Earlier this year a woman contacted Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), the organization of which I’m director, forwarding a letter from her landlord. It read, “You are a wonderful woman as well as a tenant who hasn’t given me any trouble over rent whatsoever,” but added that “[d]ue to what is going on in the country … I am sorry but I think you are a depraved person who I can no longer tolerate in my house. I also cannot fight against the government.”
This is just one of the 162 cases of persecution since the passing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act that have been highlighted in “From Torment to Tyranny,” a report recently published by SMUG and the National LGBTI Security Team. When Uganda’s parliament — the legislative body that should represent all the people of Uganda, including this woman — voted for this Act in December 2013, it declared open season on Uganda’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities. In my country there’s now a culture of extreme and violent homophobia whereby anyone is free to persecute LGBTI people with impunity. Incidents of violent attacks, arbitrary arrests, blackmail, evictions and a concerted effort to drive LGBTI civil society underground are being reported every day.
The Act, which was signed into law by President Museveni in February, is draconian and persecutory in both content and intent; there’s no question of this. It creates new crimes of “aggravated homosexuality,” carrying a life sentence; “the promotion of homosexuality,” carrying a five-year sentence; and “aiding and abetting homosexuality,” carrying a seven-year sentence.
Simple activities such as renting a property to an LGBTI person, running an organization that promotes the health or human rights of LGBTI people or showing any form of intimacy toward someone of the same sex could now be characterized as serious crimes. Under the Act, two people of the same sex purporting to marry one another commit an offense that carries a life sentence.
The 162 cases that we have collated and substantiated to the best of our ability probably represent only the tip of the iceberg. Most incidents of harassment or intimidation, for example, are not reported, and there may have been other serious cases that we have not been alerted to or have been unable to verify. Even so, our report shows that there has been a staggering increase in persecution. Nineteen cases were reported in 2012, and only eight in 2013. The 162 cases reported since Dec. 20, 2013, therefore represent an increase in persecution of up to 19 times compared with previous years, an increase that can only be laid at the door of the Anti-Homosexuality Act and the virulently homophobic atmosphere it has engendered in Uganda.
The day after the Act was signed by the president, the Ugandan tabloid Red Pepper printed the names of 200 Ugandans, including mine, under the headine “200 Top Homos,” leaving us open to harassment, abuse and attacks. A number of other media outlets, including a local Ugandan radio station, have similarly exposed LGBTI people and fomented a climate of fear, hatred and violence. Only a handful of the people exposed by the media in this way have approached SMUG and reported what has happened to them as a consequence. For the rest, the intimidation seems to have forced them into silence.
By far the most frequent story to emerge from the report involves someone being thrown out of or asked to leave their home, often by their own family. It’s hardly surprising, because knowingly allowing a gay person to live on your property and failing to report them to the police could now be a criminal offense. As the story referred to above shows, homosexuality has become a reason to evict someone whether or not an actual offense has been committed under the Act.
Most worrying is the number of cases reported that involve either the threat of violence or actual physical attacks. Perhaps the greatest fear is of mob violence. According to SMUG’s report, one man survived a lynching by a mob of youths only to find himself arrested and detained by the police. Since then, we have lost contact with him. The same report describes how a woman, after being attacked by a mob and having her house burned down, was also arrested. Random threats of violence are becoming commonplace. An increase in suicides and attempted suicides since the passing of the Act has been noted, particularly among the young. One 17-year-old boy was reported to have swallowed rat poison in April of this year.
Organizations are also feeling the pressure. SMUG has been threatened with closure. On April 3, 2014, the Walter Reed Project, a not-for-profit AIDS foundation working in Uganda, was raided by police. As a result, the U.S. Embassy made the decision to shut it down, depriving many Ugandans of access to antiretroviral medication and condoms. As the closure of the Walter Read Project shows, HIV/AIDS outreach programs servicing Uganda’s LGBTI communities are under threat as a direct result of the Act, which criminalizes “aiding and abetting” homosexuality.
One solution for Uganda’s LGBTI community might be asylum. Our report highlights 25 cases of asylum in the first few months of 2014. But when you’re forced to seek asylum in countries that also criminalize homosexuality, like Kenya, this doesn’t look much like an option. I, like many others, don’t want to leave Uganda; it is my home, and I would rather seek other solutions, but I completely understand the fear that those who do leave live under.
Ultimately we must seek solutions through political and legal forums: building bridges with Ugandan parliamentarians and ministers, finding resources to help those in prison or facing prosecution, and, ultimately, challenging the legality of the Anti-Homosexuality Act itself. We must also support those who have been made homeless, and those who are working to improve the lives of LGBTI people in Uganda but who face daily threats and intimidation. More than 26 mainstream civil society organizations that SMUG was working with have now withdrawn most of their support to the LGBTI community. This has to change because, in the end, mainstream NGOs are crucial allies; it’s through them that the LGBTI community in Uganda is able to communicate effectively with government and ultimately educate the general population to accept us as full and equal citizens.