As the new “Kill the Gays” law passed last week by Uganda’s Parliament awaits a signature from the country’s president, LGBTQ+ youth in “safehouses” in the East African nation fear for what’s next.
About 20 shelters are refuges for LGBTQ+ youth in Uganda with nowhere else to go after being kicked out of their homes by family or turned away from schools, jobs, or housing because of their identity.
After Ugandan police arrested Ali (not his real name) in a raid on an underground gay bar in 2019, the young man’s father told him, “You’re not my child. I can’t have a child like you,” Ali told the BBC.
“He was searching for me to beat me, but my mother told me to hide. I did not have a plan, but I knew I had to leave home.”
Ali, now in his mid-20s, kept his sexuality secret because Uganda, a very Christian nation, was already hostile to “sexual minorities”; homosexual sex has long been illegal in the country, earning prison time for offenders.
Now, the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Bill mandates prison for life for anyone identifying as gay and the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.”
“Everyone is saying we are not normal, that we are not human beings. But this is what I am. I have contemplated going back home, but my father would never let me back into his house,” Ali says.
“The only thought on my mind is: ‘Where will I go?'”
Another provision of the law criminalizes leasing property “for the purpose of undertaking activities that encourage homosexuality,” which would make the shelters that Ali and other young men take refuge in illegal.
Those safehouses could also be considered “brothels.”
“We normally have about 10 to 15 people in a shelter at any time,” says John Grace, the coordinator at the Uganda Minority Shelters Consortium, an umbrella organization that funds and helps coordinate the network of LGBTQ+ safehouses.
“In the event that the current shelter occupants are kicked out by the landlord, we do not have any viable options,” says Grace. “If the bill is signed by the president, we could face legal persecution, violence, discrimination and stigma for availing safe housing to homeless sexual minorities, as well as identifying as sexual minorities ourselves.”
While he managed to find shelter four years ago, Ali, a former restaurant worker, has still faced persecution, enduring an unprovoked attack for being gay that landed him in hospital and a raid on one shelter that put him in prison for two months.
In 2020, months into the pandemic, “The shelter was raided by the police,” Ali recalls. “We were lined up and the public called to stare at us, mock and humiliate us. People were spitting on us.”
Ali and about 20 other men from the shelter were arrested and charged with violating pandemic restrictions.
“A warden who had seen the details of our case file ordered other inmates to beat us. He joined in, too.”