‘They want to erase us’

In a quiet suburb of the Ugandan capital of Kampala, Henry Mukiibi runs a health clinic without any drugs. It is one of the few places LGBTQI+ people can safely receive treatment. But shelves that once held painkillers, bandages and antiseptics have been empty since police confiscated supplies during an inspection a few months ago.

‘There was something behind it,’ Mukiibi says, light filtering softly through the windows of his office. ‘They thought they’d take our drugs, and we would close.’ He identifies as bisexual and is an activist heading Children of the Sun Foundation, Uganda.

The incident is indicative of the challenges Mukiibi and other LGBTQI+ people have faced since Uganda’s government passed one of the harshest anti-gay laws in the world in May 2023. The Anti-Homosexuality Act, which threatens anyone found ‘guilty’ of same sex relations with imprisonment and even death, has already led to an increase in harassment and stigmatization.

In September 2023 alone, the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), a Kampala-based law clinic and advocacy organization, recorded 68 violations against the LBGTQI+ community. It estimates there have been some 140 attacks against LGBTQI+ persons since the act was signed into law.

‘Many cases of violence go unreported,’ says HRAPF director and lawyer Adrian Jjuuko. Civil society organizations like HRAPF can only do so much, and it is often dangerous for LGBTQI+ people to go the police, for fear of being ignored or arrested.

Shortly after we meet in the bare clinic, Mukiibi sends me a text message to say that two people have been brought in for treatment – beaten in homophobic attacks. A grainy photo accompanying the message shows a young man with blood gushing from his left leg and pooling on to the floor. His face is contorted with pain. Mukiibi frets about how to get enough medicine, with the stores empty and money running low.

Amid this intensifying clampdown, LGBTQI+ people describe an environment of fear and near-constant threat, but also assert their own determination to challenge the legislation in Uganda’s constitutional court and to continue living authentically.

Life gets harder

The difficulties faced by Uganda’s embattled LGBTQI+ community are not new. The country’s penal code, a relic of British colonial rule, already criminalized same-sex conduct. Although that law was rarely enforced, its existence helped encourage violent homophobia within society. An earlier version of the Anti-Homosexuality Act was passed in 2014, but quickly quashed on procedural grounds.

Then, in 2023, parliamentarian Asuman Basalirwa brought the act back, introducing it as a private member’s bill that was passed by an overwhelming majority – all but two of the 389 parliamentarians present voted in favour of it. In May, President Yoweri Museveni signed it into law.

This latest incarnation is harsher than its predecessor, adding new punishments. Anyone found guilty of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ – defined as sexual conduct with a minor, a person with mental or physical disabilities, transmission of a terminal illness, or even repeat offences – can be put to death.

The penalty for attempted gay sex has been upped to a decade. Landlords convicted of ‘facilitating the commission of the offence of homosexuality’ face nearly as much time in prison, which could criminalize those providing housing for LGBTIQI+ people and has already led to spate of evictions, according to HRAPF. ‘Promoting homosexuality’ carries a 20-year jail term. Failing to report same-sex acts is a potential crime; anyone can be an informant.

The law represents a tightening of the noose. In just a few months it has made life harder for people already facing discrimination.

Jonathan* lives in a shelter on the outskirts of Kampala, where skyscrapers give way to dirt roads and goats munch on thin grass. ‘I can’t be myself,’ he says quietly, squinting in the sun outside his new home. ‘I can’t go on dates… I don’t have a job.’

Jonathan previously worked at an insurance company and dreamed of becoming an actor – until one of his bosses began to show an interest in him. Careful to hide his true identity at work, Jonathan turned the man down. The Anti-Homosexuality Act had just been introduced in parliament and he was afraid, so he tried to reject his superior as kindly as he could.

But the older man responded by outing Jonathan as gay to his co-workers and he was fired. That was just the beginning of his troubles. Word spread to his landlord, who threatened to evict him. Neighbours stole his clothes from the drying line, in an effort to push him out. A group of assailants beat him, cutting his hands and arms while shouting homophobic insults.

‘I was already tired, exhausted,’ Jonathan recalls quietly. ‘I didn’t care much. I just wanted to stay alive.’

A friend brought Jonathan to Mukiibi’s clinic, where workers gently treated his injuries. Afterwards, Mukiibi, who also manages a small shelter, told him to move there. Jonathan was nervous; he’d heard about shelters in Uganda being raided by police and their occupants arrested, but he was out of options.

