We have a story to tell you, and it’s much too big for us to handle alone, so we think you need to know about it. It’s a story about Uganda and east Africa, but it also has troubling implications for the USA and other developed-world countries.
Government-Sanctioned Anti-LGBT Violence Is Back in East Africa
The tl:dr; or perhaps too scary:didn’t read, is that Uganda has tried on previous occasions to pass a draconian law with the death penalty for homosexuality. Last time, the Ugandan courts struck it down, but now it’s being reintroduced. As a result, there is an escalating pogrom-like wave of violence against LGBT, and especially trans, people. We fear this may be the opening of a wider LGBT genocide in Uganda, and later across all of East Africa.
The less visible back story is that this is being encouraged and supported, if not initiated by, the US Christian right, and may be an attempt to move the Overton window to where killing LGBT people is acceptable. The American right wing is well aware that progressive activists in the USA ignore what happens in Africa. Thus they know once a genocide in Africa happens and there is no universal response, it can be exported to more and more places, until finally it comes to America. Thus we should support the Ugandans, because this is a spark that needs to be extinguished before it becomes a fire. And we need to treat it as a warning that genocide is coming to the US.
The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index describes Uganda as a “hybrid regime”1, where widespread election fraud and intimidation of opponents seriously undermine democracy. Uganda has had a single prime minister since 1986, Yoweri Museveni. Religion plays a huge part in Ugandan politics. It’s a largely Christian country (84%), split roughly evenly between Catholics and an evangelical offshoot of the Anglican church. At independence in 1962 the country inherited British colonial laws that made homosexuality illegal. Section 145, 146, and 148 give terms of 5 to 7 years for homosexual acts.
The Trail Leads Back To The US Christian Right
The connection with US politics can be found in an unexpected place, a long running political institution in the US is the annual “National Prayer Breakfast”, organized by the Fellowship Foundation, also known as “The Family”. The event has grown to a week-long series of meetings, meals, and activities. In theory it’s hosted by members of the US Congress, and most Washington DC politicians attend.
In 2008 Jeff Sharlet wrote an expose of the Fellowship Foundation as a public name for “The Family”, a Christian new religious movement deeply committed to the idea of influencing public figures towards Christian right ideals. After Netflix released a documentary series about the Family, questions started being raised about the relationship between the National Prayer Breakfast and the organization. As a result, in 2024 the US Congress will organize the event rather than the Family.
Timeline To Genocide
The National Prayer Breakfast has spawned copies in many places, including Uganda, also organized by the Fellowship Foundation. At the Uganda National Prayer Breakfast in 2008 Uganda MP David Bahati, an ‘associate’ of the Family, floated the idea of a bill enacting the death penalty for those convicted of homosexuality under certain circumstances, and providing long prison sentences for all homosexual acts and for advocating for LGBT rights as an individual or NGO. (If you want to be terrified, watch this 2010 interview with Bahati and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC).
When Bahati then showed this bill to others within the Family they considered it a ‘bridge too far’2, and the death penalty provision was dropped. The bill worked its way through the Ugandan legislative process, attracting considerable attention from foreign governments with funding of LGBT NGOs within Uganda, diplomatic action to threaten sanctions, and economic pressure. Nonetheless it was signed into law on February 24, 2014, but on August 1, of that year the supreme court of Uganda declared it to be invalid on procedural grounds.
In 2015 Ugandan MP Monicah Amoding introduced what became known as the “2019 Sexual Offences Bill”, largely a repeat of the 2014 bill. In 2021 the bill was passed by parliament, but vetoed by Museveni, largely due to concerns about loss of foreign aid.
Not to be cowed by a few setbacks, now there is another attempt from the same elements. On August 6, 2022, Uganda’s largest LGBT organization, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) was deregistered and shut down by Ugandan officials.
On February 28 of this year MP Asuman Basalirwa introduced a new bill, the “Anti-Homosexuality bill 2023”. This seems to be part of a much better orchestrated attack. There are currently almost daily calls in the press for anti-homosexuality laws. Even Uganda’s muslim clergy has been enlisted – a rare event in a deeply religiously divided society. On Christmas day the Inter Religious Council (IRCU) Christmas Message, an important event broadcast on the state broadcaster UBC, called for religious leaders to come together to fight homosexuality. On January 26 Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba of the Church of Uganda, also head of the IRCU, called for an attack on LGBT people.
