In March this year, the Ugandan parliament passed a law with only two dissenting votes that punishes homosexuality with draconian penalties. The death penalty is envisaged for homosexual acts deemed “serious”. This includes homosexual sex with minors, with people over 75 years of age, with HIV-infected persons or wards. Otherwise are for same-sex relationships Prison sentences of up to ten years planned. Persons harboring, providing medical treatment or legal assistance to homosexual people can also be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has to sign it for the law to come into force. But he can also veto or send the bill back to Parliament with a demand for it to be rewritten. The deadline for this is this week, and that’s why the world is glued to Uganda.
President under pressure
On Thursday (April 20, 2023) Museveni called the MPs of the ruling party to a meeting to discuss the law before making a decision. Sources close to Museveni’s office said the president is likely to reject the current draft law and send it back to parliament for reconsideration, according to AFP. The reason for this: threats of sanctions from the USA and political pressure from the West.
LGBTQ scene in distress
Meanwhile, the LGBTQ scene in Uganda is being pushed more and more underground. LGBTQ organizations, cultural institutions that often serve as safe spaces for the LGBTQ community, and the arts scene are affected.
Where does this hatred against the LGBTQ community in Uganda come from? DW spoke to Ugandan anthropologist and pro-LGBTQ activist Stella Nyanzi and Ugandan human rights activist Edward Mutebi about Ugandan society. Both live in exile. In Uganda itself, there are few cultural leaders who comment on the situation – also for fear of censorship and persecution.
Homosexuality a western construct?
To justify enforcing the law, Ugandan politicians claim that they have strong support in society for it – they see homosexuality as “un-African”. Ugandan LGBTQ activist Edward Mutebi, who lives and studies as a refugee in Berlin, sees things differently. He told DW that homosexuality had always been present in his culture: homophobic ideas first came to Uganda through colonization and later through US missionaries.
Many of the American evangelists who came to Uganda in the 1990s are still there and poisoning the discourse, Stella Nyanzi explains: “We have a number of churches where the leading pastor is an American. Pastor Martin Ssempa, one of the most outspoken homophobics and a key player in the anti-gay movement is married to an American.” A lot of misinformation is being spread in society today by priests like him.
But the basic problem is that Uganda is still strongly influenced by the colonial era – more than 60 years after the official end of British colonial rule. Because with colonial rule, Christianity also came to Uganda, Nyanzi notes.
Homosexuality is said to be “un-African”.
On the African continent, the condemnation of homosexuality as something “un-African” is being pursued with zeal, especially in conservative Christian circles – although viewed historically, Christianity is itself an import from the West. Nigerian LGBTQ activist Bisi Alimi writes in the British daily Guardians: “While Africans argue that homosexuality is a Western import, they in turn invoke a Western religion as the basis for their argument.” Many people would justify their homophobic views by saying homosexuality is not in the Bible. There is “real confusion about Africa’s past,” concludes Alimi.
The human rights activist Stella Nyanzi was arrested several times in Uganda and has been living in exile in Germany since the beginning of 2022
“The British missionaries created the Protestant Anglican Church of Uganda, which is affiliated with the Church of England,” explains Nyanzi. A large part of today’s hostility towards homosexuals is due to this.
“Without western influence, politicians would debate naked in parliament”
Mutebi finds the argument that homosexuality is a Western import product ridiculous. “MPs drive Western cars and wear Western clothes. Some spend a lot of time in Western countries. We have MPs who, if they fall ill, are flown out of the country to get medical care in the West. So if they are of Western influence speak, then we have a lot of it in Uganda.”
Without western influences, members of parliament would “discuss parliamentary issues naked,” he says indignantly. The fact that they are now denouncing Western influence is hypocritical.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has yet to sign the anti-gay law into law for it to come into force
A Ugandan king is said to have been gay
Edward Mutebi is from the Buganda region of Uganda. “One of the kings of my culture is said to have been gay,” he says. “Kabaka Mwanga II. Homosexuality is nothing new in our society. It has always been there.”
At the end of the 19th century, Mwanga II ruled over the then powerful independent kingdom of Buganda, which encompasses the core region of present-day Uganda. Stella Nyanzi states: “Our king has been shown to have had sex with young male courtesans even before contact with the Europeans.” When some of the pages at his court converted to Christianity and no longer wanted to satisfy him sexually, Mwanga had them killed. “They are considered martyrs in Christianity today, but nobody talks openly about the fact that they actually died because they refused their sexual services to the king,” says Nyanzi, who has been imprisoned several times in Uganda and has been a fellow of the German writers’ association PEN since the beginning of 2022 lives in exile in Munich.
The cultural scene is largely silent
The draft anti-gay law relates to the protection of Ugandan culture. But the cultural arguments in the legal text forget, according to Nyanzi, “that we have many artists who are popular in Uganda. The sexual orientation of many is not known. If people knew that the person to whose music they sing, is a gay man, then maybe the hate wouldn’t be so great and widespread.”
Only: There is a lack of cultural role models and other people from public life who could convince society at large that the anti-homosexual law should not be implemented.
“So many religious people are speaking out against homosexuality. But so far no cultural spokesmen have come forward. Culture means a lot in Uganda,” Edward Mutebi points out.
Why doesn’t the king of Buganda make a sign?
A prominent opponent of the law is the journalist Andrew Mwenda, who received the American International Press Freedom Award in 2008 for his “special contributions to press freedom”. He is also a politician in the governing party, the National Resistance Movement. “Nevertheless, he is very vocal in support of LGBTQ people,” Mutebi points out. “Just recently, in an interview, he described the entire law as superfluous.”
The King of Buganda, descendant of Mwanga II, could also take a stand and set an example. But he hasn’t done that yet, as Edward Mutebi notes indignantly. “My king hasn’t commented on the persecution of homosexuals. He’s a cultural leader, the leader of the entire institution of my culture, and he’s been silent on that.”
The LGBTQ scene has been pushed more and more underground for years
But actually it would be high time to speak up. Because the LGBTQ scene has been pushed more and more underground in recent years. “That frustrated me,” explains Edward Mutebi, “as soon as the government found out that there were places that were supporting or hosting LGBTQ people, they were evicted and the people were arrested.” As an example, he cites a bar called RAM.
“It was a kind of creative space for LGBTQ people. They met there every Sunday. But in 2019 it was stormed by the police and everyone who was there was detained – more than 100 people. The bar was then closed . To this day there is no open gay or LGBTQ space in all of Uganda. All places, all safe spaces for LGBTQ people have been closed. There are some queer artists in Uganda but they are keeping a low profile due to the current situation.”
According to Mutebi, the new law would restrict cultural spaces even more. “Accordingly, homosexuals are no longer allowed to have their own cultural spaces. So, for example, if someone wants to rent a space and want to turn it into a cultural center or a queer bar or a queer club – no one is legally allowed to make a space available unless you give a person If you make your apartment available or rent a room to LGBTQ people or homosexuals, you are also committing an offense yourself.”
In any case, Stella Nyanzi sees a glimmer of hope in Uganda’s cultural workers. Because they could trigger a rethink in Ugandan society – if they dare to come out from under cover. The singer Sheebah Karungi is a good example of this. “She has worn rainbow patterned clothing several times to perform. A lot of people dance to her music without knowing if she’s gay or not. Those are subtle messages. Like that of Andrew Mwenda, who once wore rainbow socks on TV.”