Out and Abroad: Gay Rights in Uganda

In much of Africa, being openly gay is a dangerous undertaking. Thirty-seven African countries criminalize homosexuality, and in at least three countries homosexual conduct is punishable by death. Even in South Africa, where gay marriage is legal, corrective rape of lesbians is distressingly common. In Uganda, a particularly repressive piece of anti-gay legislation is under consideration. The bill, commonly referred to as the “Kill the Gays” bill, was first proposed for parliamentary consideration in 2009. Originally, it included a provision that would make “aggravated homosexuality” (“gay sex when one partner is HIV-positive, disabled, a ‘serial offender,’ or a minor”) an offense punishable by death. Though the death penalty has been replaced with life imprisonment, the bill is still disturbingly severe and would criminalize homosexual conduct, the intent to commit such conduct, as well as the support and knowing protection of gay men and women.

Historically, Ugandans have been indifferent to homosexuality as long as it was kept private and discreet. The current climate of hostility seems to have begun in earnest in 1999 when, following reports that two men were married in Kampala, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni called for police to find and arrest gays. Since then, opposition to gay rights has steadily increased. The matter is complicated by the sense on both sides of the issue that gay rights has become a vehicle for neocolonial Westerners to meddle in African affairs. Intense anti-gay campaigning in Uganda by American evangelist Scott Lively, president of Abiding Truth Ministries, as well as other conservative missionaries, may have served as a catalyst for legislator David Bahati to initially draft and propose the “Kill the Gays” bill. On the flip side, opponents of gay rights, including President Museveni, see international condemnation of the bill, and threats to reduce aid to Uganda if the bill is passed, as an attempt to impose Western sexual values on Uganda. What many gay rights activists have come to realize is that for progress to be made, and for hearts and minds to be changed, Ugandans need to create a gay rights movement that is distinctly Ugandan in form and origin.

The group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) is hoping to achieve just that. SMUG, a “coalition of LGBTI organizations” based in Kampala, was founded in 2004 to address “Human Rights issues based on sexual orientation.” In addition to undertaking public awareness campaigns and documenting cases of “discrimination, harassment, and violence” against the LGBT community, SMUG provides support, shelter, and even bail money to individuals who have been threatened or arrested for their sexual orientation. They also opened the nation’s first LGBT clinic in 2012, which provides care free of charge. But, many of SMUG’s most impressive achievements have been in the legal arena. In 2011, SMUG won a lawsuit against the tabloid Rolling Stone, which had published the names, photos, and other personal information of one hundred gay individuals, along with the tagline “Hang Them.” Following SMUG’s legal victory, Rolling Stone closed down. SMUG has also been instrumental in opposing and raising awareness about Bahati’s anti-gay legislation. Though the bill is still pending decision, domestic and international outrage over the bill’s severity have caused it to be tabled several times already. And, in a daring and unprecedented move, SMUG filed a lawsuit against Scott Lively in a Massachusetts court. The case, filed under the Alien Tort Statute, which “allows foreigners to sue U.S. citizens for violations of international law,” alleges that Lively’s anti-gay missionizing promoted an atmosphere of terror and hostility that is tantamount to a human rights violation. The case, the first of its kind, represents a landmark effort to fight back against destructive foreign interference in Ugandan affairs. A ruling on the case has not yet been made, but regardless of the outcome, this and other efforts by SMUG are still achievements to be proud of. The group’s perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity has made real, rational conversation about gay rights possible in Uganda. The ongoing efforts of SMUG are a source of hope for change in Uganda and elsewhere across Africa.

By Charlotte Lewis, Staff Contributor


  1. E.A. Reynolds /

    OMG. I had no idea of the gay rights situation abroad, but I am working on a similar premise in a series I’m currently. I am struggling not to make the storyline too harsh and unacceptable. But Damn. How could loving another man be illegal let alone punishable by death. And corrective rape of lesbians? That should be punishable by death. Wow!

    • Charlotte Lewis /

      Thanks for your feedback! I agree that it’s troubling to think about just how much prejudice still exists in the world, but such discrimination makes the work of activists like SMUG all the more important and impressive.