Homosexuality in Uganda

LGBT Uganda
LGBT Uganda flag (c) Wikimedia Commons

Homosexuality is illegal under Victorian-era legislation still in force in Uganda and many other Anglophone countries in Africa. The laws reflect a deep aversion among many Africans to homosexuality. But gays and lesbians exist in Uganda and the rest of the continent. They pay a high price for their sexual orientation: they face discrimination and even torture and jail. Nonetheless, in this hostile environment, gays and lesbians are trying to organise. They are also receiving support from certain sectors of the Anglican church. Religion continues to play a major role in Uganda, but some pastors have come to realize that the church and Ugandan society cannot continue to reject gays and lesbians.

Photos: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: January 11, 2004


The consecration of a gay bishop in the United States last August sparked off a heated debate about homosexuality and the church throughout the world. Nowhere more so than in Africa. Anglican leaders in Uganda, for instance, condemned the confirmation of Reverend Gene Robinson, describing it as “regrettable, sad and lamentable”. Homosexuality in Uganda, as in most other countries in Africa, is illegal. If caught, gays can be sentenced to life imprisonment. The attitudes of the church and the general public towards homosexuality are also quite hostile, as Eric Beauchemin reports.

This bar in downtown Kampala, the capital of Uganda, is a popular meeting place for gays. On weekends, a few dozen men drop in here. It’s one of the few places where they can be themselves. Outside, they face rejection, persecution and even torture. John is a 23-year-old. In 1999, the authorities were tipped off that he was living together with another man. In the middle of the night, intelligence officials raided their house and took them to a detention centre.

At first they kept on urinating on us, not giving us food, not lighting the room. Then they bring about two dead bodies, rotting and stuff. EB: Two dead rotting bodies? Yeah, two rotting dead bodies. They put them there. I don’t know… They think maybe we have information of an organisation out of the country which is giving us money and stuff. But afterwards I protested to them, and one guy who came in the room. I grabbed that guy by the collar. And with some kind of fighting. So he called in other guys and they hurt me so much. They fought with me. They flogged me. Then afterwards they showered me in some solutions. I don’t know the chemical…they showered me with some solution. After, we moved out of the detention house, my skin started rotting. So I don’t know what happened but it started rotting, and I just had to get some medication, antibiotics. It took about six months till I got healed and these are some kind of scars.

John  (© Eric Beauchemin)

John removes his shirt to show the scars on his back and arms. He is still frightened of the authorities and what they would do if they found out he was meeting a foreign journalist. John has good reason to be afraid, says a human rights researcher working in Uganda.

A number of those people have either disappeared and that is code for being taken by people in civilian clothes who are armed, who are driving away in an unmarked vehicle to an unknown location, which in Uganda is called a safe house. And Ugandan people know that in these safe houses, people get tortured in some of the most barbaric and brutal ways. EB: For instance? Well, let me tell you that I have been inside the prisons and I’ve had it to described to me how people are tied Kandoya. Tied Kandoya means that first of all your wrists are tied together behind your back. Then your ankles are tied to your wrists. And you are probably naked. And then you will be beaten in this condition. And some people never walk again after this. The Liverpool treatment is where somebody is restrained in some way and it might be tied Kandoya, and then they are forced to drink copious amounts of water. And this can be until they die or they may be beaten to death.

It’s generally political opponents of the government who are subjected to this type of treatment, but the human rights worker, who asked to remain anonymous, has been hearing of cases where gays and lesbians have also been tortured or even killed while in police custody. The government began to crack-down on homosexuals in 1999, after two Ugandan men decided to get married in a suburb of the capital. The gay marriage was widely covered in the Ugandan press and caused outrage, as I heard from Pastor Brown, an Anglican minister who was excommunicated because of his homosexuality.

Pastor Brown
Pastor Brown  (© Eric Beauchemin)

It was in one of the pubs, a place called Wandeguya. So when the wedding was going on, it was overjoyment. So straight people came in and they called the police. The police came and they arrested the couple that was wedding and other guys. So when the news reached the president that homosexuals are coming out, even to have weddings, so the president was so furious and angry and he ordered the police to carry out an investigation, and they arrested all the gays and lesbians that had been to the wedding.

