Activist Frank Mugisha is an out gay man in Uganda: "Two males texting is seen as unnatural!"

Mugisha fears upcoming elections in Uganda will bring out the worst in politicians' anti-gay posturing

Published April 3, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
(AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

In Uganda, homosexuality is considered akin to pedophilia, and prominent LGBT activist Frank Mugisha regards the threats he constantly receives as "part of life." "I get lots of threats on Facebook, I get threats on the phone ... I get dozens of them," Mugisha said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation in New York. "When you talk about homosexuality in Uganda, the only things that resonate in people's minds are child abuse and our culture."

Mugisha is the director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), the country's leading LGBTI organization, and worked alongside LGBT activist David Kato who was brutally murdered in 2011.

Like most of sub-Saharan Africa, Uganda is highly religious and socially conservative. Violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is common and politicians have long tried to pass legislation that denies basic rights to the LGBT community.

A law passed over a year ago, punishing gay sex with long prison terms, provoked an international storm of protest and led some donor countries to withhold aid. The constitutional court overturned the law -- formerly known as the "Kill the Gays" bill because its original draft included the death penalty for gay sex --  in August 2014 on technicalities.

Mugisha and other rights activists fear that a new, even more draconian bill may soon see the light of day as elections approach and politicians start campaigning for votes. A draft cited by Mugisha and seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation would prohibit renting property to LGBT people, prevent them from applying for adoption or fostering a child, and would ban "the promotion of unnatural sexual practices" in print, broadcast media or advertising.

"Practically speaking the bill could cut off LGBT people from housing -- even within their family home -- and from health services, and advocacy organizations that exist to defend ... their rights," said Wade McMullen, managing attorney of the international strategic litigation unit at Robert F. Kennedy Partners for Human Rights.

Mugisha himself was forced to leave a rented property because of his sexual orientation and his advocacy work, and said people get thrown out of their homes merely on suspicion of being gay, or if they are associated with the LGBT community.

Life is in some ways harder for gay Ugandans who are not openly gay, he said. Objects of suspicion, "They are constantly harassed, they're beaten, arrested and evicted from their apartments ... Sometimes in the most horrible ways, with the police present, the media, throwing their property on the street."

Before it was overturned, the law passed early last year forced many LGBT Ugandans into hiding, cutting them off from health services such as HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, according to rights activists.

Mugisha's organization documented over 150 cases of abuse during the time the law was in place, from harassment and beatings to arrests, leading to one person committing suicide.

"A friend of mine was arrested and charged with 'unnatural texting' ... Two males texting, [that's] considered unnatural!" said Mugisha.

"Uganda is one of the flash points for the international community because their politicians are taking (this) to a yet unseen level of persecution ... It would be far and beyond what we've seen in places like Russia," McMullen said.


Politicians in Uganda have been exploiting anti-gay  sentiment to win votes and, with elections coming up in 2016, experts fear the chances of a new bill being put forward are greater than ever. "As elections approach, we're very fearful that the politicization of homophobia will result in the introduction of a new bill," said McMullen.

While some politicians may harbor genuine homophobic beliefs, many others are not themselves hostile to the LGBT community but would still use the issue of homosexuality to gain political and popular support. "Politicians know that's what people want to hear, so they use anti-homosexual sentiment to promote their own agendas," Mugisha said.

The political climate became more favorable after the law was overturned last year, Mugisha said, and his organization was able to meet government officials and discuss the issue. But homophobia remains deep-rooted in Uganda, and changing that is a huge challenge, he said. "But, in terms of politics and laws, we are making progress," he added.

Maria Caspani is a journalist from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Maria Caspani

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Frank Mugisha Gay Rights Lgbt Uganda