The torture began when the prison guards discovered that Brian was gay. It continued for almost two months.
“I was kicked, beaten, slapped,” the 29-year-old Ugandan man said, showing The Globe and Mail the scars on his hands and legs. “I was beaten with metal wires. I was screaming a lot, but the place is remote – no one can hear you.”
The police had jailed him in his hometown of Jinja, Uganda, after another man claimed to have been sexually assaulted by him – and demanded money in a blackmail scheme. The police raided his home, found condoms and gay literature and added them to the docket against him. His name was broadcast on local radio. “Everyone turned against me,” he recalled.
His accuser eventually disappeared. The false charges were dismissed, and Brian fled to Kenya. (The Globe is not identifying him in order to protect his safety.) But his ordeal is far from unique. In Uganda and across much of Africa, hostility toward the LGBTQ community is worsening, fuelled by hate speech on social media and in politics.
Some politicians are pushing for discriminatory new laws and investigations. Homosexual conduct is already criminalized in the majority of African countries, but a proposed new law in Uganda would be even harsher than the existing law. By prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality,” it would effectively make it illegal for Ugandans even to mention their sexual orientation to someone else.
“One of the most extreme features of this new bill is that it criminalizes people simply for being who they are,” said Oryem Nyeko, a Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a report released Thursday.
The proposed law would also make it an offence to touch another person “with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality.” It is similar to a widely condemned 2014 anti-gay bill that was struck down by a Ugandan court on a technicality. The new bill was introduced in late February by opposition MP Asuman Basalirwa, whose speech supporting it was applauded by other parliamentarians.
“The bill is creating tension and fear within the LGBTQ community in Uganda and putting our lives at risk,” said Ivan Kakonge, the deputy executive director of Royal Rays Initiative, an LGBTQ group in Uganda.
“Some of our most at-risk members have been attacked physically and verbally,” he told The Globe. “As a result of these actions, the government through the law enforcers have started hunting for all the LGBTQ members in Uganda and we are not safe at all.”
For months, the political attacks on the gay community have been intensifying. Last August, the government banned a prominent LGBTQ rights organization, Sexual Minorities Uganda. A government agency called for a ban on 26 non-governmental organizations that it alleged were “promoting homosexuality.”
In January, parliamentary speaker Anita Among ordered a parliamentary committee to investigate schools that were suspected of “encouraging” gay rights. In February, anti-gay marches were held in several Ugandan towns, organized by religious groups. A military commander, Major-General Francis Takirwa, demanded that gay people should be barred from health services. Cabinet minister Peter Ogwang called for the death penalty for same-sex conduct.
The government also ordered the shutdown of the United Nations human-rights office in the country – a move widely seen as clearing the way for harsher laws. Some LGBTQ groups say there is widespread panic among their members as physical attacks and police raids intensify. Anti-gay posters have begun appearing in Ugandan schools, claiming that homosexuality can cause everything from cancer to drug addiction and obesity.
In neighbouring Kenya, several gay-rights activists have been killed in recent years. The death of LGBTQ activist Edwin Chiloba in January sparked an outpouring of anti-gay hate speech on Kenyan social media and from some politicians. Then, in a landmark ruling in late February, the Supreme Court ruled that the government must allow the official registration of an LGBTQ organization, which the government had refused to do. This ignited another surge of anti-gay rhetoric on social media. Some politicians are pushing for a Kenyan version of the Ugandan anti-gay bill.
Many gay and lesbian Ugandans have sought shelter at the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, where they believe they will be safer than in Uganda. But even here they are often attacked.
“I’ve been assaulted many times at Kakuma camp – more than in Uganda,” said Canary Murungi, a 29-year-old rights activist in the camp. “People here are homophobic. They beat you up, but the police say that Kenya doesn’t allow homosexuality and they don’t want to help us.”
He told The Globe about a recent attack by two South Sudanese men who assaulted him with sticks when he was fetching water. “They asked me why I am a gay person. My leg got broken when they pushed me into a deep hole in the ground.”
Another Ugandan at the camp, Kane, said he is partly disabled after attackers hit his leg with a metal object – one of many attacks he suffered because he is gay. (The Globe is not identifying him because of the risks it would pose to his life.)
“Life here is so depressing,” he said. “Many queer refugees are losing hope. Some of us have been brutally killed.”
In many African countries, the attacks are linked to populist politicians and social-media influencers who stir up hatred. In Zimbabwe in the 1990s, for example, then-president Robert Mugabe denounced the “sub-animal behaviour” of gays and urged police to arrest them. Arrests and beatings escalated, and homosexuality was soon criminalized in Zimbabwean law.
Mr. Mugabe was toppled in a military coup in 2017 and died in 2019. His successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has said little on the issue. Public prejudices remain, and there are still occasional homophobic assaults, but the relative quiet from politicians has allowed LGBTQ people to get on with their lives.
“We have our secret places where we meet to socialize and have fun without being jeered at or disrupted by the police or people who hate us,” said Lenon Muhwa, a 44-year-old hairdresser and gay man in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.
“We have our WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages for gays and lesbians, and we have our codes for identifying each other in public,” he told The Globe.
“I’m able to live freely these days without police raiding my apartment. I can go for months now without having any encounters with homophobic groups. It makes me feel hopeful that this could be a sign of better days to come. We shall be free some day, I hope.”
In the town of Norton, west of Harare, 45-year-old math tutor Tererai Zizhou said he survives by pretending to be straight. “I’ve tried to explain to my parents and siblings that I’m gay, but they refuse to accept it,” he told The Globe.
“They call me demon-possessed, and they even invited prophets to exorcise the demon from me. So I pretend to date women. I know people here hate gays and lesbians, so I’m careful how I walk and present myself.”