The Current

Anti-LGBTQ bill passed in Uganda used as 'low-hanging fruit' to distract public, researcher says

Uganda’s parliament has passed anti-gay laws that include making it illegal to identify as gay or transgender. The laws carry penalties such as lengthy jail time or even a death sentence.

Members of Uganda’s parliament passed one of the toughest laws penalizing homosexuality on Tuesday

A man raises his hands in the air while wearing a long, white gown with any anti-LGBTQ message on it in black print.
Ugandan MP John Musira, who supported the country's hardline Anti-Homosexuality Bill that passed on Tuesday, wears a shirt that reads, 'Say no to homosexuality, lesbianism, gay.' (Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters)

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Laws and debates focused on LGBTQ people in Uganda and other surrounding countries are often used by politicians to distract the public from pressing issues, says researcher Oryem Nyeko.

Same-sex acts are already prohibited in Uganda under the country's penal code, but on Tuesday, all but two of Uganda's 389 members of parliament voted to pass the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2023 — a law that criminalizes identifying as LGBTQ.

"It's low-hanging fruit," Nyeko, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"It's being framed as something that's foreign and threatening to people's children."

Reports of corruption, restriction of free speech and the unlawful arrests of opposition leaders and critics are among many issues that continue to plague Uganda. 

In one example Nyeko pointed to, a report by Human Rights Watch details how military officers broke into the home of a government critic and satirical writer over tweets criticizing Uganda's president and his son. The critic was beaten, detained and charged for "offensive communication."

Wide shot of room in legislature with green carpet and breen benches all fully occupied.
All but two members of Uganda's 389 MPs voted to pass the recent anti-LGBTQ bill. (Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters)

It's problems like these that Nyeko says politicians want the public to forget about. 

"We're seeing similar patterns in other countries in the region. We've seen attacks on LGBTQ people in Burundi, very hostile rhetoric in Kenya and Tanzania from public figures and on social media. It's been extremely hostile," Nyeko said. 

In a crackdown on what was described as "homosexual practices," 24 people were arrested in late February during a seminar on fighting AIDS in Burundi, AFP reported. In Tanzania, the country's information minister warned the public against sharing pro-LGBTQ messages online or risk being arrested. 

More than 30 countries in the continent criminalize same-sex acts, but what's unfolding in Uganda appears to be the first in the region to explicitly outlaw merely identifying as LGBTQ.

A week leading up to the parliamentary vote, President Yoweri Museveni — who has a record of passing policies targeted at the LGBTQ community — described homosexuality as a "deviation from normal," adding that "Western countries should stop wasting the time of humanity by trying to impose their practices on other people."

Supporters of the new law said it is needed to punish a broader array of LGBTQ activities that they say threaten traditional values in the conservative and religious nation.

Concerns within the community 

Although the bill is pending presidential approval, Allan Nsubuga, a human rights activist and member of Uganda's gay community, says people are concerned with what lies ahead. 

"For me, personally, this law means that I have to change my life upside down," Nsubuga said. 

"I have to mind where I eat. I have to mind who I talk to. I can't see my parents as much. I can't be with my family. This law means that, literally, I am not a human being in this country."

A rainbow flag reading "Join hands to end LGBTI (Kuchu's) genocide is held by two men posing for the camera.
Ugandan men hold a rainbow flag that reads: 'Join hands to end LGBTI (called Kuchu in Uganda) genocide,' during a 2014 pride parade. (Isaac Kasamani/AFP/Getty Images)

Nsubuga, a clinical psychologist by profession, is already seeing a rise in mental health concerns within the community.

"It has taken a mental toll on so many people individually," they said. "Many people who are now having conversations that are homophobic, happening in their families, are having so many thoughts of suicide, so many thoughts of self-hate. We are all emotionally very vulnerable."

In addition to identifying as LGBTQ, the bill makes it an imprisonable offence to publish, broadcast or distribute content that advocates for gay rights. People engaged in same-sex relationships or marriage could face 10 years in jail, while a charge of what the bill calls "aggravated homosexuality" carries a sentence of life imprisonment and even the death penalty.

"If a law is passed that restricts people's rights in this way, then that just opens the door for more laws that are even more restrictive. And I think that just can't stand in a modern country," Nyeko said.

With files from Reuters. Audio produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo, Samira Mohyeddin and Najib Asil.

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