26 February 2014

Uganda: The Changing Contours of Gay Struggle in Uganda - Resistances and Counter-Resistances


Uganda's gay organisations have been forced to operate underground due to public hostility and state persecution of their members . The formation of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law (CSCHRCL) has been vocal in campaigning for the rights of gay people and exposing the harmful operations of right wing American religious fundamentalists in the country


Every gay rights struggle in every society possesses a unique strategy for struggle that is directly related to how it all started.

While there is no specific evidence, it is largely believed in the gay community that the gay rights movement grew mostly as a response to escalating attacks on gay persons that began in 1999 when the 'New Vision,' a state-owned newspaper, reported that President Museveni had ordered the arrest and imprisonment of homosexuals.

The New Vision newspaper quoted Museveni as saying: 'I have told the Criminal Investigations Department to look for homosexuals, lock them up and charge them.' Upon these attacks it became imperative for gay Ugandans to socially and privately 'mobilize' and 'organize'.

The first public homophile organizations were formed during this time. A number of them were largely small-scale groups composed of predominantly men and especially transsexuals.

During their first years, the organizations often had difficulty persuading people to join. Recruitment was impeded by the stigma attached to homosexuality and by the harsh penalties exacted for homosexual identity. Even service orientated initiatives required a lot of brevity and courage, as they were often squashed by a largely heterosexual society. This made such efforts (however public) less visible.

A case in point is when in 2002, a heterosexual Anglican bishop, Christopher Ssenyonjo, was expelled from the Church of Uganda for associating with gay persons through his counseling unit.

In addition to setting up a counseling unit for gay persons, Ssenyonjo was later to establish 'Integrity Uganda 'as a branch of 'Integrity USA,' the Episcopal Church's LGBT outreach organization after his expulsion.

He also found a community center where gay persons could safely gather, and housing and employment for those who were forcibly 'outed' (Burroway, 2010). This way the retired Bishop was able to stand up for the gay community in times of crisis and great danger.

But while such barriers to organization were common place at the time, the homophile movement was nevertheless expanding. By 2003, there were several gay organizations in Uganda, including Freedom and Roam Uganda, Right Companion, Lesgabix, Icebreakers Uganda, Integrity Uganda, Spectrum Uganda, and Gay and Lesbian Alliance.

Most of these acted as support groups, with very few engaged in activist work to improve their minority status. Moreover, the different groups according to Tamale (2003) were not connected in any way.

It was not until March 2004 that Sexual Minorities in Uganda (SMUG) was founded as a loose collection of about 18 gay organizations in Uganda. It was almost the lone 'visible' element in the struggle together with its founder, Victor Mukasa, and was able to make progress, particularly in negotiating informal incorporation and building underground legitimacy for its cause.


By 2005, a few activists including David Kato, Jacquiline Kasha, Frank Mugisha and others were beginning to gain courage to participate actively in promoting awareness through public debate and social mobilization, modeling their strategies on South African non-profit organizations, majority of members in such organizations opted to sustain their memberships mostly underground and almost exclusively through cyberspace.

The avoidance of public visibility by gay organizations can be explained by the severity of Ugandan law that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment (Tamale, 2003). The exceedingly hostile context in which gays lived and worked made it extremely difficult for homosexuals to demand their rights with a unified voice (Tamale, 2003).

Consequently, the few organizations that were fast emerging were mostly underground and adopted names that conveyed little explicit information about sexual identity.

And yet, they still attracted severe counter-responses from the state. For instance, the Minister of Ethics and Integrity at the time, Nsaba Buturo ordered the police to investigate and 'take appropriate action' against a gay organization at Makerere University (BBC, 2005).

Gay rights activist Kizza Musinguzi was also jailed at just a round the same time and subjected to four months of forced labor, water torture, beatings and rape, for speaking out against anti-gay violence.

