KAMPALA, Uganda — A Ugandan court invalidated an anti-homosexuality law on August 1 that has recently strained Uganda’s international relations. Although the anti-sexuality law was nullified on account of a technicality—leaving open the possibility that the bill could be reestablished—activists still consider the ruling a victory for social justice.
The Anti-Homosexuality Act outlined exceedingly harsh penalties for those engaging in same-sex relations. It punished first time offenders caught committing homosexual acts with 14 years incarceration. Same-sex marriage or acts of “aggravated homosexuality,” such as sex with a minor or while HIV-positive, warranted life imprisonment. The AHA also outlawed the support or promotion of homosexuality and required citizens to report suspicions of homosexual activity.
This “draconian” law prompted the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and the World Bank to withdraw humanitarian aid from Uganda. The United States also suspended a portion of their aid, imposed visa restrictions and canceled joint military exercises. Despite Western approval of the court’s ruling, the AHA retains a wide support base within Uganda. In fact, an existing law that criminalizes sexual acts “against the order of nature” still remains in tact.
“The ruling has got nothing to do with the will of the people,” said Martin Ssempa, a Ugandan cleric supporting the AHA. “Unfortunately, it has everything to do with pressure from Barack Obama and the homosexuals of Europe.”
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni—who signed the AHA into law—remains firmly prejudiced against the homosexual population, as does his tightly regulated regime. Even the court judges, who up to a point function independently of Museveni’s control, refrained from making any definitive judgments on gay rights and repealed the law in a non confrontational manner.
“We’re very happy,” said Sylvia Tamale, a Ugandan law professor who has supported gay rights despite the risks. “But it’s unfortunate that the court did not deal with the substantive issues that violate our rights.”
Nicholas Opiyo, the lawyer who led a constitutional challenge of the AHA, sees the overturning of the law as only a partial victory. He asserts that while the days of homosexuals and transgendered people getting publicly abused may be gone, ongoing discrimination is more difficult to mitigate. “That is what is most scary,” he said. “The unseen, the unreported, the unwritten discrimination….”
While the AHA was in effect, endemic homophobia rose within Uganda. Sexual Minorities Uganda, an LGBT rights group, recorded “a more than tenfold increase in attacks on gay and lesbian people in the first two months after the law passed.” In addition, this widespread and continuing discrimination against the LGBT community poses a global health hazard. The institutionalization of homophobia can promote limited medical services for homosexuals and transgendered people, thereby contributing to the spread of disease. According to the U.S.-based advocacy group Health GAP, the court’s decision is “a crucial development for increased access” to life-saving health services.
Opiyo is currently continuing to push for equal rights in Uganda. When asked why he continues to persist in the face of negativity, pressure and potential violence against himself and his family, he said, “This is human rights. This is not a special category of rights. . . . To call it LGBTI rights is misleading.” He added, “You’re talking about the right to associate; the right to choose your partner; the right to love who you want to love.”
– Mari LeGagnoux