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The 14 ways Uganda can break free from homophobia forever

The 14 ways Uganda can break free from homophobia forever

LGBTI people in Uganda live with the threat of even more draconian legislation hanging over them. But there is hope.

Under a proposed new law, which is yet to be debated in parliament, even someone sending a text message mentioning homosexuality could be criminalized. Landlords would be punished for renting homes or offices to gay people – effectively making all gay people homeless.

But it is not only the haters who can strategize.

Frank Mugisha, director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), the country’s leading LGBTI organization, shares his ideas for changing a nation almost synonymous with homophobia.

Work with Museveni

President Yoweri Museveni earned condemnation around the world by signing the Anti-Homosexuality Act into law – the one struck down by the courts last year.

To the outside world, he is the enemy. To LGBTIs in Uganda, his government actually represents the best chance to stop new legislation.

‘The government has a lot to lose. It will worry about its international relations, investors in Uganda, trade and tourism. Members of parliament don’t worry about this, they are more self-centered about winning elections,’ says Mugisha.

Problem is that while Museveni leads the National Resistance Movement party and doesn’t want the embarrassment of new anti-LGBTI legislation, parliamentarians may ignore him.

‘If this law ever goes into parliament it will pass right away. They can pass a bill in just hours,’ Mugisha concludes.

Go to court

The Anti-Homosexuality Act was struck down by the Constitutional Court last year. Is this is possible for new legislation?

Maybe not. Mugisha says the new law has been written more cleverly. The court ruled against the last law not because judges disagreed with it, but only because parliamentarians hadn’t followed procedure when passing it.

‘The AHA I was very sure we can win on substance. When I look on this I am 50/50. Having a bench of conservative old judges, you really don’t know.

‘We are looking at a scenario where we are most likely going to have a law in Uganda. The president wants to win an election and the courts are not going to overturn it.’

Get allies

NGOs were previously unwilling to involve themselves in LGBTI issues. A big success for campaigners has been building a coalition of civil society groups to fight the AHA.

‘Problems bring about strategies. They bring on board sympathetic people.’

Diplomacy and sanctions

‘We are trying to get friends of Uganda, people who know President Museveni, to tell him even if you change the language this law is still going to be a problem for Uganda.’

Mugisha adds that the US strategy of ‘imposing sanctions that are salient on any person promoting hatred or any person violating rights of people in Uganda, saying you won’t travel to the US’ has helped.

It has even led some politicians to suggest they should debate any new law behind closed doors ‘Because they are afraid. Some of them trade with the US, they get donations from the US.’

Change the public focus

‘If you chose 100 Ugandans and ask them what the biggest problem is in the country, no one would mention homosexuality. We have much bigger problems. If you ask them what you think about homosexuality, they say it’s our biggest problem.’

Politicians and religious leaders use LGBTI issues to shore up their support –moving the agenda on could silence them.

Come out

‘I have even met with members of parliament who are very homophobic in public but after having a meeting with you their mind has changed a little bit. Because they understand this is a human being like me who is Ugandan and the only difference we have is our different sexual orientation.

‘If someone came out in every family, that would change a lot, but that is impossible.’

By discussing the issue, politicians and religious leaders have broken a taboo and it has backfired on them.

‘Before all this debate and media, people didn’t feel the need to come out. Now, we are seeing people feel they need to come out and express themselves.

‘I know very many gay people [laughs]. Ten years back we are struggling to find friends, we know three or five people. Now I know hundreds and thousands. I can walk in every corner of the city and I can find gay people who live there or work there.

‘I receive messages constantly saying I want to appreciate your work and I am thinking of coming out.’

Even media witch hunts, publishing lists of ‘homos’, are encouraging people to come out.

‘They are saying I had better start telling my friends and my parents, just in case Red Pepper publishes me.’

Celebrity support

Celebrity supporters are gold-dust. Media commentators, actors and musicians – particularly younger women – are starting to support gay people in Uganda.

They ‘let people know we are normal, we are human,’ says Mugisha.

Support other causes

‘We get involved in charities. There is a charity in Uganda that supports children. We have raised money on Twitter and support building a dormitory or helping orphans. When we meet the young they say, “you are a different gay”. So we say, “we are the same”.’

Not special, just equal

‘People say you are just trying to promote your immorality but I say I am just promoting human rights.’

Tackling the church

When just one religious leader speaks for LGBTIs, people can dismiss them.

‘Ugandans will say you are gay, you have been paid or you are so much into the western world,’ Mugisha says. ‘We need many different Ugandan church leaders to start preaching love.

‘The problem will not end soon but the young generation is getting indifferent. They go to church and they preach to them about homosexuality and the young people say “whatever”… “these are issues I don’t believe in, you are lying about that”.’

Mugisha tells the story of a pastor who preached to science students about homosexuality and claimed there was ‘a skin disease caused by fisting’ only for people to tell him he was making it up.

‘We are talking to a young, very bright community who can check things out for themselves. You talk about something and they go on their phone and check on the internet and if it’s not there, and they will say “you are lying”.’

Get supporters to speak

‘The challenge we have is the progressive, liberal voices are very modest. When they have partners in Africa they are very careful about annoying them. You will find a church in the UK providing huge donations to a church in Africa. But when you talk to them and ask them to raise diversity and LGBT, they say “we cannot bring up this topic because we will lose that partner”. The truth is they won’t lose them.

‘We need those liberal voices to be strong – they can’t be scared forever. They say if they speak they create problems for us, but I don’t see any problems for us. I can’t see how any situation can be worse than when we had the AHA in place as a law.’

Backing from business

Many of the large companies operating in the country are not Ugandan at all but from the US, UK or elsewhere in Europe. This is vial for campaigners.

‘If I was talking to the CEO of a company, first of all I would tell them to talk to the Ugandan government. It is simple – the laws they are passing are affecting their businesses. If companies say this, the Ugandan government will care.’

Global public support

The public support from outside Uganda has delivered huge impact, Mugisha says.

‘We have had massive demonstrations outside embassies, people have signed statements, we have had someone write something about Uganda and it’s had so many hits. I’ve been to TV shows and the anchor has said “we have got the most traffic since that”. It makes politicians want to get involved.

‘It is people asking, what are our values? We don’t support discrimination, we don’t support prejudice. And if you continue working with Uganda the way you are, you are not representing this country.’

Winning the media war

Most of the hate messages are carried through the media. So we are trying to get pro gay media.

It’s not easy. The Ugandan government media has been told not to write anything pro-homosexuality.

We have done a lot on social media and also engaged a lot of bloggers. Recently one of the main newspapers phoned me for an interview, which they rarely do and I gave them an interview and they published it properly – normally they just write what they want.

Most of the reason we are seeing some positive media in Uganda is because of western media. Of course there has been some bad media, but the western media has been constant positive media and the Ugandans cannot ignore it forever.