But the police didn’t only arrest the participants at Uganda’s first gay wedding. President Yoweri Museveni ordered them to lock up all homosexuals and to bring charges against them for engaging in so-called “abominable acts”. No one knows how many people have been detained or tortured as a result of the president’s directive. But, according to the human rights investigator, the crackdown was primarily designed to divert public attention from more pressing issues.

The police are very under-resourced and really important crime issues which affect the welfare of the people of this country are not being addressed. You can go to a police station and you can find that there’s not a single telephone, not even a filing cabinet. You can’t get the officer on the front desk to write everything down in the incident book reliably. So I think that they would really only pursue this issue when there is a political agenda. And of course, if you have a lot of talk about people being corrupt or if there are opponents of the government being persecuted, why not go and pick on the gays and have a bit of kerfuffle going on about that issue to take people’s minds off other things. EB: A diversionary tactic? A diversionary tactic, very much so.

Today, the persecution is less intense than in 1999, but gays and lesbians still live in fear…not only of their government but also of their own communities. Public humiliation is a common response when Ugandans discover that someone in their midst is homosexual. In December, an 18-year-old high school student was caned in public when the school authorities discovered that she was lesbian. A few days later she was dead…initially, it was reported that she had committed suicide, but later it emerged that she had probably died from the beating she received at the school. A similar punishment was meted out to two teenagers at a Pentecostal church.

One of the boys was 16 years old and another who was I think about 18 were both taken in front of the whole congregation of this Pentecostal Church and flogged in public at the behest of the pastor who is supposedly a man of God. This was carried out by off-duty police officers. The police officers of course are guilty of assault and the whole community who watched this happen have really had imprinted on them a hatred of gays or at least it seems that must have been the intent.

In Uganda, as in many other countries in Africa, homosexuality is viewed as a white man’s disease, despite ample evidence that it existed in the continent long before colonialism. Gays and lesbians face condemnation even from their own families.

They threw me out. They denied me. They don’t appreciate me. And even…we have family names in Uganda. But they withdrew that name from me [chuckle] because I was being a shame to their family. So they told me, you are no longer part of us. Get out of our faces.

John was 18 when he was banished by his family. For months, there had been rumours at his school that he was homosexual. Finally, the principle wrote his parents a letter explaining why he was being expelled. His parents were furious.

They told me either to denounce the act, but it was not an act! It was me. Either I deny myself or they threw me out of school. I opted for the latter [chuckle]. I told them I leave the school. So my father got very annoyed. At first, he kept it. He didn’t want the outside world to know so much about it. He took me to another school. The same thing happened. Now, when I was about to write my senior 4 leaving examinations, he called a clan meeting. EB: A clan meeting. A clan meeting. They told me to denounce the act when everyone is hearing and apologise for everything I have been doing. I told them, you guys, if you want me to commit suicide, I can denounce the act, but if you can’t, if you don’t want me to die, just decide what you want. So they decided on my fate and they told me, you are no longer part of us. And they threw me out. So when they threw met out, they performed some rituals. They wash you with milk and some local brew, some local alcohol. And they remove all the clothes and burn them. Then they give you some kind like an apron just to cover yourself. They told me ‘go and find your fellow gays and live with them!’

Bishop Christopher Ssenyonju
Bishop Christopher Ssenyonju  (© Eric Beauchemin)

Alone and with no one to turn to, John finally came into contact with Christopher Ssenyonju. He’s an Anglican bishop with a doctorate in marriage and human sexuality. Like most Ugandans, he initially believed that gays and lesbians could be “cured”, but in counselling sessions with them he realised that it wasn’t that simple.

Unfortunately, so many I have met don’t like to listen to homosexuals. They believe that they should be converted which I say, this is not the case. And I’ve found that this minority group is being oppressed. And as a church, I think we do wrong to oppress them. The good news which our Lord Jesus brought was to liberate people, not to oppress them.

