Sitting at a secluded table in a restaurant in Kampala, David Kato touches his shoulder to show where it was broken by a couple of off-duty police officers last year. As a gay man living in Uganda, Kato has been arrested three times and faced innumerable forms of harassment. But in the fight against the repressive anti-homosexuality bill now before the country’s parliament, he doesn’t mind having his picture taken or appearing on TV.
As the advocacy and litigation officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda, it’s not himself that Kato worries about most if the bill passes: it’s younger members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. ‘I can’t run away and leave the people I am protecting. People might die, but me, I will be the last one to run out of here. I have to keep on documenting the havoc that the bill is going to cause.’
Kato is one of the activists leading the fight against the law condemned most recently by President Obama as odious and unjust. International pressure since the bill was tabled last October resulted in Uganda backing away from the law’s most draconian provision: the execution of some gays. However, it remains to be seen if the backlash will moderate it any further. Even without the death sentence, the bill still calls for life imprisonment for those who commit ‘the offence of homosexuality’ and goes so far as to criminalize a simple touch as an ‘attempt to commit’ homosexuality.
A long-time activist, Kato has earned the title ‘grandfather of the kuchus’ – as gay men in Kampala call themselves – for his work on behalf of people in the LGBT community. He has sheltered at least 20 people in his home; he has visited them in prison and worked for their release. But the bill would put an end to his work at a time when it has never been more necessary. The law brands advocacy a ‘promotional activity’ and subjects it to a prison term of up to seven years.
Kato fears that, if the bill is passed, homophobic violence and discrimination in Uganda will get exponentially worse. ‘There will be much violence, because people will know: even if we hit [gays], even if we detain them, even if we harass them, the bill is there. They will know they are supported by the bill.’ Homophobia in Uganda is almost universal: one study reported that 95 per cent of citizens were against legalizing homosexuality.
Some in the LGBT community have already gone underground out of fear. Christopher Ssenyonjo, a retired Anglican bishop in Kampala, is perhaps the only member of the clergy still ministering to LGBT Christians. The bishop used to host a group of 20-25 worshippers for Sunday prayers at his office, tucked in a building on a side street in a quiet suburb. That number has dropped down to between five and seven since talk of the bill started: ‘People are not coming because they might be spotted,’ he explains.
In perhaps its most Orwellian edict, the bill calls for those aware of homosexual activity to turn in offenders within 24 hours. Bishop Ssenyonjo worries that this will create a fear of betrayal that will cut off people in the gay community from counselling and other help. Even if they can survive the bill’s other provisions, can they withstand a total lack of emotional support? Ssenyonjo believes that, for those mired in turmoil and self-hatred in a culture that despises and ostracizes them, ‘this may even lead to suicide’.