The convergence of homophobic legislation and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Africa creates a harrowing reality for gay men on the continent. Over the years, the global fight for LGBTQ+ rights and public health has made significant progress. However, several African countries continue to support and enforce laws that criminalize homosexuality.
Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni signed into law one of the world’s toughest pieces of anti-gay legislation on May 29th. It has immensely devastated LGBTQ+ communities across Africa, setting a dangerous precedent for countries like Kenya and Ghana to adopt similar laws. The Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023 stipulates long prison sentences and capital punishments for “aggravated homosexuality,” defying pressure from Western governments and drawing sanctions from donors.
A local paper deemed it the first major case since the enactment of the “Kill the Gays” law.
Uganda’s aggravated homosexuality laws not only criminalize same-sex relationships but also disproportionately target HIV-positive gay men by amplifying penalties for specific circumstances, including engaging in homosexual acts while being HIV-positive. This intersection exacerbates an already dire situation, reinforcing negative stereotypes and intensifying the discrimination and challenges faced by gay men living with HIV.
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The most devastating effect is the public health crisis triggered in countries with aggravated homosexuality laws. HIV-positive gay men in these countries fear discrimination from healthcare providers or criminal prosecution if they disclose their sexual orientation or HIV status. This fear results in delayed diagnosis and treatment, leading to worsening health outcomes.
Much of Africa does not recognize health care for LGBTQ+ individuals. It is NGOs in Africa who provide free healthcare for LGBTQ+ people. Now, these organizations are being targeted and forced to close for promoting homosexuality, which carries a 20-year prison sentence in Uganda, leaving LGBTQ+ people helpless and with no means of procuring treatments.
Akello, an HIV-positive man living in Uganda, described how his life drastically changed after the bill was signed.“I’ve been undetectable since I tested positive for HIV in 2017 and have been living my life with no regrets, but for the first time in six years I’m regretful and terrified,” Akello told LGBTQ Nation. “We’ve been told for years that HIV is not a death sentence, but the Ugandan government just made it one”.
The US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR), UNAids, and Global Fund released a joint statement expressing their deep concern for the harmful impacts of the new legislation. PEPFAR has also been instrumental in Uganda’s progress against HIV/AIDS by creating a ten-fold reduction in mother-to-child HIV transmission over the past two decades and averting nearly 600,000 HIV-related deaths with antiretroviral treatments in Uganda between 2004 and 2022.
One of the harrowing effects of these draconian laws is that it’s contributing to the already pervasive stigma surrounding both homosexuality and HIV/AIDS in Africa. A majority of Africans still believe HIV is some sort of punishment for homosexuality and are quick to espouse discriminatory HIV rhetoric when discussing LGBTQ+ topics. This stigma compounds when these two identities intersect, causing HIV-positive gay men to face double discrimination.
A Ghanaian MP, Sam George, the lead sponsor of Ghana’s anti-LGBTQ+ bill, was recently called out for equating homosexuality to rape and armed robbery in an interview.“Look at this failed human being attempting to call me out. Go deal with your HIV infection, which is a result of your homosexuality,” he tweeted in response to Rev Jide Macaulay, an openly HIV positive gay priest. He went on to brag about how homosexuality solely exacerbates HIV. The tweet garnered backlash from many people, including activists. “With ignorant people like this elected to make laws for countries in Africa, y’all still wonder why this continent is wallowing in poverty?” a Twitter user replied.
A similar pattern was also seen in another comment made by Kenyan MP George Kaluma, who recently drafted an anti-gay bill for the National Assembly of Kenya. “All research confirms homosexuals are more predisposed to HIV- AIDS. The World Bank has been captured by Big Pharmaceuticals to aid the spread of HIV- AIDS in Africa!” he wrote.
What do these men have in common? They are lawmakers. Initially, 387 members of Uganda’s parliament voted to execute gay people by firing squad, while MPs in Tanzania called for castration, triggering a surge in anti-LGBTQ+ attacks in the country.
Arguably, we can collectively agree that “aggravated homosexuality” laws are targeted laws used to perpetuate the misconception that HIV is inherently linked to homosexuality, further stigmatizing those living with HIV. MP Kaluma himself confirmed this when he replied to a Twitter user, saying “And you don’t know I’m fighting HIV by fighting homosexuality?”.
Kira, an LGBTQ+ Activist, described the legislation as a “calculated attack” on LGBTQ+ people.
“For years, politicians and lawmakers in Africa have been looking for various ways to oppress LGBTQ people without scrutiny and backlash from the West and international community. The rising debate on LGBTQ issues in America has emboldened African lawmakers to adopt similar tactics to attack the vulnerable LGBTQ communities across the continent.”
Another activist, Bandy Kiki, a trustee of Living Free UK, explained how social and political factors played a role in these laws against HIV-positive gay men in Uganda: “Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, is using anti-LGBTQ+ laws to divert attention from other pressing issues, such as economic challenges or political controversies. The new law serves as a political distraction and a means to consolidate power. He is aware that the LGBTQ+ community lacks representation in decision-making processes, is more vulnerable given the country’s anti-LGBT sentiment, and therefore faces greater challenges in contesting the discriminatory law.”
Aggravated homosexuality laws negatively affect the mental and emotional well-being of gay men, increase the risk of physical violence, and fragment LGBTQ+ communities, making it difficult for individuals to access peer support networks. The fear of arrest, discrimination, and extortion lead to increased stress, anxiety, and depression, impacting the ability of gay men to manage their health. These laws also provide authorities with a pretext to target HIV-positive gay men, leading to arbitrary arrests and police harassment.
Andrew Tendo, resident medical officer at a US-funded clinic, told Reuters that new waves of HIV infections were forming as vulnerable people stayed away from treatment centers, afraid of being identified and arrested under the new laws. “The LGBT community in Uganda is on lockdown now,” he said. “They don’t have preventive services. They cannot access condoms … they cannot access ARTs [antiretrovirals].”
Dr. Chike, a Nigerian Epidemiologist, described it as a “Huge Setback” in the fight against HIV and aids in Africa. “We’ve spent the last two decades enlightening people in Africa on the misconception about the virus and how to manage it with ARTs, so these heightened penalties for HIV-positive individuals have created obstacles to effective HIV prevention and education efforts. It has discouraged open dialogue about HIV/AIDS and safe practices, making it difficult to curb the spread of the virus.”
Moses and his best friend Bwanbale, are members of Uganda’s LGBTQ+ community who have been caught in the harsh reality of the new law and are currently doing whatever they can to ensure their survival. “Our clinic has been shut down since it was attacked three months ago, we’ve been rationing our medications at the moment until we figure out where to get new ones after the dust settles because things are really intense right now.”
Another HIV-positive gay man, Andrew, said he’s currently waiting on a miracle. “I just ran out of medication and honestly I don’t think I care anymore. Either way I have a death sentence so I don’t see a reason to fight,” he says. “Uganda is my home and it’s certain I’ll die here, at least I’d be at [more] peace if this virus takes me out than Museveni.”
For Akello, the new law feels like a death sentence, as it altered the trajectory of his life. “I have always known Uganda was homophobic, I just didn’t know they would be bold enough to carry out a modern-day genocide.”
*Some names have been changed for safety