‘They want us to disappear’

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‘They want us to disappear’


Sophie Neiman speaks to people risking everything to change Uganda’s strict new anti-gay law.

In a quiet suburb of the Ugandan capital of Kampala, Henry Mukiibi runs a health clinic without any drugs. It is one of the few places LGBTQI+ people can safely receive treatment. But the shelves are empty. No painkillers, no bandages, no antiseptics. Police took them a few months ago.

‘There was something behind it,’ Mukiibi says. ‘They thought they’d take our drugs, and we would close.’ He identifies as bisexual and is an activist leading the Children of the Sun Foundation, Uganda.

The police action shows the problems Mukiibi and other LGBTQI+ people faced after Uganda’s government passed one of the strictest anti-gay laws in the world in May 2023. The Anti-Homosexuality Act threatens anyone found ‘guilty’ of same sex relations with imprisonment and even death. The Act has already led to more harassment and prejudice.

The Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) is a law clinic and suport organization in Kampala. In September 2023 alone, it recorded 68 attacks against the LBGTQI+ community. It thinks there have been about 140 attacks against LGBTQI+ persons since the Act.

‘Many cases of violence are not reported,’ says HRAPF director and lawyer Adrian Jjuuko. Civil society organizations like HRAPF can’t do very much, and it is often dangerous for LGBTQI+ people to go to the police as they are afraid the police will ignore or arrest them.

We meet in the clinic. Mukiibi sends me a text message to say that there are two people in for treatment – someone beat them in homophobic attacks. A photo with the text message shows a young man with blood pouring from his left leg onto the floor. His face is full of pain. Mukiibi worries about how to get enough medicine, with the stores empty and very little money.

In this terrible situation, LGBTQI+ people talk about fear and almost non-stop threat, but also about how they are certain they will protest against the law in court in Uganda and continue to live as themselves.

Life gets harder

The difficulties for Uganda’s LGBTQI+ community are not new. The country’s laws come from British colonial rule and they made gay sex illegal. They almost never used that law but it helped to encourage violent homophobia in Uganda. There was an earlier Anti-Homosexuality Act passed in 2014, but it was not used for some legal reasons.

Then, in 2023, parliamentarian Asuman Basalirwa brought the Act back. A big majority passed it – 387 out of 389 parliamentarians voted for it. In May 2023, President Yoweri Museveni signed it into law.

This latest law is stricter and has new punishments. Anyone guilty of sex with a child, or a person with mental or physical disabilities, or transmission of a terminal illness, or even repeating an offence – can face death.

The penalty for attempted gay sex increased to 10 years. Landlords guilty of ‘facilitating homosexuality’ face nearly as long in prison. This could make it a crime for providing housing for LGBTIQI+ people. HRAPF says there are already many evictions. Landlords face 20 years in prison for ‘promoting homosexuality’. If you do not report same-sex acts, that is also possibly a crime.

In just a few months, it has made life harder for LGBTIQI+ people.

Jonathan (not his real name) lives in a shelter on the outskirts of Kampala. There are skyscrapers, dirt roads, and goats eating thin grass. ‘I can’t be myself,’ he says quietly outside his new home. ‘I can’t go on dates… I don’t have a job.’

Before, Jonathan worked at an insurance company and dreamed of becoming an actor. And then one of his bosses began to show an interest in him. Jonathan said no. The Anti-Homosexuality Act was new and he was afraid, so he tried to say no as kindly as possible.

But the older man told his co-workers that Jonathan was gay and Jonathan lost his job. That was just the beginning of his problems. His landlord threatened to evict him. Neighbours stole his clothes from the drying line to try to make him leave. A group of attackers beat him, cut his hands and arms, and shouted homophobic insults.

‘I was already really tired,’ Jonathan says quietly. ‘I didn’t care much. I just wanted to stay alive.’

A friend brought Jonathan to Mukiibi’s clinic. There, workers gently treated his injuries. Afterwards, Mukiibi told him to move to a small shelter he had. Jonathan was nervous. He heard about police raiding shelters in Uganda and making arrests, but he had no choice.

evangelical-christian-preacher-kampala-uganda-antigay-law.jpg An evangelical Christian preacher on the streets of Kampala, Uganda on 23 February 2016. GODONG/ALAMY

A legal fight

Jjuuko’s HRAPF is trying to stop the law through Uganda’s court. We talk from the back seat of his car as he rushes from engagement to engagement. The driver finds his way between late-afternoon traffic and potholes filled with water from the autumn rainy season.

