The Ugandan Anti Homosexuality Act, 2023 embodies that uncomfortable adage, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” because Uganda is now in the same human rights dilemma as it was a decade ago. Last month, a 20-year-old man become the first person to be charged under the new legislation signed into law this May. He could face the death penalty for the charge of alleged “aggravated homosexuality”.
Since the colonial era, the legislative memory of Uganda has labelled homosexuality an “unnatural offence” under Section 145 of the Penal Code Act. Yet, ours is a society where legislation is produced from religious and traditional compulsions as opposed to fair governance. Back in 2014, a new law was loudly publicised and enacted on 24 February that year. That law incited fatal attacks on people “accused” of being homosexual. The Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2014 was, however, successfully challenged by civil society, including human rights activists such as Pepe Julian Onziema. But even though the law was annulled in 2014 itself, the tension around sexual minorities in Uganda has persisted. And now the past has surfaced again.
On 9 March 2023, the Ugandan government began efforts to pass an Anti-Homosexuality Bill again. As the bill was debated on the floor of the parliament, the social and digital memories of 10 years ago were awakened. The “Why are you gay?” body of memes took on fresh prominence online and even more targeted attacks made their way into private DMs and public comments about those suspected of being gay.
A new anti-homosexuality law
In April, before enacting the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2023 into law, President Yoweri Museveni returned the bill to parliament for amendment. The president’s directive required distinction between someone who professes a homosexual lifestyle and one who commits proscribed homosexual acts. On 4 May, the parliament returned an amended bill to the president, which he assented to on 26 May.
The president's directive may have been included in the fine print of the law, but that certainly did not erase the inked "license to kill".
Section 14, Subsection 1 of the Anti-Homosexuality Act states that anyone who has reasonable suspicion “that a person has committed or intends to commit” homosexuality, shall report that person to the police. Anyone can choose to express their contempt against a neighbour, an ex-lover or any enemy using this law. In this context, it may be critical to ask, “Do you love thy neighbour as you love yourself?” In daily reality, neighbours have quarrels and people often respond to heartache with malice. What protection is there against each other’s hatred? In an interview with Open Democracy, Fox Odoi-Oywelowo, one of the two members of parliament who voted against the bill, noted that “Nelson Mandela held the view that love is inherent and inborn. Hate, on the other hand, is taught.”
Some pieces of the new law such as Section 8 articulating offences against “child grooming” should be implemented to supplement other existing laws, which would help in the fight against the rampant rape culture in Uganda. Instead, the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023 weaponises hatred with legislative accommodation. In the case of the 20-year-old man charged under the new law with “aggravated homosexuality” for allegedly “performing unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 41-year-old man, the charge might result in a death penalty sentence upon conviction.
The new law as enacted in a homophobic society is now potentially in malicious people’s hands and that is dangerous in today’s Uganda. It’s no wonder that most LGBTQIA+ people do not want to surface publicly or express themselves freely. “I had moved away from my homicidal anger against this law. Don’t take me back,” said one person when approached for a comment about the new law.
As I researched people’s responses to this law, I found that many held contemptuous attitudes against LGBTQIA+ people, attitudes often powered by digital misinformation and false narratives. This has a dangerous precedent. Back in 2011, a tabloid published an article listing names of people alleged to be homosexual, including their addresses, under a headline calling for their execution. David Kato, who was murdered in his home by a hammer-wielding man, was on that list.
Even as the parliament tabled and amended the Anti-Homosexuality Bill presented by MP Asuman Basalirwa this year, the rainbow fear rose. In January, Kenyan fashion icon and queer rights activist Edwin Chiloba was found dead, violently disfigured, and thenceforth #JusticeForEdwinChiloba trended on social media. Human rights activists suspect that his death is linked to his sexuality and activism. Now, a few months after the new law was enacted, Uganda has witnessed a stream of cases of violence against persons “suspected” of homosexuality.
The Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), one of the named petitioners against the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023, presented a daunting report of such cases reported through its legal aid division. As of July, HRAPF had recorded 23 cases involving threats of violence or actual violence against people suspected of being homosexual.
Digital homophobia fed by old biases and a new law
“I deleted my social media accounts even though I had grown a huge following,” said one Ugandan lifestyle influencer. “I had to change my number because someone called me repeatedly from different numbers. Every other time, it would be under the guise of a social media fashion gig and I would reach out, only to receive threats. Then I received a DM with my location when I was at a public event! It became clear that someone was out to get me.”
Frank Mugisha, a human rights activist, recently published a social media post on X simply marking how it had been “60 days since Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023.” Mugisha’s post received several hateful comments like “Muli bisilu nyo (You are all so stupid),” while another said, “Try bring your solidarity on Kampala streets then you face you last times on this planet (sic).” The anonymity of digital discourse continues to allow for the spread of online harassment and provides space for those brainwashed into homophobia.
Mental health implications
Section 15 of this new law criminalises false sexual allegations too. If it can somehow be proven that the person you accused of homosexual acts did not commit them, then you can be convicted, and imprisoned for a year. Not much comfort to those accused of being gay who face violence in form of mob beatings, rape, torture and death. As South African comedian Trevor Noah wrote in his autobiography, Born a Crime, “We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others because we don’t live with them.” The economical, physical, sociological and psychological effects of the Anti-Homosexuality Act on persons who identify as gay cannot be ignored. This law has already subjected people to fear, isolation, bullying and online harassment, factors that expose humans to mental illness, depression and suicidal ideation.
“Natya nyo! (I was so freaked out!),” one anonymous source recounted. “I deleted all my images with my friends because it seems like any closeness with even your sister can be criminalised!”
A host of groups have petitioned the courts to injunct the implementation of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023. Meanwhile, digitally on social media, especially Instagram and X, the hashtag #RepealAHA2023 continues to trend ever since the law’s publication in the Uganda Gazette on 30 May 2023.
As currently enforced, this new law encourages James Bond’s infamous ‘license to kill’. For most people, homosexuality equates to any difference, however slight, that is embodied in their neighbor, i.e., someone may laugh a certain a way and the pitch of their laughter is used as ‘reasonable suspicion’ for homosexuality.
The compulsory heterosexuality imposed on our country exposes us as suffering from what Brazilian educator Paulo Freire cautioned as the “absence of doubt” – one that threatens to cost us our humanity. Our legislature ought to be architects of a society that encourages love instead of hatred.
Image: Facade with Poster of President Yoweri Museveni - Outside Kisoro - Southwestern Uganda by Adam Jones via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)