Uganda's anti-gay law is a license to discriminate

The small courtroom was hot with the crush of bodies and the air was thick with anticipation. It was still early morning. Hearings were not set to begin for another hour and a half, and already it was difficult to find seats.

It made sense, I thought, cramming tightly into one bench in the back. Lives across Uganda depended on this decision. I’d been working as a journalist in the capital of Kampala for more than a year, and had covered my fair share of court proceedings. But this felt different.

In May 2023, Uganda passed one of the harshest anti-homosexuality laws in the world. Same-sex relations were already criminalized under the country’s strict penal code. Now, they were punishable by life in prison and, in some circumstances, death. Renting to LGBTQI+ people was forbidden, as was doing anything to ‘promote’ homosexuality.

In a deeply religious and often homophobic country, the law has been seen as a license to discriminate. Emboldened anti-gay vigilantes have targeted LGBTQI+ people with knife attacks and beatings, creating a climate of fear.

‘People are being brutalized and are not allowed to live their lives to the fullest,’ a friend had told me bluntly, as we sat crossed legged on the floor of his spartan apartment. As he spoke, I bit into the inner corner of my lip to stop myself crying. He feared he could be the next person threatened or arrested simply for being gay.

‘People are being brutalized and are not allowed to live their lives to the fullest.’

Sitting in Kampala’s Constitutional Court to report on the legal challenge against the Anti-Homosexuality Act, the magnitude of the decision at hand felt at odds with the procedural nature of the court.

At the front of the packed room sat a row of lawyers dressed in neat black robes. I spotted Nicholas Opiyo, the lead lawyer for the petitioners, quietly reviewing his papers. He’d helped defeat a previous version of the law back in 2014 at personal cost.

‘My social media platforms are full of insults. People think I’m doing it for money. People think I’m an agent of the West. Others think I’m gay,’ he’d told me a few months ago, while still preparing for the case. With him was Fox Odoi-Oywelowo, one of the few parliamentarians who’d opposed the Act. Were they nervous, knowing how much rested on their case?

The arrival of judges put a stop to my musings. The courtroom rose, and seemed to hold its breath collectively, not releasing it until the judges sat and waved to us to follow suit.

A judge, who I could not see, cleared their throat, and announced that the case would instead be decided based on written testimony. A wave of disappointment rippled through the room, as spectators rose whispering to each other and began to file out. As quickly as it had begun the hearing was over. There would be no oral arguments nor decision today.

Outside, Opiyo was already addressing a group of reporters. I joined the throng, taking notes as he explained that the point of using only written testimony was to avoid spectacle and focus on the legal terms of the case.

But his words were difficult to make out over those of Martin Ssempa, a prominent pastor, and supporter of the Act, loudly proclaiming to a flood of cameras that homosexuality had been imposed upon Uganda by the West. Dressed in velvet robes, and leaning on an elaborate walking stick, Ssempa handed out bumper stickers emblazoned with slogans in Luganda – the local language – claiming to defend African families and culture.

The dissonance between Opiyo’s measured argument and Ssempa’s grandstanding was striking.

Lost in all the spectacle was the LGBTQI+ community, hiding their identities and living in fear of homophobic attacks. I thought of my friend, and the agony so many others must feel as they wait for a decision.