This year, for the fifth year in a row, Pride celebrations took place in Uganda. What was meant to be a celebration unfortunately ended in a big deception. Olivier Schulte Fischedick, researcher for PrideUnited, will inform you about the current state of LGBTI rights and Pride in Uganda in this article.
Despite laws that punish homosexuality with a minimum of a two-year sentence up to a lifetime of imprisonment, the Pride movement in Uganda has been standing strong. For this reason, it is important to summarize the developments that have been taking place since the first Pride in 2012.
Background LGBTI Uganda
Uganda is a country with approximately 38 million citizens, 85% being Christian. Uganda is one of the most homophobic countries in the world. Homophobia has nevertheless not always been apparent in Uganda. Anthropological research shows that before the colonization by the United Kingdom, many cases of same sex relationships existed. During the British colonization laws were introduced that marked homosexuality as sodomy and therefore illegal. This, and the introduction of Christianity, fostered homophobia in Uganda, as in many other African countries.
In 2004 Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) has been founded by Mukasa, an umbrella NGO that has had a major impact on LGBTI rights in Uganda. Today, SMUG exists out of 18 LGBTI organizations and is responsible for the advocacy of governmental policy reforms and the support of their member organizations.
The extremely homophobic climate that dominates Uganda can be illustrated by two different events in 2007 and 2010. In 2007 the publication of a list with alleged gay men by Red Pepper magazine and in 2010 on the front-page of the Ugandan Rolling Stones magazine with a 100 pictures of homosexuals in Uganda with the text stating ‘Hang them’. In 2009, when David Bahati introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which in the first draft of the bill would have made homosexuality punishable by death, the international and local community took action and many countries stated they would stop their development aid programs with Uganda. Although the bill could count on widespread support in parliament the process had been stopped due to global condemnation. Notwithstanding all of this, the LGBTI-community has grown significantly in recent years, which can be confirmed by the growing number of participants in the Uganda Pride that has taken place for the fifth time this year.
How the Uganda Pride started
In August 2012 a group of brave people organized the first Uganda Pride, led by a key LGTBI-activist Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera who thought it was time to celebrate their achievements and fight for LGBTI-rights more publicly. This event was a success, and took place over the course of three days. Over 200 people visited the different events with the Pride Walk having a turnout of roughly a hundred people to advocate for basic Human Rights and celebrate diversity. Unfortunately, when the Pride Walk ended and the party was about to start, the police came and detained some of the organizers. They were released quickly since there were no grounds to keep the activists in detention. The closing event took place notwithstanding, showing the confidence of the community and organization in their fight for equal rights.
The 2013 Uganda Pride
The second pride in 2013 went smoothly, the organization was prepared for anything, and had planned a 4-day program. The organization informed the police about the event and were protected by the them against potential protesters. In this year, Frank van Dalen – now vice-president of InterPride – visited the pride. On the basis of his experiences, the Fieldvisit Pride Uganda 2013 Report has been written. In this report he concluded that the 2012 police raid of the pride had a lasting impact. For example, the Pride Walk was a short 15 minutes walk, while the 2012 Pride Walk lasted for 3 hours. Other events were not open to the public. The Pride had less attendants than the first year, probably caused by the fear of police raids. The report concluded that the organization was limited in generating visibility in order to protect participants and organizers. The Pride inspired the participants and people from other African countries that visited the Pride alike. The bigger turnout and the improvement of the outreach to the community were goals set for the following Pride. Unfortunately, the week after the event, parliament passed the Public Order Management Bill. This bill requires everyone who wants to organize a public event to obtain a permission from the police. This bill legalizes police interference of future events when no permission has been obtained. And so the struggle continues.
The 2014 and 2015 Uganda Pride
2014 knew a rough start for the Ugandan LGBTI-community, the in 2009 proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill passed with only the death penalty being changed to lifetime imprisonment. According to the Sexual Minorities Uganda Report of May, 2014 this resulted in the rise of persecutions against the Ugandan LGBTI-community. From 19 cases in 2012 and 8 cases in 2013 to a staggering 162 cases in 2014. The bill clearly triggered an increase in homophobia. Six months later the Anti-Homosexuality bill got overturned after activists challenged the bill at the National Constitutional Court for not having the legally required quorum. A great victory for the LGBTI-community just before the 2014 Uganda Pride.
Inspired LGBTI activists to organize an invitation-only Pride in 2014, which was a success. The Pride was held in Entebbe, and had a turnout of roughly 200 people. The message of this year was: ‘We are here!’ and could be seen as a march against the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Participants wore mask to symbolize the lack of freedom and the unequal protection of national laws.
The 2015 Pride took again place at Lake Victoria, and was open to everybody. The Pride celebrations covered five days, which consisted out of a cocktail event, a trans awareness event, a fashion show, documentary screenings, health awareness events and the Pride Walk. This year luckily no police intervention took place. According to Muluchu, one of the Pride organizers in 2015, much had changed since the 2012 Uganda Pride. He described the public opinion towards the LGBTI-community to be changing and saw a brighter future ahead. 400 people attended and the message of the Pride, ‘We are Family’, strengthened the community even more. Hopefully the increase in attendees also resembles a decrease in fear for the public.
Another noteworthy event taking place was an interview between Swedish journalist Gunnar Wesslen and Ugandan Supreme Court judge Stellah Arach who believed that LGBTI-people are like any other Ugandan citizen and deserve the right to privacy, protection and equal treatment. A strong statement coming from an Ugandan judge.
The 2016 Uganda Pride
The fifth Pride was a remarkable milestone for the Ugandan LGBTI-community in a generally homophobic environment. Because of the success of the 2015 Pride, this year many people were looking forward to the 2016 edition, what was supposed to be a celebration of this achievement. The organizing committee had made a full program with the theme of this year being ‘Standing Together’. The program of the Pride week started with an invitation-only gala followed by a Lesbians & Bisexuals night and was supposed to continue with a Mr. & Miss Pride contest, a Community Outreach event on the 5th of August and a Pride Parade and closing party on the 7th of August.
Unfortunately, like during the 2012 Pride, the Mr. & Miss Pride event was disrupted by a violent police raid and 16 people were arrested shattering the illusion of safety and hope, as said by Frank Mugisha in the Guardian. During this raid, the police attacked transgender people and forced transgender people to reveal their birth gender. Due to the raid, many people feared for their lives and still have to recover from the physical and mental traumas they suffered. Until this day Mugisha and other activists do not know under what law they were apprehended. The Minister of Ethics and Integrity, Simon Lokodo, made a statement denying any violence being used but condemning the promotion of illegal activities of the LGBTI-community. Recently the Uganda Pride organisation announced that the raid was not coordinated by top police officials but “only” by a homophobic commander. Despite this, the statement of Lokodo again fuelled homophobia throughout the country making the lives of the LGBTI-community once again harder. We hope this will not catalyse the same reaction as it did when the the Anti-Homosexuality Act passed in 2014.
It can be concluded that the fight for LGBTI rights in Uganda has been tough. Nevertheless, since the establishment of SMUG, as an LGBTI organization, the community has achieved a lot. For example the community has grown a lot, proposed anti-LGBTI laws have been stopped and a Pride has taken place for five years in a row. We should however, keep in mind that the events happening during the 2016 Uganda Pride show us that the current state of Human Rights in Uganda is still alarming. We nonetheless also have to stay positive and as all the years of fighting for rights have shown, the Ugandan LGBTI-community has always been very strong and will hopefully not let this setback affect their fight for equality.