Uganda’s LGBT Community Is Facing A New Wave Of Government Oppression

Contestants in the Mr./Ms./Mx. Pride Uganda pageant line the stage before the event was shut down by a police raid. CREDIT: Twitter/PrideUganda2016
Contestants in the Mr./Ms./Mx. Pride Uganda pageant line the stage before the event was shut down by a police raid. CREDIT: Twitter/PrideUganda2016

Since 2014, when Uganda’s Constitutional Court overturned the country’s anti-homosexuality law, the political fate of LGBT Ugandans has been somewhat stagnant. A government crackdown on recent Pride Uganda celebrations demonstrates, however, that the overall climate in the country has not improved and may be facing another backlash.

The demise of the law originally pitched as a “Kill The Gays” bill — until punishments for homosexuality were reduced to life sentences in prison — did not trigger immediate progress. Last November, the Ugandan Parliament passed the Non-Governmental Organizations Act, which requires all NGOs to apply for permits to operate and gives the government the power to jail the leaders of organizations that they determine go “against public interests.” This posed a new threat to organizations like Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), though so far, SMUG and similar organizations have continued to operate. Indeed, Pride Uganda was set to hold many big events starting in early August.

But last Thursday, as the community was gathered at Kampala’s Club Venom to crown Mr./Ms./Mx. Pride Uganda, the nightclub celebration was shut down by a police raid.

According to a coalition of Ugandan LGBT groups, the police claimed that they had been tipped off that a “gay wedding” was taking place and that the event was “unlawful” because police had not been informed. In reality, there was no wedding, and police had been informed. Nevertheless, at least 16 people were arrested and hundreds more were detained.

As the coalition explains, those who were detained were subjected to violence beatings and forms of humiliation, including having pictures taken of them with the threat that those pictures would be published, outing them. They also report various eyewitness accounts of police sexually assaulting individuals.

This raid has set off a new set of dominoes in the clash between LGBT Ugandans and a government set on oppressing them. When lawyer Nick Opiyo of the organization Chapter 4 Uganda met with Ethics Minister Simon Lokodo to discuss the raid, Lokodo allegedly threatened to bring anti-LGBT opposition to all Pride Uganda events. This prompted organizers to cancel Saturday’s pride parade out of concern for personal safety — the explicit threat of a mob defended by a large police group that would attack any anyone who shows up.

Dr. Frank Mugisha, executive director of SMUG, wrote in The Guardian this week that his “illusions of safety and hope were cruelly shattered.” Recounting the raid at Club Venom and his experience being detained, he explained that “there has been no apology” and that he still doesn’t know “under what law I was arrested and detained.”

This weekend, following the raid and parade cancellation, Lokodo published an extensive rant distorting the events of the raid and denying that there is any violence or persecution against LGBT people in Uganda. “ We wish to emphasize that whereas the promotion of homosexuality is criminalized under the Penal Code, there is no violence against the LGBT community in Uganda — contrary to some claims made loosely by proponents of this movement,” he wrote.

He went on to claim that the pride events prove that LGBT identities are not innate because they are trying to recruit or bribe people into the LGBT movement. “We have noted that the promotions being held are aimed at mobilizing people to join this LGBT movement, which interestingly goes against the argument that gays are ‘born’ that way. We are aware that there are inducements, including money, being offered to young people to promote the practice.”

Lokodo promised that police will continue to “suppress” LGBT activities and even indicated that “a program to rehabilitate members of the LGBT community, with the ultimate aim of giving them a chance to lead normal lives again has been developed.” As it’s worded, it sounds like a promise that the government of Uganda will be implementing a nation-wide ex-gay program. Efforts to condemn and control people’s sexuality have been conclusively found to be ineffective and harmful.

Mugisha responded to this proposal simply: “I say, no thank you. The problem is not who I am. The problem is how you treat me.”