisions are wide-ranging including the dissemination of materials encouraging homosexuality (this article would fetch me 20 years) and the setting up of organisations that support LGBTQ+ rights. The law limits due process as legal entities convicted under the wide ambit of ‘promotion’ can have their licences suspended or cancelled. A court can also mandate convicted persons to undergo conversion therapy. Furthermore, in its prescriptions, the bill sets the stage for the emergence of a police state where citizens are obligated to surveil and report perceived offences of homosexuality. History has taught us time and again that this never ends well. Ugandans don’t have to look far for examples of legislation that comes back to bite its own architects. While accusations of promotion of homosexuality have been lobbed against opposition politicians because of support from western donors, where in the past it may have cost a few votes, now they can be jailed if convicted. There is a failsafe in the bill with the provision on false sexual allegations but given the hysteria that has been whipped up, it only takes an accusation for the mob to set upon a perceived offender.
When at first you don’t succeed…
This is not Uganda’s first go at legislating homosexuality. In 2013, Uganda passed an anti-gay bill into law, dubbed as a Christmas gift by the then speaker of parliament. While it was assented into law by the president, it was struck down by the Constitutional Court on procedural grounds.
In the case of the 2023 bill, the speed and efficiency with which it was passed are striking. In under three weeks from the time of seeking leave to process it, it had become an Act of parliament. Fox Odoi, one of the only two MPs to vote against the bill claims that there is a well-coordinated effort from American Christian evangelicals to fund and mobilise against LGBTQ+ rights. Indeed, this is not the first time this group has been accused of whipping up homophobia in Uganda. I hypothesise that this time round, campaigners had a weapon that they did not have in the 2010s – the mass proliferation of mobile phones and an uptick in social media use. The average Ugandan with access to WhatsApp must have received messages from unknown authors on several occasions, as I did, talking about a recruitment scheme luring students into homosexuality with hefty financial rewards. One of the forwarded messages addressed to parents painted a picture of a pyramid scheme with agents incentivised to recruit more children in order to make more money. A 19-year-old who had allegedly recruited more than 1000 students during the COVID-19 lockdowns now owned his own car, rented his own place and could send money to his mother. He had also recently been promoted to regional manager! The provisions criminalising grooming of children and promotion of homosexuality in the bill are in no doubt in response to these allegations.
A global moral panic over the loss of traditional values has been building up and it hit a frenzy with this fantastically orchestrated misinformation campaign. I believe that the bill awakened some latent fears but certainly not about protecting children as has been claimed. The 2022 police crime report released in February this year amidst the uproar about gay recruitment revealed that 12,780 cases of sexual abuse of children were recorded in 2022, among them, 653 children aged 0-8 years. 153 children were abused by their guardians and parents and 86 by their teachers. Gay sex (consensual and otherwise) is captured under ‘unnatural offences’ which had a total of 83 cases recorded in 2022. As far as I know, the release of the report did not trigger any mass mobilisation in anger to protest the year-on-year continuous abuse of children. Pastors at the pulpit and Imams on the streets appeared to be more seduced by the phantom victims of homosexual recruitment. Reading into these actions suggests that the homosexual abuse of children is constructed as more egregious. The pernicious effects of homophobia are thus clear. The loathing that fuels it runs so deep that it becomes a normalising force for heterosexual abuse, blunting its violence and invisibilising its victims.
Batten down the hatches for the battle ahead
The bill now goes before the president for his signature. Like last time, he is expected to sign it. And like last time, I hope that in their urgency to legislate hate, the MPs overprescribed provisions, making the bill vulnerable to constitutional challenges. The minority report already points out a number of issues, key among them being that several provisions are already catered for in the penal code making the bill redundant. There is also already a case before the court alleging bias and blackmail in the process of consultation and tabling of the bill.
While there is hope that the bill will be overturned, its harmfulness remains. As it is challenged in the legal system, its intended victims will suffer in the interim. Crucially, even if overturned, it has regenerated a seed of mistrust and introduced a new generation of Ugandans to homophobia. While homosexuality has always been prohibited in schools, now warnings about mental illness as a consequence greet parents and students at school entrances. Where previously rainbows were associated with positivity, now they are hastily painted over in children’s parks to disavow homosexuality.
On a more hopeful note, this is also the first time I’ve seen so many Ugandans use their social capital to condemn homophobia, on social media and in the mainstream press. Perhaps nothing captures this wave of resistance better than this bold open letter to the president from mothers of LGBTQ+ individuals, prevailing on him not to assent to the bill. We should join them in demanding the same.
The post was originally published on the blog of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity.