Ugandan Gays Demand Freedom

The quest for gay rights is a challenge to Uganda’s increasingly authoritarian church and state.

The Guardian – Comment Is Free – 17 September 2007


Ugandan government ministers are demanding the arrest of the country’s lesbian and gay human rights activists. Deputy Attorney General, Fred Ruhinde, and Minister of Ethics and Integrity, Nsaba Butoro, made the call last month in a series of radio broadcasts heard across country.

They are backed by Christian, Muslim and Baha’i religious leaders who are calling for all “homos” to be rounded up and locked away.

Buturo told the BBC that his government opposed equality for gay people and would not decriminalise gay sexual relationships. He branded homosexuality as “shameful, abominable and ungodly … .(and) unnatural.” Urging gays to get out of Uganda he warned ominously: “We know them, we have details of who they are.”

Butoro then went even further by attending a church-orchestrated anti-gay rally held in the capital Kampala on 21 August. It was a de facto show of government support for the homophobic religious zealots who denounced homosexuality as “immoral” and paraded with placards urging: “Arrest all homos.” The rally was organised by the Interfaith Coalition Against Homosexuality, an alliance of Christian, Muslim, and Baha’i organisations.

The homophobic backlash in Uganda is in response to a new campaign called “Let us live in peace.” It is organised by a small group of brave, inspiring Ugandan lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) human rights activists. They are challenging decades of systematic discrimination and violence suffered by LGBTI Ugandans. Much of this homophobic persecution is incited by President Museveni’s government, by Kampala’s notoriously sensationalist tabloid press and, most shockingly of all, by the Anglican Church of Uganda.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has failed to condemn the homophobic witch-hunt that is being stirred up by Anglican Bishops in Uganda. Indeed, he has gone out of his way to embrace and appease them in a desperate bid to stop them splitting from the Anglican Communion. Liberal and gay Ugandans are dismayed by the Archbishop’s silence and indifference.

The attacks on the LGBTI community in Uganda are symptomatic of the increasing authoritarianism of the government of President Yoweri Museveni, who seems to be heading in the same direction as President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Museveni’s regime stands accused of rigged elections, censorship of the media, repression of protests, crackdowns on universities and trade unions, detention without trial and the use of torture. Details of these abuses are documented in my Talking With Tatchell TV interview with Ugandan opposition activists, which you can watch here:

Despite state and church repression, the new LGBTI “Let us live in peace” campaign is defiant. It has been organised a coalition of several LGBTI organisations operating under the name Sexual Minorities Uganda or SMUG

Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG)

On 17 August, they held Uganda’s first ever LGBTI human rights press conference at the Speke Hotel, where speakers called for an end to homophobic discrimination in the legal, education and health systems. Many of those who attended the press conference wore masks, and gave only first names, because they were fearful of identification and arrest.

SMUG speakers reported that the police are guilty of gross harassment of law-abiding LGBTI people. Officers often demand sexual favours or personal bribes in exchange for release from custody on trumped up charges.

The SMUG campaigners also highlighted the health problems LGBTI people face, particularly HIV/AIDS, which often go untreated due to fear of persecution by homophobic doctors and the police. Lesbian and gay people are excluded from Uganda’s anti-HIV/AIDS prevention and support programmes. SMUG declared: “We have had enough of the abuse, neglect and violence.”

SMUG is led by Victor Juliet Mukasa, a transgender lesbian who is one of Uganda’s very few LGBTI activists who is willing to be identified and speak openly in public. Mukasa was forced to flee temporarily into exile in South Africa in fear of her life after police raided her home in 2005. She has now returned to Uganda to spearhead the new campaign and to pursue a civil lawsuit against the government ministers who sanctioned the raid on her home.

In Uganda, male homosexuality is illegal under archaic laws imposed during the period of British colonial rule. Section 140 of the country’s penal code criminalises “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Section 141 bans “attempts at carnal knowledge,” stipulating a maximum penalty of seven years jail; while section 143 punishes “gross indecency” between men in public or private and authorises a top sentence of five years.

The Ugandan government openly flouts international human rights conventions that guarantee equal rights and non-discrimination, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights which Uganda ratified in 1986 and has promised to uphold.

The escalating attacks on LGBTI people began in 1999, when a state-owned newspaper reported that President Museveni had ordered the arrest and imprisonment of homosexuals. The New Vision newspaper quoted Museveni as saying: “I have told the Criminal Investigations Department to look for homosexuals, lock them up and charge them.”

Five years later, in 2004, government minister, Nsaba Buturo, ordered the police to investigate and “take appropriate action” against a gay organisation at Makerere University.

The following year, President Museveni signed a constitutional amendment that made same-sex marriages illegal. Article 31 of the constitution now states “marriage between persons of the same sex is prohibited.”

The government has also attempted to silence discussion of rights for LGBTI people. The country’s Broadcasting Council fined a radio station for hosting a discussion involving a lesbian and two gay men, where they called for greater understanding of LGBTI people and for the anti-sodomy law to be repealed.

The media is also guilty of rabid homophobia. In 2006 and again this month, the tabloid newspaper, Red Pepper, outed dozens of alleged lesbians and gay and bisexual men. The paper claimed it was doing this in order to “show the nation how fast the terrible vice known as sodomy is eating up our society.” You can read samples of the lurid, shock-horror, gay-baiting headlines and news stories on the OutRage! photo website:

Outrage photo website

The pervasive “state homophobia,” as Human Rights Watch has called it, together with the allied media witch-hunts, make it all the more extraordinary and praiseworthy that members of SMUG have taken such a public and defiant stand in defence of LGBTI equality. Their courage is truly inspirational. In defending LGBTI rights against an increasingly authoritarian state, they are ultimately defending the liberties and human rights of all Ugandans – gay and straight. Bravo!