 An evangelical Christian preacher on the streets of Kampala, Uganda on 23 February 2016. GODONG/ALAMY
An evangelical Christian preacher on the streets of Kampala, Uganda on 23 February 2016. GODONG/ALAMY

A legal fight

Jjuuko’s HRAPF has helped to launch the case currently working its way through Uganda’s constitutional court, demanding that the law be overturned. We speak from the back seat of his car as he rushes from engagement to engagement. The driver weaves between late-afternoon traffic and potholes filled with water from the autumn rainy season.   

He and other opponents of the Anti-Homosexuality Act argue that it violates Chapter Four of the Ugandan constitution, which serves as the country’s bill of rights and freedoms. They also charge members of parliament with ramming the law through a hasty legislative session, without allowing their colleagues adequate time to consider it.

Young activists have joined the legal petitioners, testifying to the harms of the law. Among them is Eric Ndawula. During an early court session in October 2023, meant to lay out the terms of the case, he sits in the back of the court room, listening nervously to the proceedings with his eyes downcast.

‘This law basically instils fear. It makes us lose hope. It makes us think that we are secondary citizens’

Afterwards, Ndawula, who identifies as gay and runs Lifeline Youth Empowerment Centre, explains that the law represents a deep invasion into his personal life.

‘I love rainbows, not because they are a queer symbol, but because I am a colourful person,’ he says. ‘I have my rainbow outfits, but I am scared to put them on, because somebody will notice me, and be like, oh, this person [is] queer... I’m scared to express myself on a normal day. Where I go; who I talk to; how I talk to them; how they perceive me.’

Ndawula knew he was different from the time he was a boy. Schoolmates mocked him from having a high voice and acting in what they deemed an effeminate manner. Alone in his room, he tried to be more manly: changed the way he walked and spoke, practised at becoming something else. It didn’t work. ‘I ended up becoming gayer,’ he jokes.

Life under the Anti-Homosexuality Act is mirroring those boyhood days spent masking himself, but with much more serious consequences. ‘This law basically instils fear. It makes us lose hope. It makes us think that we are secondary citizens. We are not part of the country,’ he says. ‘They want to erase us.’

One of the staunchest defenders of the Anti-Homosexuality Act is media-savvy pastor Martin Ssempa. Clips of Ssempa preaching about the dangers of homosexuality have gone viral and he plans to lay out his thesis chastising same-sex relations in a forthcoming 500-page book.

I catch up with him as he leaves the Kampala courtroom after the same preliminary session where I met Ndawula. Dressed in velvet robes, Ssempa had submitted a court petition of his own, supporting the government and its law. ‘Europe and America have conspired to impose homosexuality on Africa using catchy phrases such as “human rights”, “HIV-AIDS work” and many others,’ he says.

Ssempa denies that members of the LGBTQI+ community have suffered since the act was signed into law, and instead accuses them of faking mistreatment in order to obtain money and international visas. ‘One of the biggest problems we have is fake hate crimes,’ Ssempa says.

Henry Mukiibi, heads up the Children of the Sun Foundation and runs a Kampala health clinic which treats LGBTQI+ people. SOPHIE NEIMAN
Henry Mukiibi, heads up the Children of the Sun Foundation and runs a Kampala health clinic which treats LGBTQI+ people. SOPHIE NEIMAN

Everyone is at risk

Apako Williams, who identifies as a trans man, heads the Tranz Network Uganda, an umbrella for advocacy groups. He says religious figures – like Ssempa – have entrenched a hatred of LGBTQI+ people into sections of Ugandan society. ‘Religion is somehow the custodian of morality; [the] custodian of values and morals and belief in everything that is right… if somebody uses religion as an entry point to target homosexuals, that is a very powerful space,’ Williams says.

He is committed to fighting the anti-gay law on behalf of the LGBTQI+ community, but also because he sees it as a threat to gaining more support from would-be allies. ‘We’d brought so many partners on board,’ Williams recalls of years past. ‘Right now, this is not the case.’

Reluctance may stem from the fact that the act’s clause on promotion is vaguely defined, referring to offences that range from publishing materials about LGBTQI+ people, to providing the community with money. Journalists, lawyers, and activist organizations could all be targets.

In September 2023, representatives of Uganda’s national NGO Bureau requested a meeting at Adrian Jjuuko’s HRAPF office. They came with written questions, and a copy of the petition Jjuuko and his colleagues has submitted in court.