In October 2004, the state also through the Uganda Broadcasting Council, fined Radio Simba over $1,000 and forced the station to issue a public apology for hosting a discussion that involved a lesbian and two gay men, where they called for tolerance and greater understanding of gay people (BBC, 2005).

The government Minister of Ethics and Integrity at the time Nsaba Buturo told the BBC's 'Focus on Africa' that Radio Simba's programme had committed a criminal offense by telling listeners that homosexuality was 'an acceptable way of life'(BBC, 2005).


Homophile groups at the time were lone in the struggle for visibility. They were often alienated and were sometimes avoided by many mainstream organizations including feminist and human rights associations.

According to Maurick, et al (2005), such organizations claimed that it was impossible to fight for a group of people that were invisible, and that homosexuals themselves had no choice but to lead the way by speaking out for themselves (Kiragu and Nyong'o, 2005).

Also, it is important to mention that the Ugandan public (political, cultural and academic) sphere was still almost absolutely heterosexualized.

There was only but a handful of public persons like Sylvia Tamale and Bishop Christopher Ssenyonjo who were willing to help raise awareness about gay issues.

By keeping away from such issues, persons from the mainstream organizations remained part of the gay problem, maintaining an environment of silence and criminalization in as far as issues of homosexuality and homosexuals respectively were concerned.

By 2007, the gay struggle in Uganda gain even more visibility through increased populist activism. During this time, two specifically spatial issues caught the attention of gay activists: the segregation of homosexuals and the violence against persons perceived to be homosexuals.

While the activists' approach to each of these problems illustrated no particular ideological perspective on the role of space in the constitution of their homosexual identities, it was able to establish a small and tight-knit community.

Through courageous efforts and astounding underground work, homosexuals hoped to establish an improved and visible community.

Homosexual activists adopted a conventional form of social affiliation, solidarity and awareness that led to the homogenization of the gay community, and the proliferation of anonymous gay enclaves in Kampala city, thereby inhabiting and transforming public spaces into urban spaces that were in ways Western-like.


On 17 August 2007, SMUG led by Victor Juliet Mukasa held Uganda's first ever gay human rights press conference at the Speke Hotel in Kampala. Many of those who attended the press conference wore masks and gave only first names, because they were fearful of identification and arrest.

Mukasa, who had been forced to flee temporarily into exile in South Africa in fear of her life after police raided her home in 2005, had now returned and spearheaded the campaign.

During the same time, she was also able to pursue a civil law suit against the government ministers who had sanctioned the raid on her home.

Speakers at the press conference protested the police's harassment of law-abiding gay people, it's persistent demand for sexual favors and personal bribes in exchange for release from custody, and trumped-up charges, brutality and harassment.

They called for an end to homophobic discrimination in the legal, education and health systems. The language of delivery was Luganda, an impressive strategy, as homosexuals were often told they had no place in Uganda as homosexuality was not African.


By October 2009, the battle lines were drawn and the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (hereinafter, 'Bill') was thrown in as the trump card for the anti-gay group (Hugo, 2012; Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2009).

A first term little known Member of Parliament (MP) David Bahati introduced the Bill in Parliament that would inadvertently lead to stringent legislature against gay people.

The Bill which was colloquially named the 'Kill the Gays Bill,' originally proposed to mete out several severe punishments that would have seen jail sentences increased to life imprisonment and the death penalty for 'aggravated homosexuality' (Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2009).

While the sanctions were not strange to the gay community and indeed represented a cyclical pattern of abuse under an administration that was known for its human rights violations, the proposed legislation whipped up homophobia in Uganda and drove many homosexuals out of the country.

They were widely perceived as both a step back to strides made throughout the world in the protection of human rights and promotion of sexual diversity.

The contents in the Bill captured global attention and were also immediately denounced by the U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and by numerous Commonwealth countries.

While 'the Bill is still in abeyance following President Yoweri Museveni's refusal to sign it into law, it still set(s) challenging conditions, struggles, and agenda for the hitherto repressed and submerged homosexualities, their ability to come out.

