BY JOHN AGABA
When Uganda’s Constitutional Court annulled the Anti Homosexuality Act 2014, many gay people —who had been living under fear and contemplating fleeing the country breathed a sigh of relief.
The government may have been responding to international pressure, but withdrawing the law also induced some form of optimism for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people that maybe, the east African country would stop the unmerited attention towards homosexuals and begin to respect their rights moving forward.
“It was comparable to winning a fight that didn’t need to have been started in the fist place,” said a member of the LGBT community who preferred anonymity.
“It felt like a step in the right direction.”
Then the LGBT community started to dream of life where they could choose the partners they wanted to be with and express themselves without fear of reproach or the law.
Now, however, five years after retracting the law, also known as Kill the Gays, the old odium towards homosexuals that brought the 2014 law into debate in the first place has been resurrected.
Over the past few months, Uganda has witnessed cases of attacks, assault and arrests of LGBT people in the country, raising concerns over their safety and human rights.
In an unprecedented move, Ugandan police arrested more than 60 people after a raid on a bar frequented by LGBT people in the capital Kampala this month. This was the biggest raid on members of the community in the east African country in recent history.
Police said it arrested the 60 people for being in possession of narcotics — opium and shisha — and would charge them under the Tobacco Control Act.
But LGBT activists have described the incident as another act of intimidation towards the gay community.
This is the second time in under a month that Uganda police have raided a place popular with the LGBT community. At least 16 other activists were arrested on suspicion of engaging in gay sex last month.
The men aged between 22 and 35 years worked at an office of a sexual health charity, Let’s Walk Uganda. Police initially took them into what it called “protective custody”, after a crowd shouting homophobic insults surrounded their office, rights groups said.
But they detained the 16 men later after they found lubricants, condoms and ARV drugs at the charity offices and conducted medical examinations on the activists.
Patrick Onyango, the police spokesperson for Kampala Metropolitan, said the suspects were involved in “sexual acts punishable under the penal code” following a medical examination report.
Frank Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, later said that the 16 activists were held for more than 48 hours and forced to undergo anal examinations–an act that activists have condemned as a violation of human rights, before they were released on bail. In another incidence earlier this year, a medical worker allegedly assaulted a woman at his private health facility after he suspected she was lesbian. The woman had come to seek medical care. A member of the LGBT community who did not want his name identified said some members of the community had started to watch over their shoulders and risked physical attacks.
“It is a lot [that] we are dealing with. There is already the everyday harassment and segregation from a biased community, now this,” he said.
The Member of Parliament for Bufumbira East constituency, James Nsaba Buturo said last month parliament planned to introduce a bill similar to the 2014 law, which stipulates the death penalty for gay sex, although the government has recently come out to deny that such a plan was in the offing.
Nicholas Opiyo, a human rights lawyer in Kampala says the renewed attacks on the LGBT community in the country extends to more than just gay prerogatives.
“These attacks are not just about LGBT people,” says Opiyo. “We are going into an election season (2021 general polls). Some unpopular candidates are coming out with statements targeting the LGBT community to gain political capital.”
“As long as the politicians keep making these statements against LGBT people, the homophobics will seize their opportunity,” says Opiyo.
“Statements by public officials targeting these [minority] groups can only embolden the homophobic.”
Opiyo notes that increased attacks on the LGBT community could see a number of them go into hiding for fear of being assaulted or arrested.
However, the human rights lawyer is hopeful that the renewed victimisation, though disturbing, would not escalate to levels where individuals start seeking asylum.
“Uganda understands very well that the international community will not standby and just look as these attacks keep happening,” adds Opiyo.
And he is right.
Following Nsaba Buturo revelations in Parliament, the Minister in Charge of the Presidency, Esther Mbayo issued a statement clarifying that the country did not plan to introduce a law punishing homosexuals by death.
Before that, Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng also called on medical workers not to discriminate against patients based on their gender or sexual orientation. She noted that the country encouraged access to quality healthcare for all its citizens.
Section 145 of the Penal Code says any person who has “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” or anyone who agrees to anal sex is liable to life imprisonment.
But the law is a holdover from British colonial rule and Opiyo says LGBT and other human rights activists in the country could start looking to challenging it to have it repealed when “the timing is right.”
“Carnal knowledge against the order of nature does not only criminalize same sex relations. It is also saying oral sex by heterosexuals is wrong. That persons cannot use their mouth or hands when having intercourse and women cannot use vibrators… all these are against the order of nature. It (law) has lots of gaps,” says Opiyo.
He adds that over the years, there have been “intense discussions” even at the level of the commonwealth to repeal the law.
“It is the British who introduced this law when they colonized Uganda, so they can encourage their former colonies to repeal it, having moved on from it themselves,” he adds.
But the ultimate responsibility to challenge the anti-gay law falls on local human rights and LGBT activists, he adds.
But how they will do this remains the biggest obstacle.
“They cannot freely express themselves and take pride in who they are without fear of being victimised,” says Douglas Mawadri, a lawyer working with Sexual Minorities Uganda, which advocates for the protection and promotion of human rights of LGBT Ugandans.
“They are basically living in a closet because they will be persecuted should a wrong individual learn of their orientation. They lack peer support,” he adds.
And their families too, don’t help.
A 2016 global survey on gay attitudes https://ilga.org/downloads/Ilga_Riwi_Attitudes_LGBTI_survey_Logo_personal_political.pdf indicated that 19 per cent of Ugandans said they would be upset if their child fell in love with a person of the same sex.
Opiyo describes incidences where relatives have hired goons to rape family members they suspect were lesbian.
But LGBT rights in Uganda are more than just sentiments about same sex relations.
For instance, the LGBT people here cannot freely access quality healthcare because of these societal prejudices.
“Most times, members of the LGBT community will choose to hold back and not reveal full extents of what they are suffering from when they visit hospitals because they know they will be subjected to all forms of dehumanising treatment once the people in authority discover they are gay or bisexual,” says Opiyo.
He further adds that the LGBT groups are some of the most vulnerable people at risk of contracting HIV in Uganda, yet societal prejudices and punitive laws are hindering their access to quality care and wellbeing.
“It makes the whole thing a mockery when you consider Uganda has signed all these treaties—to end HIV as a public health threat by 2030,” Opiyo says.