Kampala, Uganda — Frank Mugisha, a gay rights activist and executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), receives hundreds of requests for help daily.
“People want my intervention,” he said. “I get so many WhatsApp messages. ‘I want food’; ‘I can’t work any more’; ‘People know I’m LGBTQ and I can’t go back’; ‘I’m worried’; ‘I need housing’; ‘People are calling’; ‘I’m being blackmailed;’ ‘I’m being trailed.’… It’s overwhelming.”
In the last week, these pleas have become increasingly desperate.
There has always been hostility towards sexual minorities in Uganda and, indeed, in parts of East Africa, a deeply conservative region.
But things have worsened after Uganda’s parliament passed one of the world’s strictest anti-homosexuality legislation on March 21, to sentence anyone found guilty of same-sex relations to life imprisonment – if signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni.
The new bill imposes the death penalty in cases of “aggravated homosexuality,” defined as sexual relations with someone below the age of 14 or above the age of 75, and for repeat offenders.
Activists and journalists are seemingly being targeted as well; individuals found guilty of “promoting” homosexuality could spend 20 years in prison. Friends, family and neighbours are required by law to report anyone they suspect is gay to the police, or suffer a six-month jail term, while landlords are forbidden from renting to LGBTQ people.
The bill was passed by an overwhelming majority, as parliamentarians applauded and sang the national anthem, with all but two of the 389 politicians present voting in favour of it.
One of them, Fox Odoi-Oywelowo, presented a minority report condemning the legislation, amid boos and taunts from his colleagues.
“If anybody still thinks that you can pass a law to lay a legal basis for hatred – which is what homophobia is – then I can’t support you,” he told Al Jazeera from his office in Uganda’s parliament building. “Many of the clauses of the bill were, to put it mildly, repugnant.”
But opposing this law did not come without a price for Odoi-Oywelowo.
“There were people who called me to tell me that they will stone me,” he said. “There were those who called me to tell me that they will hang my children.”
Already, anxiety is rising within the Ugandan LGBTQ community.
“There is a big panic,” said Mugisha of SMUG, adding that members of Uganda’s gay community are already making plans to flee the country. Others have stopped visiting health facilities for fear of arrest. Some have been evicted from their homes.
“People think that since you have a law that was passed, you already have a law that is enforced,” said Adrian Jjuuko, executive director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) in Kampala. Consequently, “people take the law into their own hands”.
This, he added, is likely to lead to an increase in the number of violent assaults in a country where homophobia is entrenched.
Uganda’s penal code, a relic of the colonial era, currently criminalises acts deemed “against the order of nature”, including same-sex relations and sodomy, but is barely enforced. An initial anti-homosexuality bill introduced in 2009, after significant lobbying by American evangelicals, was signed into law five years later. The law was overturned by the constitutional court on a technicality, only for members of parliament to threaten to bring it back in 2019.
Because the law was discarded on procedural grounds, the possibility of a similar bill has constantly loomed over gay Ugandans.
“It [the dismissal] always left appetite among members of parliament,” said Clare Byarugaba, an LGBTQ rights campaigner with Chapter Four Uganda, a nonprofit instrumental in fighting the 2014 legislation. “There are some people who are surprised that this bill has come back, but I was not.”
Last August, SMUG was shut down by the state-run Uganda NGO Bureau, which accused it of not being properly registered. At the time, Mugisha warned anyone who would listen that a new version of the Anti-Homosexuality Act would soon be introduced.
This January, Jjuuko’s HRAPF, which frequently works with the LGBTQ community, was among 22 organisations listed as being under investigation in a leaked report from the NGO Bureau, with recommendations for government to “comprehensively criminalise” LGBTQ activities and investigate organisations “promoting” homosexuality.
As the bureaucratic clampdown increased, homophobic attacks and rhetoric rose too.
Between January and February alone, Mugisha registered 110 cases of violations nationwide against the LGBTQ community, including sexual violence, evictions and forced public undressing. In March, Muslim leaders held a demonstration condemning homosexuality in the eastern city of Jinja. A secondary teacher was arrested in the same city; accused of encouraging her students to become lesbians.
A parliament source told Al Jazeera anonymously that an official version of the bill is expected to be sent within the next few days to Museveni who has to sign it into law within 30 days – or send it back to parliament for revisions.
On the domestic front, there is overwhelming support for the bill.
Alex Onzima, a junior minister in Museveni’s cabinet who told Al Jazeera that “homosexuality is worse than malignant cancer … worse than terrorism”, has promised to resign if Museveni doesn’t sign the bill into law.
Only a few dissenting voices like Odoi-Oywelowo are still calling for reason. “This law was just born out of hatred,” the politician told Al Jazeera. “It only makes one thing legitimate. Hatred.”
Meanwhile, foreign pressure has been ramping up on the president to reject the bill.
“This discriminatory bill … could provide carte blanche for the systematic violation of nearly all of their human rights and serve to incite people against each other,” Volker Türk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement, urging Museveni not to sign it.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also condemned the legislation on Twitter, saying it would “undermine fundamental human rights of all Ugandans and could reverse gains in the fight against HIV/AIDS”.
The Open for Business Coalition, a consortium of multinational corporations dedicated to LGBTQ inclusion, penned an open letter to Museveni, appealing to him, not to assent.
Museveni has yet to publicly indicate his next step. But while addressing lawmakers earlier this month, he described gay people as “deviants”, calling on the West to stop imposing its ideals on Ugandans.
Speaker of Parliament Anita Among has also hit back at criticism. “I got a lot of pressure,” she told parliamentarians last week, in seeming reference to international dissenters. “We are going to change this community, this country. We are not going to be intimidated.”
For the Ugandan LGBTQ community, plenty of damage has already been done, regardless of whether the president signs the bill or not.
Long before the bill’s introduction, Mugisha said he often worried about his safety and that of his loved ones. Before leaving his home and ahead of choosing meeting spots, he deliberates carefully.
The fear is so exhausting that he has become numb to it. “It is like I’m living life in a bulletproof vest,” he told Al Jazeera.