Beatings, arrests, fear and broken dreams: Uganda’s draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act one year on

It has been one year since Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni signed the country’s “gay law”, aka the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act, into effect, with LGBTQ+ people living in fear of arrest and the death penalty.

The passage of the legislation sent shockwaves around the world with activists, human rights organisations and world leaders universally condemning it.

In response, the World Bank cut off new lending to the Ugandan government over the “deeply repressive” law, the European Union denounced it and US president Joe Biden wrote to the House speaker and president of the Senate in October declaring his plan to end the US’s economic relationship with Uganda over “gross violations” of human rights.

Julius Malema and Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters picket against Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill at the Uganda High Commission on April 04, 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Frennie Shivambu/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

LGBTQ+ camapigner Steven Kabuye, who was stabbed nearly to death because of his activism in the country, said that one year on the legislation “has gone on to be more consequential than ever” for queer Ugandans.

“A series of human rights violations leads the way. I myself I’ve been a victim of the hate it came with. Many of my kind in Uganda are still dreaming of the freedom it eroded away from them. Do not forget about Uganda,” he urged.

What is the Anti-Homosexuality Act?

On 29 May 2023, president Museveni – who previously called declared that homosexuals are “deviants”gave assent to the Anti-Homosexuality Act. The bill immediately became one of the strictest pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in the world and was passed to apparently “protect the sanctity of family”.

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The Ugandan parliament initially approved an earlier version of the bill in March 2023 which criminalised people for simply identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community. However, this clause was later removed by lawmakers after Museveni returned the bill to parliament for reconsideration. 

The Act doubled down on already cruel sanctions imposed on LGBTQ+ people in Uganda, where same-sex sexual acts and freedom to talk about queer topics were already illegal.

The legislation still punishes homosexuality with imprisonment for up to life but also introduced the new offence of ‘aggravated homosexuality’, which carries the death penalty.

A parade goer holds a sign in solidarity with Uganda during the Gay Pride Parade on July 01, 2023 in London, England. (peter Nicholls/Getty Images for Pride In London)

Acts defined as ‘aggravated homosexuality’ include sexual activity with disabled people, those who are HIV positive and people aged 75 and over – with consent to the sexual act not constituting a defence to a charge. This category also applies to criminal offences such as rape of a child or adult and incest.

‘Attempted homosexuality’ is also punishable by law, with a punishment of up to 10 years in prison possible, while ‘attempted aggravated homosexuality’ can be met with up to 14 years imprisonment.

The legislation also intensifies censorship of LGBTQ+ issues where people can be punished by a fine or five-year prison term for ‘promoting homosexuality’ or use electronic devices for the ‘purposes of homosexuality’.

Someone simply advocating for LGBTQ+ rights could also be jailed for 20 years and landlords knowingly renting to LGBTQ+ people face up to a seven-year prison sentence.

What is the situation like now for queer Ugandans?

Following the legislation being given assent, it was not long before LGBTQ+ Ugandans were being targeted with the new laws and faced a huge increase in abuse.

A report from a committee of the Convening for Equality (CFE) coalition found the Anti-Homosexuality Act was – unsurprisingly – putting LGBTQ+ people at risk and in danger but revealed such danger was mostly coming from private individuals, rather than government authorities.

Between 1 January and 31 August 2023 the researchers found 306 rights violations in the East African based on the victims’ sexual orientation and gender identity, with just 25 of those carried out by state actors. The report noted there has been an increase in “mob-aided arrests” with the public feeling they are the “custodians of enforcing the witch hunt”.

This report, however, should not be considered exhaustive due to the issues queer Ugandans face in reporting anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice and abuse.

In August, PinkNews reported that a number of citizens had been detained and charged under the new law, including the arrest of four people at a massage parlour allegedly engaging in same-sex activity and one man charged with ‘aggravated homosexuality’ and subsequently facing the death penalty.

A Ugandan man with a sticker on his face takes part on August 9, 2014 in the annual gay pride in Entebbe, Uganda. (ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking with PinkNews in November, the executive director of LGBTQ+ group Uganda’s Children of the Sun Foundation (COSF) Henry Mukiibi was forced to flee to Nairobi in Kenya after receiving information that the authorities wanted to arrest him under the anti-LGBTQ+ law.

Mukiibi said he has seen people become “so homophobic” that they “started attacking” COSF committee members and “beating them because of who they are”. 

Following this, January of this year, Kabuye was attacked and stabbed outside his home by two men who had allegedly been following him for a number of days, leaving him in a critical condition.

Kabuye, the executive director of the advocacy group Colored Voice Truth to LGBTQ, went on to blame the brutal attack he suffered on the intolerance being pushed by Uganda’s politicians “who are using the LGBTQ+ community as a scapegoat to move people away from what is really happening in the country”.

Also in January a trans woman named Arianna spoke with The Guardian and recalled being attacked by an angry mob outside of her home after a TikTok video falsely accused her of forcing hormones on young men.

She was beaten so violently that she was in a coma for two weeks.

“When they saw me, they started grabbing me and shouting that I needed to die,” Arianna told the publication. “The only thing I remember next was waking up in hospital.”

“We have no freedom.” she said. “I can’t go to the market, I can’t work, because if I go out, I will be a target.”

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