Jjuuko and others say that the Anti-Homosexuality Act is against Chapter Four of the Ugandan constitution, the country’s bill of rights. They also say there was not enough time for members of parliament to think about it.

Young activists joined and talk about the harms of the law. Eric Ndawula is one of the young activists. He says, ‘This law creates fear. It makes us lose hope. It makes us think that we are second-class citizens. They want us to disappear.’

Ndawula identifies as gay and runs Lifeline Youth Empowerment Centre. He says that the law is an attack on his personal life. ‘I love rainbows, not because they are a gay symbol, but because I am a colourful person,’ he says. ‘I have my rainbow clothes, but I am scared to put them on, because somebody will see me and say this person is gay... I’m scared to be myself on a normal day. I am scared about where I go, who I talk to, how I talk to them, how they see me.’

Ndawula knew he was different from the time he was a boy. Schoolmates made fun of him for having a high voice and acting in a womanly way. He tried to be more manly. He changed the way he walked and spoke, and practised being something else. It didn’t work. ‘In the end I was gayer,’ he jokes.

Pastor Martin Ssempa is one of the strongest defenders of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Videos of Ssempa talking about the dangers of homosexuality have gone viral on the internet and he plans to write a 500-page book aaginst same-sex relations.

I meet him in the Kampala courtroom after the same session where I met Ndawula. Ssempa was supporting the government and its law. ‘Europe and America have tried to bring homosexuality to Africa using words like “human rights”, “HIV-AIDS work”, and many others,’ he says.

Ssempa says the LGBTQI+ community has not suffered since the act. He says they pretended people mistreated them to get money and international visas. ‘One of the biggest problems we have is fake hate crimes,’ Ssempa says.

henri-mukiibi-kampala-health-clinic-lgbtqi-antigay-law.jpg Henry Mukiibi leads the Children of the Sun Foundation and runs a Kampala health clinic to treat LGBTQI+ people. SOPHIE NEIMAN Everyone is at risk

Apako Williams identifies as a trans man. He leads the Tranz Network Uganda. He says religious people – like Ssempa – have made people hate LGBTQI+ people in Uganda. ‘Religion is powerful and it is a powerful way to attack homosexuals,’ Williams says. He says he will fight the anti-gay law for the LGBTQI+ community, but also because he sees it as a threat to gaining more support from possible allies.

The Act is not clear and talks about crimes from publishing materials about LGBTQI+ people, about giving the community money. Journalists, lawyers, and activist organizations are all possible targets.

In September 2023, people from Uganda’s national NGO Bureau asked for a meeting at Adrian Jjuuko’s HRAPF office. They came with written questions, and a copy of the petition Jjuuko and his colleagues sent to court.

‘After the meeting I was almost in no doubt that people are investigating us for supporting homosexuality,’ he says. ‘This comes with 20 years in prison for the director.’

Jjuuko will continue his legal work, but he must be careful. He has taken away reports and materials with rainbows from the HRAPF office.

Jjuuko has faced problems before. He spent years homeless after his parents died of AIDS. ‘After coming from the streets to be a lawyer, it was, for me, something that I had to use to serve the community,’ he says.

Asuman Basalirwa is a parliamentarian and the author of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. I telephone him to ask exactly what the Act says. Does it mean that sympathetic organizations or journalists are in danger? ‘Sorry, but for you to understand, you must read the law,’ he says.

He says, ‘There is nothing new about the Act and I don’t understand why, of all the laws that I have brought, this one has this kind of attention, both locally and internationally.’

Playing politics

Fox Odoi-Oywelowo was one of the only members of Uganda’s parliament to be against the law. This came with personal consequences. Politicians booed and shouted at him when he tried to speak against the act. He says there were threats against his children. But he is not worried and he is challenging the act in court.

Odoi-Oywelowo says the Anti-Homosexuality Act is just a way to take the public’s attention away from the allegations of corruption in parliament. He talks about other allegations that Western evangelicals worked closely with their Ugandan friends to support the Act, just as people said they did before in 2014.

‘We relaxed. We went to sleep. They did not. They continued working every day in churches. They went to schools talking to little children, went to villages, working for that law,’ Odoi-Oywelowo says about Christian groups. He was strongly against the 2014 act.

Shortly before the Anti-Homosexuality Act came into law, the Ugandan government hosted a conference called ‘Protecting African Culture and Family Values’. One of the speakers was Sharon Slater, of the Family Watch International in Arizona. The organizations campaigned against gay marriage and abortion and is on the list of hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Centre in the United States.