‘That meeting left me almost in no doubt that we’re being actively and formally investigated for promoting homosexuality,’ he says smiling wryly. ‘This comes with 20 years imprisonment for the director.’

Jjuuko is committed to continuing his legal work, but must operate with caution. He has removed reports and materials bearing rainbows from the HRAPF office, worried that they could be used against him.

No stranger to difficulty, Jjuuko draws inspiration from the years he spent homeless after his parents died of AIDS. ‘The privilege of being able to come from the streets to become a lawyer, was, for me, a privilege that I had to use to serve the community,’ he says.

‘The community is very resilient. This is our country. We are Ugandans, we are here to stay’

I telephone Asuman Basalirwa, a parliamentarian and the author of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, to ask him exactly what the promotion clause stipulates. Does it really mean that sympathetic organizations or journalists could be prosecuted? ‘Sorry, but for you to understand what promotion means, you read the law,’ he says briskly.

He’s happy to respond at length to my dozens of other questions about the act, although he sounds frustrated by the international scrutiny. He is, he says, just reintroducing laws previously overturned by the courts.

‘There is nothing new about it and I don’t understand why, of all the pieces of legislation that I have brought, this particular one has taken this kind of attention, both locally and internationally,’ Basalirwa says.

Playing politics

Fox Odoi-Oywelowo, meanwhile, was one of the only members of Uganda’s parliament to oppose the law when the legislation was first introduced. This came with personal consequences. Odoi-Oywelowo’s fellow politicians booed and jeered when he tried to speak out against the bill. He says his children have been threatened. Undeterred, he is also a petitioner challenging the act in court.

We speak sitting on leather chairs in an opulent Kampala hotel lobby, a stone’s throw from his parliament office. The glass walls curve upwards and leafy plants are dotted around, giving the feeling of being in a large aquarium.

Odoi-Oywelowo describes the Anti-Homosexuality Act as a ‘red herring’ meant to stir up the public and distract attention away from allegations of corruption swirling in parliament. He alludes to other rumours behind the act’s revival, including allegations that Western evangelicals worked closely with their Ugandan counterparts to push for it, just as they had been accused of doing in 2014.

‘We relaxed. We went to sleep. They did not. They continued working on a daily basis in churches. They went to schools talking to little children, went to villages, working on that piece of legislation,’ Odoi-Oywelowo, who was also a vocal opponent of the 2014 act, says of Christian groups.  

Notably, shortly before Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act into law, the Ugandan government hosted a conference entitled ‘Protecting African Culture and Family Values’. One of the speakers was Sharon Slater, of the Arizona-based Family Watch International. The organization has campaigned against gay marriage and abortion access and is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre in the United States.  

Meanwhile, Basalirwa has doubled down on praise for the law, brushing off rumours of outside influence to assert that the Anti-Homosexuality Act is something Ugandans want. ‘This law was welcomed by members of the ruling party in parliament, members of the opposition and the general public,’ he says.

Nonetheless, there has been an outpouring of public condemnation of the legislation in Uganda and across the world. Shortly after the bill was signed, Basalirwa told reporters that Speaker of Parliament Anitah Among’s United States visa had been revoked.

In August, the World Bank temporarily froze funding to Uganda. Several months later, the United States expelled the country from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which had provided Uganda with duty free access to more than 1,800 American exports.

‘I would consider the passage of this act the greatest act of economic treason against the country,’ says Odoi-Oywelowo. ‘We are just recovering from the effects of corona – the two years of lockdown. Then we hand ourselves this complete disadvantage, [this] unnecessary and uncalled for piece of legislation.’

Meanwhile, campaign groups including Amnesty International have urged the country to repeal the act. Human Rights Watch has also criticised it.

Human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo and MP Fox Odoi-Oywelowo sit with Ugandan lawyers inside the registrar’s chambers to file a petition against the anti-gay law at the constitutional court in Kampala, Uganda on 2 October 2023. ABUBAKER LUBOWA/REUTERS
Human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo and MP Fox Odoi-Oywelowo sit with Ugandan lawyers inside the registrar’s chambers to file a petition against the anti-gay law at the constitutional court in Kampala, Uganda on 2 October 2023. ABUBAKER LUBOWA/REUTERS

Rays of hope

Such political efforts may matter little to young people hiding in shelters, unable to work and alienated from friends and family. ‘I can’t be here forever. I need a life,’ Jonathan laments.