While the Bill is by and large an attack on the most fundamental principle of the human rights framework, its foundations are reminiscent of a neoliberal agenda.

The Bill was particularly framed by conservative right-wing Pentecostal pastors and American evangelicals through a series of seminars and conferences under themes such as "exposing the homosexual agenda" that clearly laid out strategies on how to support further criminalization of homosexual practices and demonize homosexual people by enticing vulnerable populations, those in lower income brackets, politicians and decision-makers.

It was clear therefore that the anti-gay movement gained its legitimacy in the West rather than in Uganda. Consequently, they were later to find themselves endangered by their own-made threats, as their efforts mobilized the gay community into even greater political activity.

The Bill's tabling has led to the emergence of a brave and more organized form of activism, with gay persons literally fighting for their lives.


The formation of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law (CSCHRCL) in October 2009 is a case in point. As a counteraction to the Bill's tabling, the CSCHRCL's composition of over 40 gay and mainstream organizations has been a key player in coordinating both local and international efforts around sexual rights, and against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

The CSCHRCL, through its common goal, steadily worked to advocate for rights in Uganda. While challenges did exist as to how to reconcile the interests of mainstream vis-a-vis gay rights organizations, the CSCHRCL nonetheless enhanced the gay struggle. Through the CSCHRCL, the gay community acquired more energy, support, and zeal than was the case two or three years before the Bill had been tabled.

Beyond CSCHRCL efforts, SMUG in a ground-breaking move in March 2012 filed a federal lawsuit against a US-based American evangelist and self-described world-leading expert on the 'gay movement,' Scott Lively, in federal court in Massachusetts, accusing him of violating international law by inciting the persecution of the gay community in Uganda.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed the lawsuit in the United States District Court in Springfield, Massachusetts for his involvement in orchestrating anti-gay homophobic violence and persecution in Uganda.

Lively was sued under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) that provides federal jurisdiction for any civil action by an alien, for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.

The suit alleges that Scott moved beyond 'mere' hate-mongering when he became a kind of persecution consultant and strategist with the aim to silence and criminalize gay advocacy. It portends to his decade-long active participation in the conspiracy 'to persecute persons based on their gander and/or sexual orientation and gender identity.'

The Judge on August 14 2013 ruled that persecution on the basis of sexual orientation was indeed a crime against humanity and that fundamental human rights of gay people were protected under international law.

The ruling provided a different and perhaps an alternative pathway for defending civil and political rights and for seeking justice for victims of persecution which is an integral element of Uganda's gay space.

- Prince K. Guma is a Political Scientist and a Sociologist. He is a Researcher and Director at Social Economic Research and Development (SERD) and Young African Scholar, Harry Frank Guggenheim (New York).


Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2009 Bill no. 18. (Kampala, Uganda)

BBC, 2004. Fine for Ugandan radio gay show, Retrieved July 12, 2013: (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3712266.stm)

Burroway, Jim 2010 'A Talk With Bishop Senyonjo, A Straight Ally In Uganda,' The Box Turtle Bulletin, May 24th, 2010. http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com/2010/05/24/22899

Kiragu Jane. and Nyong'o, Zawadi. 2005 LGBT in East Africa: The True Test Case for Human Rights Defenders. In Madeleine Maurick. 2005. LGBTI Organizing in East Africa: The True Test for Human Rights Defenders (UAF-Africa: Regal Press).

Republic of Uganda, 1995 The Republic of Uganda Constitution (Uganda: Kampala).

‎Tamale, Sylvia, 2003 Out of the Closet: Unveiling Sexuality Discourses in Uganda, In: Feminist Africa, Issue 2, (Changing Cultures). Accessed October, 20 2013. http://www.feministafrica.org/index.php/out-of-the-closet

The Penal Code Act, 1950 (Ch 120) of the Republic of Uganda (Kampala, Uganda).

The Sunrise, 2012 'Aid cuts linked to Homosexuality' Thursday, 20 December 2012 12:03


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