The Activists Working To Keep LGBTQ Ugandans Healthy And Safe

Admitting to being gay in Uganda can lead to “being disowned by the family, poverty, and discrimination regarding education, health and job opportunities.”

On Sunday, June 30, the streets of New York City were flooded with bedazzled, rainbow-wearing, grinning people celebrating WorldPride. It was the culmination of a month of joyous, defiant events the world over, celebrated in the city where it all began back in 1969. It’s estimated that the WorldPride march surpassed expectations with a whopping 5 million attendees. We’ve certainly come a long way in the half-century since the Stonewall Uprising.

Elsewhere in the world, celebrating LGBTQ Pride—or even being openly LGBTQ—is not as joyous. In many regions, queer folks of all stripes still face persecution, arrest, violence, and even death if they are open about their sexual orientation or gender identity. And while we revel in the progress being made in the USA, it’s important to recognize the intimate relationship our country and its allies have had to the criminalization of identity. It’s likewise crucial that we recognize the staggering work being done by courageous activists to combat these civil rights abuses. 

SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda) is an umbrella organization that unites numerous smaller groups (FARUG, Icebreakers Uganda, Transgender Initiative Uganda, and Spectrum Uganda to name a few) under the common cause of fighting for basic civil liberties for LGBTQ Ugandans. Much of their work is focused on protection from persecution by both police and civilians and helping community members get access to legal aid and health care. Each of the other member organizations has its own goals. Together, they provide healthcare, counseling, legal protections, and financial help (among other services) to LGBTQ people across the country. 

According to a study by the Danish Refugee Council in 2014, the perils that LGBTQ Ugandans face are many and atrocious. Being arrested or physically attacked then blackmailed by the perpetrators who threaten to expose them as gay or transgender is relatively commonplace. Being outed is a serious threat; according to the same study, it can result in “being disowned by the family, poverty, and discrimination regarding education, health and job opportunities.” 

Under the Ugandan Penal Code, section 145 (a), “carnal knowledge of any persons against the order of nature” is a punishable crime. The Penal Code Act actually dates back to the British Colonial rule of the 19th century and was instituted as an extension of the British Buggery Laws, first enacted by King Henry VIII in 1533. Many other areas previously under British rule have repealed the act, but the Ugandan Penal Code Act has not been revisited since its inception in the late 1800s. This may seem like ancient history and, for a while, it kind of was.  This obscure and ill-defined law was infrequently enforced, and LGBTQ issues were not a particularly hot topic in Ugandan politics. In recent years, that has changed drastically. The combination of a rise in vocal advocacy on the part of LGBTQ civil rights organizations and the incitement to violence by outside players has made homosexuals and transgender individuals both more visible and more vulnerable. 

In 2009, three American pastors, Scott Lively, Don Schmierer, and Caleb Lee Brundidge, gave a series of workshops in Uganda about the “homosexual agenda.” Lively is a particularly abhorrent and prominent figure in the world of anti-gay rhetoric. He famously authored The Pink Swastika, in which he claimed that homosexuality led to the militarization of Nazi Germany. He has also demanded that the LGBTQ movement relinquish the rainbow, as it “belongs to God.” During his talks in Kampala, he stressed his idea that the LGBTQ community poses a threat to the traditional family by recruiting young people to be gay or trans and promoting pedophilia. He also claimed that the Rwandan genocide in 1994 “probably involved gay monsters.” Following these seminars, several high ranking officials, including the President and leading religious figures, began drafting the now infamous Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA), largely on the basis of claims made by Lively and his cohorts. The AHA was initially struck down, then revisited and signed into law in 2014, then struck down again, then reinstated in 2018. It is still widely contested, and SMUG activists continue to fight it in various courts. 

The year after Lively visited Kampala, a local tabloid called Rolling Stone (no relation to the American Rolling Stone Magazine) printed a list of “known homosexuals” (with addresses and pictures) and called for the public to find and “hang them.” The following year, David Kato, a prominent LGBTQ activist who had been featured in the article, was bludgeoned to death in his home. Lively, who has since run for Governor of Massachusetts, is currently being sued by the Center for Constitutional Rights.

It is in this context that SMUG activists and their partner organizations come to work every day and fight for LGBT rights in Uganda. They know they could be arrested (or worse) for being outspoken on these issues, but they do it anyway. Many of them have been arrested numerous times. 

Disregarding these dangers, SMUG member organizations continue to act daily on many fronts. FARUG has set up walk-in clinics around the country where lesbian, bisexual, and queer Ugandans can get free medical treatment and testing. They also do amazing work advocating for the rights of LBQ women who have been subject to various forms of violence. FEMA runs national education programs, helps support the production of documentaries that tell the stories of LGBTQ Ugandans, and runs personal development and empowerment programs with a focus on those living in more rural areas. Spectrum Uganda focuses on the health of the male gay population, providing free and safe health services and disseminating important information about how to stay healthy and safe. They also have programs aimed at economic empowerment and policy changes to help lift up the community of gay male Ugandans. 

Activists in Uganda work tirelessly to better their LGBTQ community and they’ve made strides despite the vitriolic and violent backlash. Pride parades have been held in Kampala. The AHA has been struck down multiple times and drawn considerable international denouncement, including sanctions from many European countries, the World Bank, and the United States. Awareness to the plight of LGBTQ Ugandans has been raised considerably in recent years. Notably, Pepe Julian Onziema, SMUG Programme Director, appeared in a lengthy interview with John Oliver in 2014. Not to mention the simple fact that LGBTQ people are being reached with important information, access to medical treatment, legal aid, and toll-free lines with which to get various types of help. They are not alone in the face of such dire attacks on their very humanity, and that in itself is a victory. With the fate of so many hanging in the balance, the activists working for the civil rights of their community members are nothing less than true heroes.

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