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Why is homophobia so strong in Uganda?

April 21, 2023

On May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia, we take a new look at Uganda, which aims to impose punishments.

Man with a red sticker on his cheek that reads, "Some Ugandans are gay. Get over it".
Ongoing issue: At a LGBTQ celebration in Uganda in 2014Image: Rebecca Vassie/AP Photo/picture alliance

On May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) occurs — people around the world take to the streets for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

33 years ago, on May 17, 1990, homosexuality was removed from the ICD-10 catalog of the World Health Organization (WHO), which had previously listed it as a mental illness. 28 years later, transsexuality was also removed as a "gender identity disorder" with the introduction of ICD-11. Since 2005, the Day of Action against Homophobia and Transphobia has been a reminder of these achievements.

However, there is still much to be done, for example in Uganda.

Law against homosexuality: weakened, but still tough

In March of this year, the Ugandan parliament passed a law with only two votes against it that would punish homosexualitywith draconian penalties.

The death penalties could be imposed for homosexual acts considered "aggravated." The bill has also stipulated prison sentences of up to 10 years for same-sex relationships. People who harbor homosexual people, provide them with medical treatment or legal assistance can also be punished with up to 10 years in prison.

For the law to take effect, it needed the signature of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. However, in April 2023, Museveni summoned ruling party MPs to discuss the bill before making a decision — and sent the anti-LGBTQ legislation, which he supports, back to parliament for "strengthening."

John Musila, man turns his back to camera, wears a white cloak that reads "Say no to homosexual Lesbianism Gay
Ugandan MP John Musila flashes this anti-LGBTQ message in parliament in 2023 Image: Ronald Kabuubi/AP Photo/picture alliance

The LGBTQ scene is increasingly being forced underground. LGBTQ organizations, cultural institutions that often serve as safe spaces for the LGBTQ community and the arts sector, are all affected.

Why is there such hatred against the LGBTQ community in Uganda? DW spoke with Ugandan anthropologist and pro-LGBTQ activist Stella Nyanzi and Ugandan human rights activist Edward Mutebi about Ugandan society. Both live in exile. Fearing censorship and persecution, few culture leaders in Uganda speak out about the situation.

Is homosexuality — or homophobia — a Western import?

To justify possibly enforcing the law, Ugandan politicians claim support in society — which is why they call homosexuality "un-African." Ugandan LGBTQ activist Edward Mutebi, a refugee who lives in Berlin, disagrees. He told DW that there has always been homosexuality in Uganda, but that colonization and later the US missionaries introduced homophobic ideas.

Yoweri Museveni, man sits in a chair at a table,  headset on  his head.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni Image: Algerian Presidency/AA/picture alliance

Many of the American evangelists who came to Uganda in the 1990s still live there, says Stella Nyanzi, adding that they poison the discourse: "We have a number of churches where the senior pastor is an American. Pastor Martin Ssempa, one of the most vocal homophobes and one of the biggest mobilizers of the anti-gay movement is married to an American." Priests like Ssempa spread a lot of misinformation in society, she says.

Nyanzi has repeatedly been imprisoned in Uganda and has been in exile in Munich since early 2022 as a fellow of the German PEN writers' association.

But the basic problem is that Uganda is still strongly influenced by the era of colonialism, Nyanzi says. Church missionaries brought Christianity to the country during British colonial rule, which officially ended in 1962.

The condemnation of homosexuality as "un-African" is pursued with zeal on the African continent, especially in conservative Christian circles — although Christianity is, from a historic point of view, a Western import, too. "While Africans argued that homosexuality was a Western import, they in turn used a Western religion as the basis for their argument," Nigerian LGBTQ activist Bisi Alimi wrote in 2015 in Britain's The Guardian, adding that many people justify their homophobic views by saying that homosexuality is not in the Bible. There is a "real confusion about Africa's past," Alimi concludes.

The British missionaries created the Protestant Anglican Church of Uganda, which is affiliated with the Church of England, Nyanzi says, adding that much of today's hostility toward homosexuals can be traced back to that.