Maintaining the shelter where Jonathan lives is hard work for Henry Mukiibi.  As I am writing, he reaches out to complain that the landlord is demanding more money. Mukiibi fears that the dozen or so shelter residents may be evicted. ‘[I] am on my knees,’ he says in a text message.  

This vulnerability is not uncommon. Generous’s* family threw him out for being gay back in 2018, several years before the latest version of the Anti-Homosexuality Act was signed into law. Living on the streets, he bought a loaf of bread with his savings and ate one slice per day. Eventually, Generous found refuge in a safe house run by Mukiibi and earned money by washing clothes for his housemates, who often did sex work to survive.

He rents his own house now, shared with a roommate, on the outskirts of Kampala. ‘I’m seeing my fellow community members experiencing the same thing that I also experienced,’ Generous says. He’s eager to help, to use that empathy to guide others who are still suffering. But he is afraid. Every bit of news he hears about violence and harassment is a reminder that he could be next.

‘I wish I was born in a country that really welcomes my sexuality. I didn’t wake up in the morning and have a choice to be a queer person. If I really had a choice, I don’t think that I would choose that path that everyone hates,’ he says solemnly.

Even the home he has worked to acquire does not feel completely safe. ‘You can’t shout on the phone,’ he explains as we sit cross-legged on his living room floor, sharing bananas and tamarind soda, and speaking in whispers. ‘You never know if your neighbour is hearing you.’

With hostility increasing, Uganda’s LGBTQI+ community are left to wait for the constitutional court case to be decided. Hearings officially began in a hot and crowded court room in December 2023, with a decision to follow.

‘The guidance of the court, and the lawyers have agreed, is to conclude this case by written testimony,’ Nicholas Opiyo, founder of the civil society organization Chapter Four Uganda, and another lawyer fighting the act, told reporters gathered in the blazing sun outside. ‘The next time we will come back, is when the court tells of the judgement.

Two people have already been arrested on charges of ‘aggravated homosexuality’. They face the death penalty should the law remain in place

‘We hope the court will take the opportunity to address the question of whether the Ugandan constitution protects every single member of our society, irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” he added. ‘We have an opportunity to draw a line under this argument once and for all. The moment is now.’

Activists like Opiyo are also pushing for the case to be finished quickly. But no one is certain when a verdict will be handed down. Meanwhile, two people have already been arrested on charges of ‘aggravated homosexuality’. They face the death penalty should the law remain in place. Another two men were arrested in Kampala in October 2023, accused of engaging in same-sex relations.

Early in January, Steven Kabuye, a young, LGBTQI+ campaigner, says he was stabbed in the stomach and arm by assailants riding a motorcycle. The brutal attack left him critically wounded.

For Eric Ndawula, these struggles are a reminder that homophobia in Uganda will not vanish overnight, whatever happens in the constitutional court. ‘It’s going to take us years to really change people’s minds or have a real conversation around homosexuality,’ he explains.

Still, he takes heart in the strength of other LGBTQI+ people. ‘The community is very resilient,’ he says. ‘This is our country. We are Ugandans, we are here to stay. We are not going anywhere and not even the law is going to stop us from existing.’

When simply living truthfully is an act of resistance, hope arises in small, still moments. Precarious as life in the shelter can be, Jonathan counsels other young men who arrive frightened and suicidal. He also treasures time alone, whenever he can steal it, belting out pop standards by divas like Mariah Carrey and Whitney Huston in the bathroom, nurturing his love of performing.

Apako Williams says the acceptance he has found with his own family is a reminder that a kinder world is possible. As a youth, he had tried to do everything expected of a ‘good Muslim girl’, staying in a female dorm at school and wearing a head covering. Hiding himself was painful and, after completing his education, Williams explained to his parents that he was trans and identified as a man. At first his father was nervous, resistant. Williams’ brothers and sisters took it upon themselves to help explain. ‘It was just about them sitting down and understanding,’ he says. ‘Today my family is my biggest ally.’  

This success also reminds him of the importance of speaking up. ‘Silence equals death,’ he says. ‘The only thing that pushes me every day is that there’s a community out there that can’t speak for themselves.’

*The name has been changed due to security concerns  

This article has been amended from its print version to reflect the fact that various petitions against the anti-homosexuality act have consolidated into one now that court sessions have begun. It has been updated to include a quote from lawyer Nicolas Opiyo, along with reports of new abuses.