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Uganda’s brutal anti-LGBTQ+ bill is making queer life there unbearable & it isn’t even law yet

A man covering his eyes with his hands with imprint of rainbow colors on his skin
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Earlier this month, the Ugandan parliament approved a bill that many believe to be the most extreme anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in history. Knowledge of the bill has gained momentum globally, with activists around the world urging Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni not to sign it into law.

The situation has placed the Ugandan LGBTQ+ community in shock.

“I feel like a loser somewhat because man, this event has ruined the leftover peace I have,” Emmanuel Sanyu*, a law student and human rights activist, told LGBTQ Nation. Sanyu said he recently tweeted about how emotionally drained he has been, adding that he’s feeling trapped. Staying off the radar has recently become his safety net.

“I mean it’s like we are being witch hunted. Every time I step out of my house, it feels like someone is out to get me. I am literally scared, really scared. Worst of all, my study is apparently on halt because I’m trying to let the heat cool off to avoid putting myself in danger.”

While the bill is yet to become law, it has already begun to threaten the security and well-being of LGBTQ+ Ugandans. In early March, John Kenyangi*, a health worker, was physically attacked by men who perceived him to be homosexual.

“They forced me to open my phone so they could find evidence that I was gay,” he told LGBTQ Nation.“I refused and they took me to an uncompleted building; they knelt me down and flogged me.”

For Kenyangi, opening his phone to his assailant meant further torture and possible handover to the police. So he remained compliant to their forces. At the closest opportunity, he sacrificed his phone and ran as fast as he could without looking back.

Though it has been weeks, he still finds himself wailing in disbelief that it happened. “My feelings have been a mess. It has been difficult to process that I went through that and am still okay. I’m just too scared of the world.”

Now, to keep himself safe, he stays home all day and only goes out at night to get supplies.

“It seems like I’m a demon now because everything I do is at night,” he said. “I stay inside all day and at night I go get what I would eat for two days and each time I leave, I try to look too masculine so people won’t be able to spot how feminine I appear. I so much hate how helpless I am but I can’t do anything about it, and that’s what makes me mad.”

The 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Act was introduced to the Ugandan parliament on March 9 by Asuman Basalirwa. It is a revision of the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act, which sought to punish homosexuality with life imprisonment and was ultimately struck down due to a procedural issue. But homosexuality has remained illegal in the country.

Over the past decade, the hovering threat of the Anti-Homosexuality Act has thrown the LGBTQ+ community into a constant cycle of abuse, extortion and harassment, but the new bill has exacerbated the situation even more. 

The new version not only punishes LGBTQ+ people for same-sex acts, but it also goes to the extreme of criminalizing anyone who even identifies as part of the community. The most severe portion punishes “aggravated homosexuality” with death and includes sex with someone who has HIV.

For Bryan Ayo*, it’s been hard to process the existence of the new bill. He has sought solace in denial, explaining to LGBTQ Nation that acclimatizing to bad situations has made him numb to worse situations.

“I would have said I don’t know, but I know things are not good… Some of us are used to situations being bad so we don’t even realize anymore how bad it is until we start communicating.”

Keeping himself safe has become a major priority.

“I’m keeping safe in terms of personal security, avoiding meeting friends in a group. I’m also using VPN, different phone and private numbers so that people can’t reach out and blackmail me. Also keeping family and friends out of reach for a bit because I don’t want to expose them to the threat. Because if I’m outed, it could humiliate them deeply.”

He recalled how a conversation about the bill infiltrated the gym he visits and how it was boldly supported by other gym members.

“I couldn’t join the conversations because I might feel the need to go on the defensive and that can warrant them changing the scenario and attacking me too. The violence is everywhere… Even the police can pick up on you if you are feminine presenting and ask you why you are behaving like that. It’s really very unsafe.”

The international backlash against the bill has been of immense importance to the community.

Both home and abroad, activists, allies and human rights bodies have taken to social media to publicly disapprove of the bill. In a tweet, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the bill “would undermine fundamental human rights of all Ugandans.” and strongly urged its dismissal.

“I’m scared for my life and at the same time so angry that this has become our fate,” Major*, a gym coach, told LGBTQ Nation. “LGBT people in Uganda deserve protection from the right to life all the way to privacy.”

“What hurts me so much is that they have labeled gay love as pedophilia,” he says. “It should be noted that the constitution of the Republic of Uganda already provides for unnatural sexual offenses in the penal code. Many have raised concern on recruitment and pedophilia, however it should be noted that the cases of pedophilia are higher in heterosexuals in Uganda.” 

While the Ugandan government is hellbent on introducing the law as a means to protect kids, part of the law also punishes minors who identify as queer or are caught committing same-sex acts with up to 3 years in prison. 

“Criminalizing homosexuality is infringing on the right to privacy and criminalizes consent,” said Major. “We don’t deserve this torture with all that’s going on in the country. I’m so sad.” He added that he decided to go off queer dating sites as a means to keep himself safe and allow him the ability to go back into the closet.

What has kept the community going is hope that the situation could change.

“Have you ever been in a situation where you feel like it’s just you battling against the world?” Sanyu asked. “I mean you would still want to survive right? Apparently, that’s how I feel: I am hoping to survive. I hope to find a place where I will be free from the threats, persecution and fear.” He also hopes to accomplish his legal studies and to be able to use his voice to fight for the rights of Ugandan minorities. 

For Ayo, the prospect of the bill becoming law is terrifying, but he still believes that a miracle might happen that could stop the president from signing the bill.

“We’ve seen a lot of support from international organizations, all of them writing letters of encouragement, sending support and persuading against the law. I hope they continue because we need it so much and it’s also nice when it’s coming within Africa, it shows that people care and respect human rights.” 

Major is keen to conscientize the government. “I really hope that both the previous law and this new bill is repealed. The Ugandan government needs to understand that we are human beings and like every human being, we deserve our rights to life.”

*Names have been changed for safety

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