At the same time, Basalirwa supported the law and said the Anti-Homosexuality Act is something Ugandans want. ‘This law is welcomed by members of the ruling party in parliament, members of the opposition, and the general public,’ he says. But people in Uganda and across the world are very much against the Act. Soon after the Act was law, Basalirwa told reporters that they cancelled Anitah Among’s United States visa. She is the Speaker of the House.

In August, the World Bank stopped funding to Uganda. Many months later, the United States expelled Uganda from the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Before, the Act gave Uganda duty free access to more than 1,800 American exports.

‘I think this act is the biggest economic action against Uganda,’ says Odoi-Oywelowo. ‘We are just recovering from the effects of Covid. Then we give ourselves this big disadvantage, this unnecessary and unwanted Act.’

At the same time, campaign groups, including Amnesty International, asked the country to top the act. Human Rights Watch was also against it. human-rights-uganda-lawyer-nicholas-opiyo-odoi-oywelowo-petition-antigay-law.jpg Human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo and MP Fox Odoi-Oywelowo with Ugandan lawyers file a petition against the anti-gay law at the court in Kampala, Uganda on 2 October 2023. ABUBAKER LUBOWA/REUTERS


These politics do not interest young people hiding in shelters, unable to work, and away from friends and family. ‘I can’t be here forever. I need a life,’ Jonathan says sadly.

Looking after the shelter where Jonathan lives is hard work for Henry Mukiibi. He says that the landlord is asking for more money. Mukiibi is afraid that they will evict the twelve or so residents. ‘I can’t do any more,’ he says in a text message. This is not unusual. Generous’s (not his real name) family threw him out for being gay in 2018, many years before the Anti-Homosexuality Act. He lives on the streets, he bought a loaf of bread with the money he saved, and ate one slice per day. In the end, Generous found a place in a safe house run by Mukiibi and he earned money by washing clothes for his housemates. They often did sex work to live.

He rents his own house now with a roommate, on the outskirts of Kampala. ‘I’m seeing my fellow community members experiencing the same thing that I also experienced,’ Generous says. He really wants to help others still suffering. But he is afraid. All the news he hears about violence and harassment makes him think he could be next.

‘I wish I was born in a country that really welcomes my sexuality. I didn’t wake up in the morning and choose to be a gay person. If possible, I don’t think that I would choose to be gay. Everyone hates us,’ he says sadly.

Even his home does not feel completely safe. ‘You can’t shout on the phone,’ he says as we sit on his living room floor, sharing bananas and tamarind soda, and speaking very quietly. ‘You never know if your neighbour can hear you.’

With more violence, Uganda’s LGBTQI+ community are waiting for a decision in the court case. The court case began in a hot and crowded court room in December 2023, with a decision to follow.

‘We hope the court will talk about the question of whether the Ugandan constitution protects every member of our society, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity,’ he says. ‘We have a chance to end this argument. The moment is now.’ Activists like Opiyo are also asking for the case to finish quickly. But no one is certain when there will be a decision. At the same time, they arrested two people on charges of homosexuality. They face the death penalty if the law continues. Another two men were arrested in Kampala in October 2023, accused of same-sex relations.

Early in January, Steven Kabuye, a young, LGBTQI+ campaigner, says some people riding a motorcycle stabbed him in the stomach and arms.

For Eric Ndawula, these problems tell him that homophobia in Uganda will not go away quickly if the Act stays or not. ‘It’s going to take us years to really change people’s minds or have a real conversation around homosexuality,’ he says.

But he takes strength in the other LGBTQI+ people. ‘The community is very strong,’ he says. ‘This is our country. We are Ugandans, we are here to stay. We are not going anywhere and the law is not going to stop us from existing.’

Apako Williams says that when his own family accepted him, he knew that a kinder world is possible. When he was young, he tried to do everything expected of a ‘good Muslim girl’. He stayed in a female dormitory at school and wore a head covering. Hiding himself was painful and, after his education, Williams told his parents that he was trans and identified as a man. At first his father was nervous. Williams’ brothers and sisters helped to explain. ‘It was just about them sitting down and understanding,’ he says. ‘Today my family is my biggest support.’

This success also reminds him it is important to talk about LGBTQI+. ‘Silence means death,’ he says. ‘The only thing that supports me every day is that there’s a community out there that can’t speak for themselves.’



(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)