Rita Abrahamsen is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.
Being gay in Uganda has never been easy. It just got a lot worse, and a lot more dangerous. Against fierce domestic and international pressure from human rights defenders, President Yoweri Museveni has signed into law one of the harshest anti-gay bills in the world.
Homosexual activity was already illegal in Uganda, but the new Anti-Homosexuality Act means that anyone convicted can face life imprisonment. So-called aggravated cases of homosexuality are now punishable by death. This includes gay sex with someone below the age of 18, someone of “advanced age” or with someone infected with HIV/AIDS. Anyone “promoting” or “normalizing” homosexuality may face a 20-year prison sentence.
The law has sent shivers down the spine of Uganda’s already harassed and persecuted LGBTQ+ community. Many are trying to leave. Activists and human rights defenders are warning that the President has “legalized state-sponsored homophobia and transphobia.” Landlords will think twice before renting to LGBTQ people as anyone who knowingly allows their premises to be used for “acts of homosexuality” can face seven years in jail. Employers may feel justified in firing people suspected of being gay.
What explains this intense political mobilization against what is after all a small peaceful minority in a country that faces many serious economic and social challenges? Part of the answer lies in a toxic coming-together of diverse domestic and international agendas, forming a loose transnational alliance in defence of the “natural family.”
Domestically, blaming homosexuality on the West and calling it un-African plays well with many voters. It is a well-worn populist tactic of scapegoating and diversion, particularly useful at times of turmoil and growing dissent. By linking homosexuality to Western neo-colonialism, politicians can capitalize on widespread anti-Westernism, making the LGBTQ community appear as a culturally foreign imposition of a neo-imperial West. At a time when anti-Western rhetoric is gaining strength across the continent, the political attraction of anti-gay legislation is all the more powerful.
This does not mean that Ugandan politicians who support the legislation are insincere in their opposition to homosexuality, or that they are merely playing a self-interested political game. Many, if not most, sincerely regard LGBTQ rights as a destructive force and an attack on national sovereignty, spearheaded by Western donors and liberal institutions like the United Nations. This is the point at which domestic Ugandan agendas converge with a growing right-wing international alliance against the promotion of progressive gender and family policies.
This loose alliance includes evangelical churches and NGOs in the U.S. and elsewhere, as well as right-wing political parties, leaders, and movements from around the world. In their view, liberal globalization has eroded the centrality and rights of what they call the “natural family.” Their aim is to restore national sovereignty so that each country can determine their own family policies, free from the interference of the UN, international law, and global human rights organizations.
This alliance played an important role in a two-day Inter-Parliamentary Conference on Family Values and Sovereignty that took place in Uganda shortly before the Anti-Homosexuality bill was approved. Organized by Ugandan parliamentarians and attended by parliamentarians from 22 African countries, the conference was supported by several American conservative, anti-abortion, anti-gay NGOs and was deliberately designed to counter calls for the Ugandan government to respect universal human rights. It also aimed to unify African parliamentarians against “cultural colonialism in African laws, policies and programs,” and the MPs who attended asked their respective governments to cease signing international instruments binding their countries to “neo-colonialist” family policies without allowing legislators to scrutinize them. Mr. Museveni opened the conference with a speech entitled “Protecting National Sovereignty and the Institution of the Family: An African Imperative.”
Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act is an indefensible attack on the human rights of the LGBTQ community in Uganda. It is also a terrifying reminder of the fragility of human rights and gender justice in the face of growing global right-wing opposition to liberal values.
For the members of the “natural family” alliance, family and gender policies are not accidental or peripheral to the liberal international order, nor merely the softer side of the harsh world of international politics. Instead, for them family and gender policies are at the very heart of a global push to insert new, liberal values into the personal life of individuals, families, and nations. The personal is not merely political, as in the feminist slogan. It is also geopolitical. What happened in Uganda could happen elsewhere.