On January 25 Deputy Speaker Thomas Tayabwa, with the support of first lady and minister of education Janet Musevini, introduced a “Get The Gays Out” bill requiring that all male secondary school students obtain an anal examination before the start of term, with those on whom anal papillomas are found to be expelled. This bill was encouraged by a coalition of religious leaders, in turn supported by The Family.
In late January a video started circulating, of a Ugandan trans woman being murdered by two men with knives. They stabbed her over 40 times on camera. We have a copy of this video, but are not releasing it out of basic human decency.
In adjacent Kenya, on February 24, the supreme court declared that the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission has the right of association, and declined to dissolve the organization. There have been street demonstrations and calls for anti-homosexuality bills in Kenya in response, and stories of street violence. Our trans haven Eden House has been under a semi-lockdown.
On March 1, the president of nearby Burundi called for Burundians to “fight homosexuality” at the Burundi National Prayer Breakfast.
Two days later on March 3 in Uganda, the new 2023 Anti-homosexuality bill was gazetted. The bill mandates hefty penalties including:
- 100,000,000 SHS fine (about 2000 USD) for “promoting homosexuality”
- 10 year prison sentence for ‘aggravated homosexuality’ (if HIV+ or with a minor)
- 5 year prison sentence for ‘simple homosexuality’
- 10 year prison sentence for conducting a same-sex marriage
- Compensation to the victims
- Journalists who disclose the identity of a ‘victim of homosexuality’ fined 5,000,000 SHS (about 100 USD)
- 7 year prison sentence for running a homosexual brothel
- 1 year prison sentence for renting to a homosexual
- Courts can order protection for a child “likely to engage in homosexuality”
We entered the picture in mid December, helping 5 trans women who were attacked in Bundibugyo. Three of the women were able to flee when their home was attacked by police and locals, but two were arrested. Both were savagely beaten, one’s genitals mutilated, the other beaten on the head so severely she died. Two other women were jailed for several days and severely abused. One woman’s injuries are permanent.
This Is Already Happening
While state violence against LGBT people, especially trans people, is endemic, the community on the ground has reported a sharp increase in the level and frequency of violence. This violence has only been accelerating since December, and many LGBT Ugandans are trying to flee the country, mostly into neighboring Kenya. We have had far more requests for help than we can respond to.
Jeff Sharlet, who has written frequently about The Family, observed in an interview during the Netflix series that The Family likes to work in places “no one is paying attention to”. His example is fighting gay rights in Romania and Uganda. Then, he says, they expand to other places more on international radar. This is an old Christian evangelical strategy, to try to convert people “no one cares about”. They will send missionaries to isolated places around the world, use money, and often colonial power, to inject Christian beliefs and values into such places.
We know Uganda has become and is becoming a much more dangerous place for LGBT people. We, and many in Uganda, are very concerned it may be the opening actions of an LGBT genocide. Many there are looking for avenues of escape. In a larger scope, we worry that these actions may be an attempt to shift the Overton window. And we are concerned that they may hail an attempt at genocide in a western country, probably the United States.
What can we do about it?
First, we can support LGBT Ugandans. They immediately need money and visibility, without repeating the mistakes made when a number of Ugandan NGOs were funded with little oversight after the 2014 bill was introduced. In short: throwing money without oversight at any random Ugandan who claims to have an LGBT organization is counter-productive.
Second, we can give their plight visibility, something that can be readily achieved by the LGBT community and allies in the US or in Europe. Outside every Ugandan embassy, every time the Ugandan government seeks to promote the country, at every Ugandan state visit, and at any entity or event supporting the Ugandan government or economy, there should be demonstrations and publicity about the plight of LGBT people in the country. Only by embarrassing the Ugandan government in public and by associating any aid or other material support for the Ugandan economy with extremely bad publicity, can we ensure the safety of that country’s minorities. These are some of the external tactics that helped with the struggle against South African apartheid.
Third, we can keep a careful watch on the situation, and understand what it portends for the USA and other developed countries. LGBT people and their allies worldwide need to be aware of developed world power structures, especially those of the far right and of Christian fundamentalism, to understand their methods as used in countries like Uganda, and to foresee how those might be imported into countries closer to home.
We will leave you by quoting a recent tweet from Frank Mugisha, Ugandan LGBT Rights worker, “Ugandans have really been radicalized to hate LGBTQ persons. What went wrong?”
1The EIU Democracy Index for 2022 is available at https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2022/ .
2Jeff Sharlet, speaking in the Netflix documentary “The Family”.