A day after the anti-homosexuality act was passed, a tabloid listed me as a ‘homo’. This hatred is new to my country, and driven by US evangelicals
Growing up in Uganda, homosexuality was not something we talked about much. I knew I was gay from a young age, and I came out to those close to me when I was a teenager in the early 90s. Some in my family accepted it, while others refused to acknowledge it. Homosexuality wasn’t always accepted but it was, largely, ignored.
There were characters from my youth whom I remember as openly gay, such as a local barber – everybody in our close-knit neighbourhood knew them for who they were. There were snide comments and rude names – it was far from social equality – but I did not experience hatred. To be gay in Uganda back then was a fairly unremarkable thing.
As a Catholic, I always knew the church and religious leaders were openlyhomophobic. They preached the well-known mantra that homosexuality is a sin, and goes against God’s wishes, but, again, that was where it ended. There was no hate-speak, so I didn’t feel too much like I would be judged when I was honest about my sexuality.
Today’s Uganda is a different story. As the director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, the country’s leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights organisation, I have been on an advocacy trip in Europe and the US, encouraging the international community to speak out against the recently passed anti-homosexuality act, which myself and a core group of Ugandans who support human rights are now challenging in the constitutional court. As I prepare to return home, I know a law has been passed that will tyrannise my life and that of many Ugandans I know. The outlook is bleak. As a gay Ugandan, I know I am one of thousands. But as someone who has chosen to be “out” and is still living in Uganda, I am in a minority of fewer than 20 people.
A day after the anti-gay law was passed, the Ugandan tabloid Red Pepper published my name and picture in a list of the “top 200 homos”. The last time a similar article was published, in 2010 by the now-defunct Rolling Stone, it listed the name of my friend and colleague David Kato. He and others successfully sued the paper for this, but weeks later David was bludgeoned to death at home, almost certainly as a result of his sexuality.
Uganda has always been a conservative society in which certain things are not discussed, but it never used to be a cruel environment for gay people. Twenty years ago we were not pursued by mobs, tortured by police, or run out of our homes. When I came out as gay the sort of hysteria that has since overwhelmed my country was unthinkable. If I were a gay 13-year-old in Uganda today, I probably wouldn’t tell anyone.
Many people I have met with over these past few weeks, including Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, have asked me: what has changed so dramatically? It is true that same-sex sexual acts between consenting adults have been illegal in Uganda ever since the British introduced their penal code at the beginning of the 20th century. But this recent era of expanded criminalisation and virulent homophobia has been another gift from the west, this time from the United States.
There is no question that the well-funded US evangelical movement has aided economic development in Uganda, building and running many hospitals, schools and orphanages. But there is also no doubt, as illustrated in the 2013 documentary God Loves Uganda, that they have relentlessly stoked a loathing and disgust of sexual minorities. Now we are told that Uganda will not bow to the “gay agenda” – a phrase I had never heard until a few years ago when American evangelicals introduced it to the political rhetoric.
Among them was the firebrand pastor Scott Lively, who first came to Uganda in 2002 and began peddling his distinctive variety of hot-headed and active homophobia. He addressed congregation after congregation, fuelling a type of public outrage that was entirely new to Uganda. His profile gave him direct access to leading government and media figures. I believe so strongly that his influence made a difference – and led to the anti-homosexuality act – that I am one of the claimants suing him for crimes against humanity under the alien tort act in the US. There is also evidence that he has helped to engender the same sort of hatred and persecutory atmosphere elsewhere, in particular Russia, which adopted its own draconian anti-gay legislation last year.
Yet Ugandan supporters of the anti-gay law say they are countering foreign influences and the international pressure to support homosexuality. In signing the law, President Museveni wanted “to demonstrate Uganda’s independence in the face of western pressure and provocation”, as though this were an act of resisting neocolonial power.
It is simply untrue that homosexuality is un-African. Same-sex sexual conduct existed in various forms throughout Africa before the colonial period; same-sex relationships were known among several groups in Uganda, including the Bahima, the Banyoro and the Baganda. King Mwanga II, the last pre-colonial ruler of what is now Uganda, was said to have engaged in sexual relations with male courtiers.
I am a gay man. I am also Ugandan. There is nothing un-African about me. Uganda is where I was born, grew up and call my home. It is also a country in which I have become little more than an unapprehended criminal because of whom I love. I want my fellow Ugandans to understand that homosexuality is not a western import and our friends in the developed world to recognise that the current trend of homophobia is.
By Dr Frank Mugisha