“I need to get out of here. I’m afraid they’ll kill me if I stay.”
After months of indecision that included a scientific fact-finding mission to unearth whether homosexuality had a physiological gene or was learned through socialization, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signed a bill that significantly tightened homosexuality laws in the country.
Surrounded by jovial local MPs and a chorus of journalists, the signing was as much a political stunt as it was an act of defiance. Although threats by President Obama and other western leaders had stalled Museveni’s ascension, in the end, it proved to be perhaps its biggest catalyst.
“Outsiders cannot dictate to us,” said Museveni at the ceremony. “This is our country. I advise friends from the west not to make this an issue because if they make it an issue, the more they will lose.”
Upon hearing this ominous news, I called “Jane” a gay, transgender friend of mine. “I’m stuck in my house,” she said. “I’m hungry, but I’m too afraid to go outside.” I convinced Jane to take a motorcycle taxi to my house. She arrived an hour later, fraught with fear. “I can’t believe this has happened,” she said. “I need to get out of here. I’m afraid they’ll kill me if I stay.”
Homosexuality has long been illegal in Uganda under a British colonial ban, but the new law, which includes life sentences for repeat offenders and imprisonment for lesbians and gays, and anybody found guilty of promoting homosexuality, provides a new license to target homosexuals. Just one day after the law was signed, Uganda’s most incendiary newspaper outed “Uganda’s 200 Top Homos” in a front-page story.
The danger for such individuals in a country with a weak judicial system is not necessarily arrest, but violent street justice. Although it is the police’s duty to protect, its record as a corrupt, unreliable, and partisan institution will leave members of this community feeling vulnerable.
Last week, after Museveni signed an anti-pornography bill — a law designed to neuter Uganda’s sexually charged climate by outlawing pornography and other sexually provocative material — several women were attacked for wearing skirts deemed too short.
The reaction against gay citizens—a community largely reviled by the public—will only be more intense. “Even before this bill was signed people were throwing stones at me and telling me that I wasn’t human,” said Jane. “For weeks I’ve been hearing that once the law is passed, they’re ‘going to work on me.’”
Although the anti-homosexual law has been harshly condemned in the west and has already prompted Norway and Denmark to either divert or withhold millions in aid, it has engendered a sense of nationalistic pride at home. Despite anthropological evidence testifying otherwise, Ugandans—and Africans in general—are convinced that homosexuality is a western import and “seen through this prism,” explains David Smith, The Guardian’s African editor, “a strike against gay and lesbian people is a strike against colonialism and in favor of African nationalism and self-worth.”
The fact that LGBT issues are still relatively unknown in Uganda has also played a role. Even my roommate, a well-educated Ugandan journalist, was shocked to see Jane in our home. “I just didn’t know someone like that existed,” he later told me. “I’ve never personally heard a man admit to being attracted to another.”
And in a country where illiteracy is high and Internet penetration is low, this ignorance has allowed local politicians and the growing presence of U.S.-funded anti-gay Evangelical campaigners to hijack the issue. When Museveni tells his countrymen that “arrogant and careless western groups” are trying to recruit children into homosexuality, or a leading pastor tells his congregation homosexuals “eat each other’s poo poo,” they have no reason to believe otherwise.
When I recently asked a stranger at the gym why he supported the law, he told me it was necessary to save Africa’s culture. “You guys from America and Europe don’t understand,” he explained. “Uganda is a poor country. If we let this continue men will prostitute their ass to survive. It’s already happening. This will destroy our country.”
Simon Lokodo, a former Catholic priest and Uganda’s minister of ethics and integrity, took it even further. "[Homosexuality] only does damage and destruction. You cannot have a right to be a sick human being,” he said in a recent interview with The Guardian. "Excretion is through the anus, like the exhaust of an engine. The human body receives what it takes from the mouth. They're twisting nature the wrong way. Homosexuality will destroy humanity because there is no procreation; it will destroy health because the backsides will not hold."
As of now the situation in Kampala, the capital, is calm. Although the law was received with jubilant scenes, and a large anti-gay rally is planned for March 4, the international media has given it more precedence than its local counterparts. Vitriol against homosexuals on Uganda’s social networks, however, is voluminous.
For people like Jane, the law and its implications will continue to be a daily battle. The threat of being attacked — whether at home or on the street — is a constant worry. “I have only one option left,” she said. “I need to flee. Go somewhere deep in the village, dress different, act different, grow a beard, whatever it takes to survive. Staying here I won’t live long.”
Matthew Stein navigates unique and unfamiliar sex cultures at eroticroutes.com.
Image via Flickr.