Uganda: Gays and lesbians still fearful despite legal reprieve

by Jocelyn Edwards | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 16 May 2011 21:34 GMT
Failure of anti-gay bill no guarantee of end to discrimination, harassment and physical abuse

KAMPALA, May 16 (TrustLaw)--Jay, a 27-year-old lesbian in Uganda, touches the scar tissue starting to form between her nose and lip.  The tall, sturdily built woman was attacked last week outside her gate by two men she believes followed her home from a bar.  They punched her repeatedly and when she tried to get away they said, “Come back; we’re not finished with you.  You are spoiling our children!” she recalled.  

Since the October 2009 introduction in parliament of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, a proposal that called for the execution of some homosexuals, enduring accusations of “recruiting” the nation’s youth and suffering physical attack “is what it takes to be a lesbian in Uganda,” said Jay. 

On May 13, the speaker of parliament in this small East African nation suspended the legislative body without allowing MPs a chance to discuss the proposed anti-homosexuality law. Ugandan gays and lesbians say that while they are relieved the legislation is off the table for now, they fear it will be re-introduced when parliament reconvenes. 

As she was being beaten, said Jay, “I kept thinking, what will happen if the bill is passed?  So today, [since it was dropped from the agenda] I am one of the happiest people.” 

Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, said that homosexuals in the country will not take what might be a temporary reprieve for granted.  “We are not going to relax; we are going to keep lobbying because we fear that it could be reintroduced in the next parliament.”

Mugisha partially credits lobbying from international human rights organizations and foreign governments for preventing the bill from being passed this term in parliament.

Since the first proposal of the law, gays and lesbians in the country say they have faced increased harassment.

In late January, David Kato, a prominent gay rights activist was bludgeoned to death in Uganda after his picture was printed on the cover of the tabloid newspaper Rolling Stone, which outed several gays under the headline “Hang Them.”

“There has been a lot of advocacy by the promoters of the bill, using a lot of hate language and this has increased discrimination and harassment of LGBT people,” said Mugisha.

Gays and lesbians have faced eviction, job loss and physical and verbal assault since the bill was introduced. 

Before the introduction of the bill, homosexuals lived in relative peace in Uganda.  In fact, many people were unaware of their presence in what is a conservative, predominately Christian society.

But when the bill was brought to parliament, said Jay, “That is when people started getting curious.  [Advocates of the bill] took it upon themselves to describe us, saying they look like this, they dress like this.  People used to think that if you dressed like this then you were a sports girl,” said Jay, who wears a Levi’s T-shirt, baggy jeans and a baseball cap over her braids.

Now, “Everyday you hear something has happened to someone.   There is a group of people who live here who only pray for a chance to do things [to gays],” said Jay, who was asked to leave her apartment a couple of months ago when her landlord and neighbours became aware she was gay.

Stosh Mugisha, a lesbian in Kampala who was stoned by her neighbours after being outed by the Rolling Stone, said she doesn’t feel any safer even though parliament has allowed the bill to expire.      

“I still believe somehow, somewhere it is going to be raised again. I don’t think this is it.  I still don’t feel safe.  I’m really not happy. I just want it to be dead entirely.” 

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