Stella Nyanzi: woman speaking, gesticulates.
Stella Nyanzi lives in exileImage: James Wakibia/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

Western influences are everywhere in the country

Mutebi says the claim that homosexuality is a Western import is ridiculous. "MPs drive Western cars and wear Western clothes; some spend most of their time in Western countries, in America," he says. Some MPs are flown out of the country to get medical care in the West when they get sick, he adds, arguing that "there is so much Western influence in Uganda."

Without Western influence, members of parliament would be discussing parliamentary issues in the nude, he says. It is not true that Western influence has brought homosexuality to Uganda, says Mutebi.

Edward Mutebi, man seated, others with laptops and phones in rows behind in a conference setting.
Human rights activist Edward MutebiImage: Konrad Hirsch

A historical example comes from King Kabaka Mwanga II (1868 – 1903), who was allegedly gay, says Edward Mutebi. "The issue of homosexuality didn't just begin with this generation," he told DW. "It has been there all the time. People have always lived with homosexuals." In the late 19th century, Mwanga II ruled the then-powerful independent kingdom of Buganda, the central part of present-day Uganda.

Culture sector silent for the most part

The anti-homosexuality bill refers to the protection of Ugandan culture. However, says Nynazi, there is no mention of the fact that Uganda has quite a few artists "well loved by Ugandans simply because they don't know their sexual orientations." If people knew that the man whose songs they sing along to is gay, "maybe the hatred would not be as widespread," she argues.

Mwanga, King of Uganda, historical etching of several men in white robes, seated.
Mwanga, King of Uganda, in 1894Image: Mary Evans Picture Library/picture alliance

There is a lack of cultural role models and other public figures who could convince society that the anti-gay law should not be implemented.

"So many religious people have spoken out against homosexuality," says Edward Mutebi. "But we have not seen any of the cultural leaders coming out to criminalize or to persecute or to support the bill — and culture means a lot to Ugandans."

Andrew Mwenda, a journalist and prominent opponent of the law, was awarded the American International Press Freedom Award in 2008 for his "special contributions to press freedom." A politician, he is also in the ruling National Resistance Movement party. "Yet he is very vocal when it comes to supporting LGBTQ people," Mutebi points out, adding that recently Mwenda in an interview "crushed the entire bill as being redundant."

Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II: man in elaborate garb, carried by a group of other men and protected by a large umbrella.
Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II has been King of Buganda since 1993 Image: Photoshot/picture alliance

The King of Buganda, descendant of Mwanga II — who was the last independent king or kabaka of the kingdom of Buganda — could also take a stand, which he has not. "I haven't seen my Buganda King come out to persecute homosexuals. The king is a cultural leader and he's been silent about this. So why would I listen to anyone telling me about culture when my own king, the Kabaka of Buganda, has not said anything negative about my sexuality or any other sexuality," says Mutebi.

LGBTQ scene pushed out of sight

It is high time to make a statement, says Mutebi, as the LGBTQ scene is being pushed out of sight. It's frustrating, he says: "Whenever the government finds out about a place that could be supporting or housing or giving space to LGBTiQ people, these places are cleared and people arrested."

He remembers the RAM bar, "a creative space for LGBTQ people who used to meet there every Sunday" that was raided by police in 2019. About 100 people were arrested and the place was closed. "Now there are no openly gay or LGBTQ creative spaces in Uganda, they have all been closed down," he says, pointing out that there are queer artists, but they are keeping a low profile "because of the current situation."

Andrew Mwenda, man in formal dress speaking into microphones.
Andrew Mwenda has threatened to turn to the Constitutional Court to challenge the billImage: Stuart Ramson/AP/picture alliance

The new law would restrict the creation of LGBTQ cultural spaces even more, Mutebi says: "If someone wants to rent a space to turn it into a cultural center, or a queer bar or club — no one is allowed to provide a space under the law, because if you provide a person with your apartment or rent a space to LGBTQ people or homosexuals, you're criminalizing yourself."

Stella Nyanzi argues that Ugandan artists could make people rethink the issue if they dared — like Sheebah Karungi, a pop singer who "has been wearing T-shirts and dresses with the rainbow." The messages are subtle, just like Andrew Mwenda's, who once wore rainbow socks on TV, Nyanzi says.

This article was originally written in German and was updated on May 17, 2023 from the original published on April 21, 2023.