Uganda's anti-LGBTQ law, one of the harshest in the world, explained

The Anti-Homosexuality Act was signed into law on Monday by President Yoweri Museveni, despite condemnation from Western leaders and rights activists.

Ugandan queer activist Papa De demonstrating against the country's anti-homosexuality bill in Pretoria, South Africa, April 4. (Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images)
Ugandan queer activist Papa De demonstrating against the country's anti-homosexuality bill in Pretoria, South Africa, April 4. (Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images)

Uganda this week passed a bill that calls for openly gay members of the LGBTQ community to be punished with life imprisonment. President Biden led international condemnation, calling the new law “the latest development in an alarming trend of human rights abuses and corruption in Uganda.”

The Anti-Homosexuality Act, which was passed by Parliament in Kampala in April, was signed into law on Monday by President Yoweri Museveni despite widespread opposition from world leaders and human rights activists. “Museveni’s signing of the anti-homosexuality bill is a serious blow to multiple fundamental rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and association, privacy, equality, and nondiscrimination,” Ashwanee Budoo-Scholtz, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division, told Yahoo News via email. “The Ugandan government is obligated to guarantee these rights for all people, including sexual minorities.”

The new legislation is the latest in what has been a severe crackdown on the freedom of members of the LGBTQ community in the conservative East African nation. “With a lot of humility, I thank my colleagues the Members of Parliament for withstanding all the pressure from bullies and doomsday conspiracy theorists in the interest of our country,” Parliamentary Speaker Anita Among said, per Yahoo News partner Associated Press. She added Museveni had “answered the cries of our people.”

What was life like for LGBTQ Ugandans before this law was enacted?

Gay Ugandan refugees
Gay Ugandan refugees who fled from their country to neighboring Kenya, return after shopping for food in Nairobi, Kenya, June 11, 2020. (Brian Inganga/AP)

Before the bill was brought to Parliament for a vote in April, violence and discrimination against the LGBTQ community were already prevalent in Uganda, Budoo-Scholtz explained. In 2013, the government, led by Museveni, passed the initial Anti-Homosexuality Act. However, less than one year later, the constitutional court ruled the act was “null and void” on procedural grounds.

“After the government passed the now-scrapped 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act, Human Rights Watch research found that people faced a notable increase in arbitrary arrests, police abuse, extortion, loss of employment, discriminatory evictions by landlords and reduced access to health services because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity,” Budoo-Scholtz said. “Over the years, Ugandan police have carried out mass arrests at LGBT pride events, at LGBT-friendly bars, and at homeless shelters on spurious grounds, and forced some detainees to undergo anal examinations, a form of cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment that can, in some instances, constitute torture.”

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What is the new law?

Anita Among
Ugandan Parliamentary Speaker Anita Among during the passing of the country's anti-homosexuality bill, May. (Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters)

The law drafted by Parliament is aimed at resisting what Ugandan lawmakers call outside interference and was created to protect the country’s values against Western immorality.

The Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023 states some, but not all of, the following punishments:

  • A person convicted of the “offense” of homosexuality is liable to life imprisonment

  • Any attempts at a sexual act with someone of the same sex will be punishable by up to 10 years in prison

  • The death penalty will be given to those convicted of “aggravated homosexuality,” meaning sexual acts with minors, or people with disabilities or HIV

  • Those who attempt to advocate, celebrate or openly discuss anything LGBTQ-related will be given up to 20 years in prison for “promoting homosexuality”

  • Any person who does not report acts of homosexuality will be fined up to 50,000 Ugandan shillings ($13 USD) or up to six months in prison

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What has the international community said?

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration is considering implementing visa restrictions for Ugandan officials. (Sergei Grits/AP)

Top U.S. government officials joined other world leaders in condemning the hardline laws enacted in Uganda. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration would consider implementing visa restrictions for Ugandan officials. “The Department of State will develop mechanisms to support the rights of LGBTQI+ individuals in Uganda and to promote accountability for Ugandan officials and other individuals responsible for, or complicit in, abusing their human rights,” Blinken said in a statement. Meanwhile, Biden threatened to cut aid to the nation after imposing what he said is a “tragic violation of universal human rights.”

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said the new law will likely worsen the “violence and persecution already faced by lesbian, gay and bisexual people in Uganda.” He called on all member states to “abide by their obligations under international human rights law.” U.N. human rights chief Volker Türk said that the law would “drive people against one another, leave people behind and undermine development.”

Despite the backlash, Museveni said: “The signing is finished, nobody will move us.”

Can the law be reversed?

Activists demonstrate against Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill
Activists demonstrate against Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill in Pretoria, South Africa, April 4. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

A challenge was filed on Monday to the constitutional court of Uganda, where 11 petitioners contested the act on several grounds, seeking an injunction on the enforcement of the law.

Budoo-Scholtz explained to Yahoo News that the petition asked the court to declare, among others, that “proper procedure was not followed to adopt the Act; Several provisions of the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023 are inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution and the National Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy.” A second challenge was put to the court the following day by a group of nine others.

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What can LGBTQ Ugandans do now?

A member of the LGBTQ community in Uganda prays during an evangelical church service
A member of the LGBTQ community prays during an evangelical church service, April 23, in Kampala, Uganda. (Luke Dray/Getty Images)

“In addition to the constitutional court case, they can also lobby and advocate against this law at the regional and global levels,” Budoo-Scholtz said. “While the EU, the U.S., and the U.K. have condemned this law, the African Union has been quiet. It would be good to advocate against the law at the African Union level.”