In October 2019, international news reported the Ugandan government was reconsidering re-installation of its “Kill the Gays” bill, news met with swift condemnation. This is the third time in ten years Uganda sought to legalize homophobia in a society with significant conservative, Christian influences following a 2009 attempt and 2014 success. The 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA) legislated punishment that included: life imprisonment for consensual homosexual activity, seven years imprisonment for attempted homosexuality, and the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” – consensual sex where the “offender” is HIV+ and/or “victim” has a disability. Scholars argued the bill was a tool to distract Ugandans from rising gas and food prices following suppressed “Walk to Work” labour campaigns, to redirect government anger towards homosexuality. American evangelists helped promote this cultural homophobia, relying on usual tropes/stigmas of a “gay agenda,” of gay men sodomize boys, seeking to replace marriage-based society with sexual promiscuity. The bill became a lightning rod energizing/escalating violence towards the community. Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) estimated homophobic incidents skyrocketed 750-1900% during the time.
Five years have passed since the AHA was repealed on “technicality,” failing to meet quorum. Since then, homophobic incidents have not decreased and politicians exacerbate tensions, placing “traditional African society” at odds with LGBT-inclusion, a symbol of “Western neocolonialist ideology.” When The Independent announced Uganda was considering re-legislation, it was not surprising given inclusion has not made much headway despite activist efforts to breakdown stigma. Because the bill was implemented to distract citizens, naturally questions arise: “What is Uganda distracting us from now? Why bring back the bill?”
Uganda may re-implement the bill simply because global political timing is right. In December 2018, the Globe and Mail reported rising populism is threatening LGBTQ peoples. Since then, Brazil elected a president claiming to be a “proud homophobe,” Polish cities are declaring “LGBT-free zones,” and Chechnya continues to throw homosexuals in concentration-like-camps. These cases are snapshots of increased back-peddling trends on LGBT rights inclusion. In 2014, LGBT rights advocacy efforts were making global progress with more countries legalizing homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Current contemporary climate, however, is part of a cyclical regression of LGBT rights that Uganda took advantage of, hoping now the bill sticks.
Uganda may re-introduce this bill to distract Ugandans from other domestic issues. In July, the government implemented a daily US $0.05 social media tax on Ugandans who use WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook, to which some call a violation of free expression and information. This announcement faced public protest and escalated tensions between protestors and police. This is an ongoing issue without resolution, one of many affecting Uganda. To distract, the government relies on shared common ground in society’s hatred of sexual/gender minorities, believing homosexuality is “un-African, a Western import.” Ugandans are no more gullible than any other group to not realize what the government’s actions. But, when faced with the possibility of having rights limited further, the government institutes policies dousing any oppositional flames and anti-government sentimentality.
In a time of continuing injustice, one can feel “compassion fatigue,” unsure of where/how how to place anger and calls for activism. These unrelenting barrages make it difficult to find common ground and mobilize groups effectively. However, just as in 2014 when domestic activists thwarted the bill with some states threatening to cut aid if the bill legalized, we can do it again. In May 2019, Brunei back-peddled on enforcing the death penalty for gay people following global activist efforts threatening boycott of Sultan Bolkiah’s hotels.
Although possible to become overloaded/desensitized to injustice, one cannot discount international activist efforts in aiding SMUG and re-repealing this law. As of now, the US and EU announced they will consider countermeasures should Uganda re-legislate the AHA – an opportunity for Canada to follow suit?
Harper’s government had a mixed record in response to AHA. Until February 2013, CIDA provided $544,813 in aid grants to Crossroads Christian Communications, an evangelical group believing homosexuality is perversion, to promote Ugandan hygiene awareness. CIDA was accused of indirectly financing and supporting homophobia by funding this group. However, the government ceased funding upon review. Following, John Baird criticized the bill, urging Uganda to protect human rights regardless of sexual orientation, noting the law would impede relations. Baird’s statement was a surprise given the repercussions it would create from the party’s base. Trudeau’s minority government can follow suit and stand against this bill alongside other international partners through countermeasures. Hopefully, international outcry alongside domestic activism will be enough to stop this bill firmly in its tracks once again.
Christopher Anthony is a MA International Affairs Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. His primary research interests are in the areas of queer international relations, diplomacy and international law.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.