With recent progress we’ve seen across the world, it was perhaps easy to assume that, although the struggle for LGBTI+ rights wasn’t won, we were heading in the right direction. This week’s passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda shows that is not the case. It also underlines how fragile progress can be and how much further we have to go to have a truly free, safe and equal world.
On Tuesday night, parliamentarians in Uganda voted through a bill which, if enacted into law, will mean that simply stating that you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer could land you in jail.
This news has been devastating though, unfortunately, not a surprise.
Same-sex sexual relationships have been criminalised in Uganda since colonial times. Under the country’s Penal Code 1950, acts of ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature’ and ‘gross indecency’ are already punishable with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. LGBTI+ people in Uganda already face persecution and are subject to violence and discrimination in all facets of public life.
The new law makes the already difficult living situations faced by LGBTI+ persons in Uganda even more difficult. The bill has even gone to the extent of effectively outlawing any organisation which supports LGBTI+ people, even if they are providing vital health services such as HIV prevention and treatment.
After the brutal murder of David Kato in 2011, it would have been understandable if members of the LGBTI+ community had veered away from fighting for LGBTI+ rights in Uganda. But, in fact, the opposite has happened. Over the last decade we’ve seen more and more brave activists and human rights defenders raising their voices and taking action in order to call for change.
But it’s worth remembering that this this bill has passed against a backdrop of growing anti-LGBT+ hostility in Uganda, mainly expressed through political attacks against sexual and gender minorities in the country, enabling social groups to act violently against LGBTI+ persons.
Over the years, Kaleidoscope Trust has supported several organisations in Uganda, and I have personally been humbled to meet and speak with some of the people leading this fight. I only wish I could name them here without putting them at risk of danger.
So, what can be done? I admit to feeling devastated by what has happened, but that devastation needs to be channelled.
“The people spreading this hatred have determination and deep pockets”
Right now, there is still the slight chance that President Museveni will veto the bill instead of signing it into law. Already, we have seen international leaders from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, to the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, calling on Uganda to reconsider implementing the bill. I would urge President Museveni to heed these calls and consider his responsibilities to govern on behalf of all his citizens before allowing the bill to pass.
I am deeply concerned about the safety of people who are publicly identified as or suspected of being LGBTI+ in Uganda. Lives are at stake, and there is a key challenge to relocate human rights defenders that have been personally targeted to safe locations and continuing to support the work of their organisations in order to try to ensure all momentum is not lost. Kaleidoscope Trust will continue to maintain contact with the organisations we work with and help them however we can.
Whilst politicians in Uganda may claim that being LGBTI+ is a Western concept which is being imposed on Africa, in fact the opposite is true: there are and have always been LGBTI+ people in Uganda. If anything, the legal discrimination they now face can be traced back to their roots as a colonial export that has left a deep scar and ongoing painful legacy on the country.
I cannot underline enough that this is by no means an isolated moment. The rising global tide of anti-LGBTI+ sentiment, much of it being driven by hate-filled misinformation, is coordinated and strategic in its attacks.
But I have to be honest: the people spreading this hatred have determination and deep pockets. They are taking advantage of an uncertain world to scapegoat LGBTI+ people and in some places they are winning. The only way to fight this is to try to match their resources and their influence.
At Kaleidoscope Trust we will continue to support our siblings on the ground – I urge you all to do the same where you can. Please consider supporting charities like GiveOut (who directly support grassroots activists across the world), Rainbow Railroad (who help LGBTQI+ people to escape state-sponsored violence), and the charity I lead, Kaleidoscope Trust, which works to create a world where LGBTI+ people can be free, safe and equal everywhere.
We cannot let this go by in silence. We cannot simply sit back and wait for the next law which will undermine our rights.