The Anti-Gay Movement in Uganda Is Still Alive and Kicking
Anti-gay laws, attacks, and evangelism are all part of the increasingly dangerous witch hunt against Uganda's LGBTQ community.
All stills from 'VICE on HBO' documentary, 'A Prayer for Uganda.' Photos courtesy of VICE on HBO
In anticipation of the upcoming fourth season of our HBO show, which will premiere February 5 at 11 PM, we are releasing all of season three for free online along with updates to the stories. Today's installment follows up on a dispatch called "A Prayer for Uganda." For the story, correspondent Isobel Yeung traveled to Uganda to meet some of the anti-gay leaders teaching intolerance to the country's youth. While there, she uncovered disturbing ties between their message and the lessons that American fundamentalists have been pushing for years.
Watch the video below:
When Winston Churchill referred to the landlocked East African nation of Uganda as the "pearl of Africa," he described it as "fairy tale"-like: lush, beautiful, complex, diverse, at times radiant. Decades after the moniker stuck, Uganda has established Makerere University, an extremely competitive institution where Africans from all over the continent have flocked for serious studies while being groomed to be parliamentarians and future leaders in their recently independent countries. However, in more recent years, the already deeply conservative country has become known for its increasingly hostile and violent attitudes toward its LGBTQ community.
Passed in October 2009, Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act targeted the most marginalized and vulnerable members of the country's population with extreme penalties, including life imprisonment for gay sex, oral sex, and living in a same-sex marriage. In his attempt to legislate sexual desire, the bill's author, Member of Parliament David Bahati, characterized homosexuals as sexual deviants essentially driven by predatory sexual practices, specifically "converting" young boys under the age of 18 and the disabled. Noticeably absent from the bill's language was any reference to a homosexual lifestyle. The bill refuses to conceive of any scenario where two gay or lesbian Ugandans could together as adults for consensual, healthy same-sex relations. Although the act was struck down in 2014 for procedural reasons, Bahati has promised to bring back the "Kill the Gays" bill, as it's been nicknamed by Western media.
The witch hunt against Uganda's LGBTQ community isn't only political, but something more deeply embedded in the fabric of the nation, where homosexuality has been illegal since Uganda's first post-colonial Constitution was penned in 1962, laws the country inherited from Britain. More recently, the war on gay Ugandans has been fueled, in part, by American evangelicals, including Massachusetts pastor Scott Lively, who is currently being sued for inviting violence against the LGBTQ community and conspiring, with local anti-gay activists, to deprive gay Ugandans of their fundamental rights. At times the Ugandan media has also furthered this atmosphere of intolerance. In 2011, a now-defunct tabloid ran the infamous cover story "100 Pictures of Uganda's Top Homos Leak," which doxed suspected gay Ugandans and allies. The story led to the publication being sued—it lost—and contributed, some Ugandans believe, to the death of leading gay rights activist David Kato. In 2014, another Ugandan tabloid published a similar list of "top 200 homosexuals" under the headline "EXPOSED!"
As a native of Tanzania who was raised in Kenya and its neighboring countries, and someone who identifies as LGBTQ, I know firsthand the challenges and struggles—and dangers—the LGBTQ community faces in East and Central Africa. Silence is erasure, dismissal, and invisibility—in short, it equals nonexistence. These are all forms of death, socially speaking, and it's a threat that is quite literally experienced by the Ugandan activists who are forced to live in the shadows. For those suspected of being LGBTQ, death threats, violent attacks, and corrective rape are among the many methods of intimidation into silence.
In the 2015 VICE documentary "A Prayer for Uganda," correspondent Isobel Yeung traveled to Uganda to learn about these issues firsthand, particularly how anti-gay American evangelists have contributed to an atmosphere of hate, dehumanization, and violence. A year after the making of the documentary, I caught up with Yeung to talk about what it was like to do this reporting, the dangers LGBTQ Ugandans face, and what's been happening since.
VICE: What happened when you spoke to Ugandans about homosexuality? Did you notice that responses differed according to the person's gender, tribe, urban, rural, age, class, or education?
Isobel Yeung: I'd say in general the younger generation are more impassioned about homosexuality being a bad thing. They've grown up with politics and society pushing for a homophobic agenda, so it's not surprising. Having said that, everyone we met felt pretty strongly that being gay was deeply wrong.
Did you get the sense that Ugandans were really concerned/consumed with homosexuality? Or did you get the sense that the concern was being cultivated?
It's hard to separate the two. At what point does political influence stop and personal concern take over? But the fact that concern is so widespread and that didn't exist a couple decades ago definitely implies that strong influences are involved.
If the Ugandan government is scapegoating, what is being obscured when the focus falls on homosexuals?
It seems like a lot of politicians have jumped on the homosexual bandwagon. They use it for campaigning and winning power because it's a hot topic and a cheap way to gain support. I'm also sure there are politicians who would just love the whole issue to go away precisely because it is so divisive.
To what extent do ordinary Ugandans know or have personal contact with someone they know is homosexual?
There's not much of a homosexual community in Uganda, apart from advocates who are a whole other level of brave. But people who live with others of the same sex or who live a different lifestyle to what's considered normal are all under threat. I've met a lot of individuals who are in danger simply because they're not married and as a result constantly have to move homes and neighborhoods.
Can you describe an especially memorable person who was directly affected by the anti-homosexual bill?
In the film we met a lesbian whose name we withheld. I'm normally pretty good with keeping some distance from subjects, but her story was so horrific that it was hard to do that. She recalls the anti-gay bill coming up and this witch hunt ensuing. Her life is a reflection of the bill.
Did you have a chance to come into contact with local activists?
Yes, we met a few, several of whom are housebound because it's too dangerous and unpleasant to venture outside. They're fighting an uphill battle because general sentiment is so against them. But it's still amazing that there are small-scale LGBTQ groups in colleges and around Kinshasa, fighting to spread their word and to make the public aware of attacks that have been committed on LGBTQ people.
Have you heard anything about that promise or the new bill?
I'm afraid I haven't heard any follow-up. But I do know that the situation has not improved for the people we met—some of whom have had to flee the country for fear of their lives.
Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko is an FtM queer African whose book, Waafrika, is available on Amazon.