by Arwen McKechnie
So, as many of you may know, after five long years of advocacy and international pressure against it, the President of Uganda has signed a bill into law which adds horrifically harsh sentences to existing Ugandan legislation criminalizing homosexuality.
The bill originally called for cases of “aggravated homosexuality” to receive the death penalty, but that has been removed. Repeat offenders of Uganda’s new law will instead be sentenced to life imprisonment, which I’m sure is cold comfort. First time offenders would receive fourteen years.
In addition to the increased prison sentences, the new bill also makes it a crime to provide any material or emotional support to LGBTQ people or causes. Allies would face possible sentences of five to seven years for providing material support to LGBTQ causes or running a business or NGO which supports equality.
For actually “enabling” homosexual behavior – by marrying a same-sex couple, or by trying to aid or counsel a queer person – the mandatory minimum goes up to seven years.
This last clause is perhaps the most ominous, which is saying something, considering all of this legislation is a nightmare.
As a much cleverer friend of mine rightly pointed out, “aid and counsel” can be defined in any number of ways. If a lawyer represents someone accused of homosexuality and that person is convicted, is the lawyer then subject to prosecution herself? Will even the possibility of that happening have a chilling effect on who is willing to take on such cases?
I fear that the answer in both cases is yes – which means that whatever defence a person could offer against conviction will be weakened right from the start. This becomes an easy way for malicious people to ruin their enemies, creating an environment ripe for witch hunts.
These concerns don’t even address the fact that to identify as queer and do anything other than abjectly apologize for it is now a crime in Uganda. How can the Ugandan LGBTQ community do anything to repeal this law or advocate for basic human decency, when to do so is itself against the law?
The witch hunts have already begun: the day after the bill was signed into law, Red Pepper, a Kampala-based tabloid listed the names of “Uganda’s 200 Top Homos”, some of whom were known LGBTQ advocates, and some of whom have never before identified as queer, and, for all we know, may not still.
Red Pepper apparently has a history of homophobic attacks on people, and with the timing of this article, their intention seems clear. This is nothing less than an appeal to mob violence and vigilantism.
The last time such a list was published in Uganda, in 2011, a known gay activist, David Kato, was murdered, shortly after being granted an injunction preventing that paper from publishing the photos and names of any more gay people; his picture was one of the ones that had been published, under the caption “Hang Them.” Red Pepper’s editorial board has poured gasoline on a fire that will almost certainly result in the death or ruin of many innocent people.
Of course, by innocent, I mean everyone. President Museveni previously refused to sign this bill into law, back when it carried a death penalty for repeat offences, because he believed that sexuality was innate, and to penalize queer people so severely, beyond the existing penalties already in place, for something beyond their control was unjust. He’s apparently since been convinced otherwise by a team of Ugandan scientists who have all attested to the fact that homosexuality is a learned behaviour.
What I think much more probable is that President Museveni recognized that this bill was enormously popular within Uganda and got sick of being lectured and threatened by the global North, and recognized that same outrage in most Ugandans. No one wants to be talked down to, or treated as less than, and the representatives of many governments made their views pointedly known on this subject, sometimes in distinctly unhelpful ways. Read more