Uganda's New Anti-Gay Law: Part of a Broader Trend in Africa

Homophobia is on the rise across much of the continent.

Kenyan gays and lesbians wear masks during a rare public protest against Uganda's new anti-homosexuality legislation.

"EXPOSED! Uganda's 200 Top Homos Named," the headline of a popular Ugandan tabloid, the Red Pepper, screamed on February 25, the day after President Yoweri Museveni signed the country's Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

The Red Pepper's witch hunt and fearmongering was predicated on a conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia—the idea that nefarious homosexuals are out to groom and recruit Ugandan children.

The new law and the largely positive welcome it's received left members of Uganda's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community fearful.

"It's inciting violence against anyone who's assumed to be gay," said Pepe Julian Onziema, a transgender rights activist and program director at Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), who was among those named by the paper. "It's getting out of control."

The Red Pepper tabloid published a list of names of gay Ugandans, inciting fear and violence.

Not Just in Uganda

The crackdown isn't restricted to Uganda. Homosexuals in Africa are under unprecedented attack. Gay rights, never strong, are being dealt severe blows.

This year a wave of anti-gay sentiment propelled by social conservatism, religious fervor, domestic politicking, and anti-West posturing has led to tough new legislation in Nigeria as well. Others will likely follow.

Under colonial-era laws homosexuality is illegal in the majority of African countries (36 out of 54, plus Western Sahara, according to Amnesty International), but Uganda's legislation ratchets up the punishments.

Although the death penalty clause contained in an earlier draft was dropped, the new law prescribes life sentences for homosexuality, whether actual or intended, and jail terms for people or groups promoting homosexuality.

What this means, for instance, is that a gay couple caught kissing can be locked up for life. So can someone found to have touched another person "with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality." Rights groups found guilty of supporting homosexuality can be shut down and their directors jailed for up to seven years.

Power Politics

When the law was proposed five years ago, Museveni showed no liking for it. Even after it won overwhelming support in parliament, he indicated he wouldn't sign.

But elections are on the horizon in 2016, and Museveni, 69, is eager to extend his rule. Assenting to the law is a party-pleaser and a vote-winner.

Autocratic by nature and a soldier by profession, Museveni is used to giving orders, so he made an uncomfortable Pontius Pilate over the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

He said he'd sign the bill only if homosexuality was proved to be a choice. Then he washed his hands of responsibility by appointing a panel of Ugandan scientists to rule on whether homosexuals were born or made.

Museveni initially spun the decision to sign the bill as a pragmatic response to the science. Then he justified his wholehearted support as an act of defiance in the face of "arrogant and careless Western groups that are fond of coming into our schools and recruiting young children into homosexuality and lesbianism."

At root, Africa's homophobia is political: domestic politics trumping both human rights and threats of aid cuts from Western donors.

Draconian as the new laws are, the awkward truth is that they're popular. And leaders will readily sacrifice gay rights in the quest for political power.

In Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan's passing of similar legislation last month was widely interpreted as a way of shoring up support ahead of elections next year and distracting attention from an Islamic insurgency spinning out of control in the north.

Living in Fear

Since Uganda's law came into force, Onziema, the activist, has "registered an increase in fear in the [LGBT] community. People are withdrawing from their daily lives. Some are trying to leave the country."

Onziema said gays and other sexual minorities have been evicted from their homes and increasingly fear for their lives. SMUG has received reports of physical abuse and beatings. In one instance, a young man was publicly stripped for wearing skinny jeans, deemed "effeminate" by his tormentors.

Onziema has seen this sort of thing before and knows to fear it. In 2010 a short-lived tabloid called the Rolling Stone published a list of homosexuals under the headline "Hang Them: They Are After Our Kids!!" Among those named was well-known activist David Kato. Soon afterward Kato was beaten to death in what police called a botched robbery.

In other parts of Africa where anti-gay rhetoric is becoming more strident, the most powerful people are often the most vocal.

Hateful Rhetoric

In a speech this month to mark his country's 49th independence anniversary, Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh called homosexuals "ungodly, Satanic ... vermins" (sic) and threatened to impose the death penalty.

While celebrating his 90th birthday last week, President Robert Mugabe took the opportunity to remind Zimbabweans that "we don't accept homosexuality here."

In Liberia, a legislator wants homosexuality listed as a "deviant behavior" for which public officials could be censured.

Even in relatively liberal Kenya, a cross-party parliamentary group was set up this month to strengthen laws against homosexuality. MP Irungu Kangata, one of the caucus founders, argues that the current 14-year jail sentence is insufficient to counter "rampant and active pro-gay activities in Kenya."

In an email exchange, Kangata parsed the anti-gay position in Africa. He criticized President Obama's pro-gay "outbursts," Western meddling, and moral corruption. He referenced religion, African tradition, and African dignity. He espoused family values, warned of disease, and discerned "a subtle racism" and elitism in the gay rights movement.

"As heterosexuals we have the right to protect our turf," Kangata asserted. "[We must] maintain Kenya as an anti-gay country."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Kenyan MP Irungu Kangata cited the Bible in making a case for stronger anti-gay laws. Instead, Kangata cited "religion" in general.

Tristan McConnell is a correspondent for GlobalPost.