On the night of 10 November 2019, we received a call from someone who had been arrested. They said the police had rounded people up at an LGBTI-friendly bar. They wanted legal representation.
I am the director of the access to justice programme at the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum in Kampala, Uganda. Among other things we run a legal aid clinic for people who struggle to find legal representation, including LGBTI people.
Our organisation was the first in the country to provide legal services for LGBTI people. Now, most people know us for this work. Sometimes, we even get police officers calling us to say, “we have your people here. Come and give them legal representation”.
The morning after that call, we sent a legal team to Kampala’s central police station. There, they found a one-of-a-kind situation: overnight, not one but 125 people had been arrested!
Given the laws in our country that criminalise LGBTI lives, it’s no surprise then that many LGBTI people are arrested in Uganda each year. But 125 people in one night was unprecedented. It also happened amidst a surge of violent homophobic attacks.
In the last six months of 2019, we registered two murders, of a transgender woman and a gay man. A lesbian woman was beaten by a doctor who broke her arm, cracked her skull, and threw her out of a hospital. Two gay refugees were badly assaulted by a mob.
Sixteen members of Let’s Walk Uganda, an LGBTI shelter and rights group, were arrested and charged with “carnal knowledge against the order of nature”. (They are now free; the charges didn’t stick).
All of this also happened at a time when Uganda’s former and present ministers for ethics and integrity, Nsaba Butuuro and Simon Lokodo, were talking about re-introducing the anti-homosexuality act – emboldening the public to violate the rights of LGBTI people.
Our organisation’s approach to decriminalising the lives of LGBTI people has been incremental. But now I think the time has come that we challenge discrimination across the board and called for the total repeal of the anti-LGBTI sections of our penal code.
It’s also crucial to engage the public on ending homophobia. Those who murder LGBTI people are ordinary citizens with strong preconceptions that must be debunked for the situation to improve. This is difficult work, but we must do it now.
From colonial laws to the “Kill the Gays” bill
In Uganda, prevailing societal attitudes as well as our laws are homophobic and restrictive. Section 145 of our penal code criminalises consensual same sex relations as “carnal knowledge against the order of nature”, punishable by life imprisonment.
Meanwhile, if you’re prosecuted under Section 148 of the code for other “indecent practices” – interpreted as oral sex, anal sex and other sexual acts deemed to be outside traditional, perhaps Victorian, sexual expression – you can go to prison for up to seven years.
These are just the laws we inherited from colonial Britain. We also have other laws that have been used to target LGBTI people, including those against “idle and disorderly” conduct. Transgender people have also been arrested and charged with ‘impersonation’.
While the death penalty was removed in the version that passed, the law banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, made it an imprisonable crime to not report LGBTI people to police, and imposed life sentences for other same-sex acts, including touching in public.
We successfully challenged this law at the constitutional court and it was nullified on a procedural technicality (there weren’t enough MPs in the room when it was voted on). But the context remains tense.
A new NGO Act, passed in 2016, has made it harder for human rights organisations to support LGBTI people, by forbidding groups that work on something that is deemed to be “illegal or against the public interest” from officially registering as NGOs.
We’ve already seen restrictions like this in action. For years our authorities have prevented the Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) group from registering because of its name.
We challenged this in court but in 2018 a judge ruled against us, on the basis that it is ‘aiding and abetting an illegality’, as same-sex relationships are illegal. (We appealed this decision last year).
Worryingly, a sexual offences bill tabled last year reproduces the sections of the penal code that criminalise LGBTI relationships. It’s drafters – the Uganda Women Parliamentarians Association – have so far not heard our pleas to drop these provisions. (This is not entirely surprising; in Uganda, mainstream women’s rights activism often excludes LGBTI people).Print