Human Rights

Uganda Gays Face New Wave of Fear Under Anti-Gay Bill

As President Yoweri Museveni signs a draconian new anti-homosexuality bill, Kampala’s openly gay members report an uptick in harassment and violence.

Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Dressed in the traditional "gomesi," a tailored, brightly patterned skirt and blouse worn by Ugandan women, Frank K. used to sing and perform at weddings in Kampala while guests clapped and cheered, oblivious that he was a gay man in drag.

Now, at a bustling lunch spot downtown in the Ugandan capital, the slight man is dressed in a tight shirt and jeans. He speaks of how singing gospel was his true passion, and as a devoted born-again Christian, performing with his local church choir is where he feels truly accepted.

While many gay and transgender people he knows have been chased out of church and cursed for their sexuality, after confessing to his pastor about being gay, she told him Jesus would love him the way he is.

“Regardless of my sexuality, I know God loves me,” says Frank, who comes from a staunchly Catholic family in a country where homosexuality is widely vilified as abnormal, ungodly, and an attack on Ugandan culture.

“Gospel singing helped me, I searched for God because no one else helped me, even the people I thought were good friends put me out of their home—I just talked to God.”

Since last December, when the anti-homosexuality bill was passed in the Ugandan parliament, Frank has been experiencing increasing threats to his safety. On Monday, President Yoweri Museveni signed the bill into law. Frank says he worries for his future.

“Many times, while returning home, local people have told me they are going to burn my house,” he says. “They told me they will not allow me to promote homosexuality in their area, that they will force me out. They say, ‘We’re going to beat you until you die.’”

Rumors about Frank’s sexuality caused his landlord to give him 14 days notice before eviction. “I was warned by my landlord to leave his house before someone burns it down because of my gay work and sexuality,” he says. “I wanted to go to the police to make a statement but was advised not to because they might retain me.”

Earlier this month, Pastor Sserwada Joseph of the Victory Christian Church in the Ndeba district of Kampala thanked President Museveni for signing the anti-pornographic bill, which makes wearing of miniskirts a criminal offence, and asked him to sign the anti-homosexuality bill immediately. Earlier this month, Museveni announced his support of the latter bill on the basis of a scientific report he ordered to be undertaken, which claimed homosexuality was an "abnormal" and socially learned behavior.

The president’s support for the anti-homosexuality bill has provoked a backlash from the West and several threats to cut foreign aid. President Obama cautioned that the bill would complicate U.S.-Uganda relations. But Museveni, in a speech last Wednesday, warned the international community that, “Uganda can stand on its own, stop lecturing Uganda.”

The new bill puts members of the LGBT community in Uganda at risk of life imprisonment, with the law requiring people to report anyone they knew or suspected to be homosexual or face prison time themselves.

“There have increasingly been unlawful house raids of suspected homosexuals, arrests, blackmail from landlords threatening tenants with eviction,” says Jay, who works for Freedom and Roam Ugandan (FARUG), the LGBT organization which launched the first gay-rights campaign, Hate No More, in 2011 after the murder of gay activist David Kato.

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Jay says that fellow lesbians have been forced into marriage to cover up their sexuality and other have even been raped by family members and friends to cure them of what is considered a "disease." “FARUG staff and members are being promised to be taught lessons to make them proper women,” says Jay. “This literally means rape.”

The 2011 campaign was met by aggressive resistance from the Uganda National Parents Network, which demanded that the anti-homosexuality bill was necessary to protect children “targeted for recruitment, defilement and rape by homosexuals and lesbians who were being funded and trained by some Western governments and international organizations operating in Uganda.”

In 2009, the year the bill was first introduced to parliament by MP David Bahati, the Family Life Anti-Homosexuality Seminar hosted speakers from the American religious right, including Scott Lively, the American evangelical pastor who faces a federal lawsuit in Massachusetts brought against him by Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) for allegedly inciting crimes against humanity.

In The Gay Movement Agenda for Control of Society and the Blue Print for Transforming a Nation: Effective Response to the Gay Agenda and Way Forward, a paper presented at the seminar in Uganda, Lively accused homosexuals in Uganda of recruiting children and threatening traditional culture.

When he first came out as gay, Frank’s family disowned him and kicked him out of their house for six months. He was forced to spend rough nights sleeping on the streets. Even though they took him back eventually, he doubted whether his mother would ever truly love him as her son, but now he says she has come to accept him and supports his work. Yet since the bill has passed, he says even straight friends he considered close to him began threatening him to stop promoting his sexuality.

In 2010, Frank began doing grassroots volunteer work in Kampala’s sprawling Bwaise slum with gay men, many of whom had been thrown out of their homes and forced into sex work to survive. With a group of young men in the slum he formed Rock Angels, a drag act performing dance, music and drama. The performance practices became a fun, social way for the men build a support network and share advice.

Frank now runs an organization called Youth On Rock which helps HIV-positive gay men and others at risk of contracting the virus access health care facilities and gain information on ARV treatments. Many in the LGBT community face discrimination and harassment when seeking medical care or treatment. He says four members of his organization died this year from HIV-related illnesses due to lack of access to treatment.

Basic services such as healthcare will now pose an even bigger challenge for members of Uganda’s LGBT community, who will face arrest if they disclose their sexuality. Those involved in activism or human rights work relating to LGBT groups will also be at risk.

The concept of homosexuality as "abnormal" or against Ugandan culture is deeply hurtful for Frank, who, through his own performances and artistic expression is committed to preserving traditional culture.

“People have the wrong perspective, we love our culture so much,” he says. “No one told me to be gay, it was not something I was influenced to do or something I was taught, it is something I feel within me, and even if they take me to prison, or kill me, they cannot change who I am.”