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New law makes harsher climate for gay Ugandans

Ugandan pupils from different schools take part in an event organised by born-again Christians to celebrate the signing of a new anti-gay bill that sets harsh penalties for homosexual sex, at the Omega Healing Center outside of Kampala, in Uganda Monday, Feb. 24, 2014.
Ugandan pupils from different schools take part in an event organised by born-again Christians to celebrate the signing of a new anti-gay bill.
AP Photo/Stephen Wandera

Boston, MA – Returning home to Uganda after two years makes James* feel uneasy. As a gay man from a country that penalizes homosexuality, James cannot even use his real name for fear of outing himself to the wrong people.

“I choose not to think about it,” he said to Humanosphere.

Only some friends and family know that that he James is gay. Being out has not necessarily changed the minds of the people close to him. The Boston-area student said that friends that do not know about his sexuality will freely share anti-homosexual sentiments on social media.

“The ones that know; I will post something on Facebook and they won’t say anything,” he said. “They choose not to engage in that, but they will comment on other things.”

That was before the east African nation’s President Yoweri Museveni signed into law legislation that now imposes harsher penalties on homosexuality. People can now go to jail for life if convicted of “aggravated homosexuality.” Such a punishment would be dealt to those having gay sex with a minor, having sex if infected with HIV and with a vulnerable victim. It adds onto existing laws that carried punishments from 14 years to life in prison.

The law makes for a more tense situation in a country that has witnessed hostility towards gay Ugandans. Activist David Kato was among some 100 Ugandans outed by the tabloid magazine Rolling Stone in 2010. A year later he was brutally attacked in his home. He died on the way to the hospital. A public outcry galvanized the issue of gay rights in Uganda to slow down anti-gay legislation, but the law finally passed.

Such tactics were undertaken only a day after the bill was signed.The headline on today’s Ugandan tabloid magazine Red Pepper, touted exposing “Uganda’s 200 Top Homos.” International leaders reacted strongly to the signing.

“We will continue to urge the Ugandan government to repeal this abhorrent law and to advocate for the protection of the universal human rights of LGBT persons in Uganda and around the world,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Though the bill that passed is far less severe that the version which included the death penalty, it garnered strong opposition after the Ugandan legislature sent the bill to the president’s desk, in December. South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu pleaded on Sudan for Museveni to reject the bill. He expressed his dismay that Ugandan president was considering signing the bill, after promising to Tutu that he would not do so only a moth ago.

“We must be entirely clear about this: the history of people is littered with attempts to legislate against love or marriage across class, caste, and race. But there is no scientific basis or genetic rationale for love. There is only the grace of God. There is no scientific justification for prejudice and discrimination, ever,” said Tutu.

Kenyan gays and lesbians and others supporting their cause wear masks to preserve their anonymity as they stage a rare protest, against Uganda's increasingly tough stance against homosexuality outside the Uganda High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya.
Kenyan gays and lesbians and others supporting their cause wear masks to preserve their anonymity as they stage a rare protest, against Uganda’s increasingly tough stance against homosexuality outside the Uganda High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya.

A day later, Museveni brought press to witness his signing of the bill. He released an accompanying statement that decried the perversion of homosexuality and acts like oral sex, which he claimed can cause worms, hepatitis E, and more. As expected, the crux of his case rested upon a recent ‘scientific study‘ that his office commissioned on the issue of homosexuality. It’s authors determined that homosexuality was not a genetic happenstance, fueling claims that it is an unnatural choice.

The research was carried out by scientists from the Ugandan Ministry of Health and Mekerere University, one of the nation’s leading centers of higher education. The final report concluded that homosexuality was not a detectable genetic occurrence, therefore it cannot be treated medically. With little scientific evidence to lean on, the report takes a moral argument by intimating that same-sex relations is un-natural. Bolstered by out of date research, it suggests that homosexuality should be controlled

“Since nurture is the main cause of homosexuality, then society can do something about it to discourage the trends. That is why I have agreed to sign the Bill,” concluded Museveni, based on his reading of the report.

Museveni cited the negative influence of outsiders, singling out western nations. He joins other African leaders who have taken a strong stance against homosexuality. Human rights activists point to the meddling of outsiders who support the banning of homosexuality.

Massachusetts-based preacher, Scott Lively, is in the midst of a US Federal court case for having promoted anti-gay sentiments in Uganda. The lawsuit claims that Lively actively conspired with leaders in Uganda to put forward the 2009 bill that included the death penalty.

“It is ridiculous that they are trying to pass the law,” said James in response to Museveni’s months-long consideration of the bill. “It will be very heartbreaking when they find that it’s their brother that they are prosecuting or your sister, or your best friend or your uncle.”

James does not think that homosexuality should be a leading concern for his country. He said he would rather see a bill on corruption passed.

“We have other things to take care of that are more urgent, like the hospitals, education system and corruption. Homosexuality should not be that big of a deal,” said James.

The cover of today's Red Pepper, a Ugandan tabloid.
The cover of today’s Red Pepper, a Ugandan tabloid.

Health groups in Uganda worry that the law will further impact their work. The stronger law will make it harder for medical professionals to treat gay individuals, a group that is often at higher risk of contracting diseases like HIV/AIDS.

“We and our Ugandan partners can’t do this if patients are at risk disclosing their sexual orientation and doctors and nurses are put in harm’s way for treating gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) Ugandans,” warned Dr. Vanessa Kerry, MD, MSc, CEO of Seed Global Health, an organization that provides training for medical professionals in Uganda.

Amid the concerns, there are still those pressing on. The possibility of returning home may seem more bleak for James now that the bill is signed into law, but Ugandans are not taking it quietly. Though still in the minority, activists continue to fight for their rights, despite the possibility of jail.

“Okay listen, WE are NOT afraid of who we are, we are AFRAID of what you can do to us because of what you think we are. ,” tweeted Ugandan gay rights activist Pepe Onziema in response to the signing.

*Name changed to preserve anonymity.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]