Bishop Christopher’s stance caused enormous controversy in the Anglican Church of Uganda. In May 2001, the church banned the bishop from preaching. Despite the ostracism, Bishop Christopher continues to counsel gays and lesbians. He also works with Integrity Uganda, a group founded nearly 3 years ago to provide support to gay Anglicans. It’s one of a number of gay and lesbian groups that has emerged in recent years in Uganda. Another is the Open Door Counselling Centre. It’s headed by Pastor Brown. After he was ex-communicated, Pastor Brown formed his own independent church.

I’m using the church as the platform to be able to reach to people, especially those who are not gay to be able to tell the people that it’s not only this time we have seen people that are not accepted in society, or that have been neglected and marginalized. There was a time if somebody was not a Jew he was considered as less a human being. There was a time of slavery: the slaves were not considered as human beings. There was a time of blacks and whites. Blacks were discriminated. They were called dogs and what not. Today that one is over. In the same way as it was to the Jews and the Gentiles, as it was from the slaves and the masters, as it was with the blacks and the whites, the same thing with the homosexuals and the straight. You have to admit and accept that homosexuals are human beings. EB: What has been the reaction of your congregation? Well my congregation is over 150 people. They are coming to accept in spite of the fact that a few still refuse, but the majority accept. I’ve visited other churches. At times, I have spoken outright, but in some churches it’s very difficult for me even to confess that I’m a gay because once they know that I am a gay they will never allow me to defend. So the only way I can defend gay is first of all to deny myself that I’m a gay. So it’s still a problem, but people are coming to accept.

The Open Door Counselling Centre has also drawn up a list of all its members. If any of them are harassed or arrested, the centre mobilises its members as well as international organisations to ensure that the person’s rights are not violated. A similar program is being run by a lesbian and gay group at Makerere University, Uganda’s most prestigious educational institution. It’s called the Alert Arrest System.

We have a phone tree system. That every after two days, you call one person. That person calls another two. So we know our members are doing well. But if one person is missing in the system, it’s reported immediately. And it’s reported, Amnesty reacts to the president’s office… EB: to the president’s office. Yeah so that the president’s office orders immediately to the security groups to release that person if there is no serious crimes. But in some cases, our members are framed that maybe you have stolen, or you did this. And there’s no evidence, but still they can take you to court and prosecute you. You don’t get fair trails. In the long run, you are sent to Lusera, that’s the government prison. EB: So instead of saying that you are being charged because you are a homosexual or you were engaging in homosexual activities, they trump up some other charges. Sure. You know, with this level of homophobia in the country, even the judge is biased. As soon as he looks at your file and he knows that he knows that it’s on grounds of gays and stuff. They decide your case, even before it’s heard. Yeah.

Projects like the Alert Arrest System are supported by international human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Uganda’s gay and lesbian organisations have also been receiving moral support from Western embassies. Foreign diplomats fear that more public support would only reinforce the notion in many Ugandans’ minds that white people are importing homosexuality. Even human rights workers accept that it will take time to change attitudes, just as it has in the developed world.

Public opinion has to be brought along with any changes that take place or there will be a violent backlash. There is such a thing as mob justice here, where if the government said it’s OK to be gay, there’s still going to be enough people out there who would want to lynch them, and there wouldn’t be many police officers who would stop them. Because there are only 14,000 police officers in a society that has 25 million people. Things are very bad, but things could also turn around very quickly. And I think working on public opinion, working on members of parliament who are open to reason and who are not sort of blind with hatred for gays could make a difference.

Various groups, such as the Open Door Counselling Centre, are trying to convince legislators of the need to include gay and lesbian rights in Uganda’s new constitution. But in a nation where Christianity plays such a key role, Bishop Christopher believes that religion is the key to greater acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Our Lord said that he had still many things he wanted to tell his disciples, but they were not able yet to bear them all. But time will come when more [chuckle] will be revealed. I think some of these things are now new to us. But we shouldn’t just close our ears and say, well this has never been and it should never be. Empirically we know it is. And we have to face the situation in a realistic manner. Our Lord before he went away he said, ‘I leave you my command. The most important command: love one another as I have loved you. Even if you don’t understand me yet, don’t be my enemy! Try to listen!

Brother Christopher Ssenyonju, ending that edition of Wide Angle, which was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.