What it’s like to be Ugandan and queer when your country turns against your identity
The Ugandan Parliament has passed an anti-LGBTQ+ bill that would criminalise even identifying as queer. Daily Maverick spoke to Ugandans about how this might affect their lives and the lives of other community members.
On Tuesday, 21 March, the same day South Africa celebrated Human Rights Day, Uganda’s Parliament passed a bill that would facilitate gross human rights violations of the country’s queer community. The law aims to punish the promotion of homosexuality and conspiracy to engage in homosexual acts. Although the law was passed in Parliament three weeks ago, it has yet to be signed by President Yoweri Museveni.
Frank Mugisha, a Ugandan LGBTQ+ activist, said in an interview with DemocracyNow that he believes the president is taking his time to sign the bill for many reasons, one of which is that local advocates and civil society are encouraging him not to sign the legislation hurriedly because of the intense backlash and consequences that will follow.
Uganda’s anti-LGBTQ+ legislation comes at a time when there seems to be a global uptick in homophobic and transphobic legislation, such as in the US where at least 417 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced this year alone.
In Uganda, hostility towards queerness existed well before the new law was passed, which is not the first to try to codify homophobia in the country.
Natukunda* (a pseudonym, as she chooses to be anonymous) identifies as pansexual and despite being part of the Ugandan diaspora in South Africa, still spends much time in Uganda, especially since her parents moved back to Kampala in 2019.
“I love Uganda, obviously, because my parents come from there, and it’s a beautiful country and the people are lovely. So for them to pass something like [the Anti-Homosexuality Act] is very disappointing because now I’m very stuck between wanting to identify as Ugandan … but then it’s also opposed to who I am, specifically my sexuality.
“Besides my siblings, no one [in Uganda] knew that I was queer. Not even my parents — my parents still don’t know. So I was very much just known as straight when I was home. In fact, sexuality was never really spoken about, because African families don’t really speak about that.”
In South Africa, Natukunda felt able to express her sexuality.
“[In Uganda] I would see people — men or women — that I would be attracted to but I’d never really act upon it. I just keep to myself. It was only something I would express here in South Africa,” she said.
She said that, in Uganda, “Say now there was someone I’m interested in, the only time you could express affection with them is, like, if you were at a bar or nightclub that was very, like, on the down-low and it was dark and you’re around people that are comfortable with LGBT+ people around them. Otherwise, you keep all of that at home, in your private space. You don’t express it out there.”
Natukunda recalls seeing two men walking down a street in a Ugandan city, holding hands and smiling. Everyone around them stopped what they were doing and stared at them.
She said that those who are part of the diaspora will face a very specific set of challenges when going back home because they openly display their sexuality when out of the country, whereas queer people in Uganda have always kept it hidden. The question is: “So now if I go home, will it really be safe?”
However, she said it is important not to sensationalise what the queer community in Uganda is experiencing at the moment as Museveni still has yet to sign the bill.
‘There have always been queer Africans’ – Breaking the cultural connection
Dembe* (a pseudonym, as he chooses to be anonymous) is a queer Ugandan.
“I remember during my teenage years, I decided that I would try to remove the Ugandanness from my identity because I felt as though … it was inconsistent with my queerness and I knew my queerness couldn’t change, so I tried to weaken the links with my Ugandan identity.
“To give you an example, my parents … their mother tongue and I guess, my mother tongue, would be Luganda. But in my teenage years, I decided that I would start speaking to them exclusively in English, that I wasn’t going to try to maintain that linguistic or cultural connection to Uganda any more.”
Mukasa* (a pseudonym, as he chooses to be unidentified) is a human rights lawyer who specialises in equality law such as disability rights, migrant rights and queer rights. He identifies as queer and is a member of the Ugandan diaspora in South Africa.
He said his parents, who also live in South Africa, visit Uganda at least once a year to see family, especially around Christmas.
“On a number of occasions, I’ve told my parents that … I do love my family and all of that but I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t feel safe returning to Uganda. I’m going to stay in South Africa and have my Christmas without my family,” he said.
He said distancing himself from his Ugandan identity is painful.
“It is very sad to think that my connections with my family members, my culture and my heritage are being weakened because of this.
His parents are planning to return to Uganda, which “made me think about, if I were to have a family one day and marry a man, will I be able to take them to meet my parents in Uganda? If my parents were to pass away and be buried in Uganda, will I be able to attend a funeral without feeling any kind of threat to my safety? If my parents were to get sick, will I be able to return to just be with them?
“So, those are the kind of anxieties that have emerged.”
Mukasa spoke about the rhetoric surrounding the new law. Ugandan legislators say it aims to protect “traditional African values”, which perpetuates a long-standing idea that homosexuality and any other forms of queerness are inherently anti-African.
“There are a lot of justifications that are being put in favour of the bill. A lot of them are conflating paedophilia with homosexuality. For example, one of the definitions of aggravated homosexuality in the bill is having sex with a minor without their consent, and that’s not related to homosexuality at all, but there seems to be that narrative that gay men, especially, are predators coming for your kids. That we’re dangerous.
“[There is also a sense of queerness] being a Western import, that it is a behaviour learned in the West, or people are watching movies or series on DStv and Netflix and as a result of that, they are becoming homosexual. But… there’s always been queer Africans.”
Mukasa gave the example of a Ugandan monarch, King Mwanga II, who reigned from 1884 to 1888. There is historical evidence to suggest that the king was queer, showing that even in pre-colonial Uganda queerness existed.
Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act and general rhetoric surrounding queerness are not unique in Africa, where more than 30 countries outlaw same-sex relations.
Mukasa explained how Uganda’s new law might affect other African nations.
“What’s further concerning is that it seems as though some countries have been inspired by Uganda in a way. A Kenyan member of Parliament said that he wants to propose a similar bill, which is basically just like a copy-and-paste of what’s going on in Uganda.
“Whilst a global kind of response and condemnation of the bill is definitely welcome, I do think that civil society in Africa and especially in South Africa has quite a unique and powerful role which it can play. Because, as I said before, there is this narrative that homosexuality is un-African and that it is imported, that it is a Western behaviour.
“But if Africans in South Africa and across the continent also speak out against what is going on, that also chips away that narrative by showing that Africa is not a monolith where all of us are homophobes or that we all believe that queer behaviour is contrary to our culture.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.