Uganda’s anti-gay bill preys on African exceptionalism

I was once a homophobe who bought into the lies of African leaders who blamed the West for homosexuality.

A gay Ugandan couple cover themselves with a pride flag as they pose for a photograph in Uganda Saturday, March 25, 2023. A prominent leader of Uganda's LGBTQ community on Thursday described anguished calls by others like him who are concerned for their safety after the passing of a harsh new anti-gay bill. (AP Photo)
A gay Ugandan couple cover themselves with a pride flag as they pose for a photograph in Uganda, March 25, 2023 [File: AP Photo]

On April 3, speaking to a delegation of members of parliament from more than 22 African countries, who had attended a conference on “family values and sovereignty” in Entebbe, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni called on the continent’s leaders to save the world from homosexuality.

In his speech, Museveni – a longtime advocate of conversion therapy, the pseudoscientific practice of attempting to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender expression – claimed that homosexuality is “reversible and curable”.

Not long ago, I would have supported these dangerous and unsubstantiated statements and would have backed the controversial anti-LGBTQ bill passed by the Ugandan parliament in March. The law proposes the death penalty for certain homosexual acts and life imprisonment sentences for the “recruitment, promotion and funding” of same-sex “activities”. It bans Ugandans from identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ).

I was not born homophobic, but for years, abhorred the LGBTQ community.

As a student at the University of Cape Town, I had several altercations with an affable and overtly gay colleague over his sexuality. Even though same-sex relations were decriminalised through South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution in 1996, I could not stand seeing him being true to his character and sexuality.

For someone who grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe – a conservative society where homosexuality has long been illegal under the law – family and friends viewed my unambiguous displeasure with gay men and women as completely normal.

I was socialised to believe that lesbians and gays were anathemas to the natural, God-fearing and traditional family that every man and woman should aspire to achieve.

Our president at the time, Robert Mugabe, frequently said Zimbabweans (and Africans) had strong moral values while Westerners, who allowed homosexuality, were clearly immoral. Meanwhile, he equated homosexuality with bestiality at every turn and implored the church to preach homophobia in its sermons.

It was no surprise that a mob of students from the University of Zimbabwe ransacked a stand belonging to the Gays and Lesbian Association (GALZ) of Zimbabwe at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 1996. Most people – myself included – supported their violent and unacceptable behaviour.

In our indoctrinated minds, GALZ was the guilty and mischievous protagonist, since it was testing our combined resolve to defend our culture and country from an intrusive abomination and nefarious foreign agenda.

I was young, impressionable and fell hook, line and sinker for the contrived opposition to widespread social inclusivity. I also failed to see that Mugabe was employing homophobia as a political gimmick — even as his ally, former Zimbabwe President Canaan Banana, was in 1997 convicted of forcing an aide into a three-year homosexual relationship.

Today, fortunately, I am proud that I am no longer a bigot. I have discarded my once toxic and narrow-minded mentality. I wish I could somehow extend a long overdue and heartfelt apology to my former colleague at the University of Cape Town. My traditional and Anglican Church beliefs no longer influence my feelings and behaviour towards LGBTQ people. I love and embrace them as family, as righteous fellow Africans, who deserve equal human rights and opportunities in life.

But around Africa, unfortunately, state-led homophobia is on the rise. Politicians and religious leaders continue to characterise homosexuality as a foreign vice. This callous and imprudent postcolonial quest to concoct cultural and moral exceptionalism has led to attempts to repudiate and smother the longstanding presence of homosexuals in African societies.

In Tanzania, the government has banned from schools a number of books that have LGBTQ-related content for allegedly violating local cultural norms. In neighbouring Kenya, meanwhile, President William Ruto is mobilising public opposition to a Supreme Court ruling allowing the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) to register as an NGO.

And the extreme anti-LGBTQ bill passed in March by Uganda’s parliament, according to global NGO Human Rights Watch, reinforces the criminalisation of same-sex conduct. For the moment, Museveni has not signed the bill — he agrees with the punishments, his spokesperson has said, but apparently wants more compassion shown for those who have engaged in homosexuality “in the past” and now want to lead “normal lives again”.

Much like Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Museveni has framed homosexuality as an existential threat to humanity to deflect public attention from his failed and illiberal leadership, which has left Ugandans grappling with growing poverty and rights violations.

It was under his watch that Red Pepper, a Kampala-based newspaper, published a list of Uganda’s “Top 200 Homosexuals” in 2014, a shameful and malicious act that endangered the precious livelihoods and lives of innocent people. Under Museveni’s rule, LGBTQ activists like David Kato and Brian Wasswa have been murdered.

And like Mugabe, Museveni’s political scheming projects homosexuality as a plot transported to Africa from former colonial nations — a point he repeated in March in a State of the Nation address. “Western countries should stop wasting the time of humanity by trying to impose their practices on other people,” he said.

To be clear, colonialism ended decades ago – in 1962, to be exact, for Uganda.

There is no plausible reason to consider sexual and gender inclusivity within African societies through the remote and inconsequential prism of Western moralities.

LGTBQ community members in Africa, who were born to and raised by African men and women, are not lesser human or African than Museveni. All Africans – including heterosexual, homosexual or asexual individuals – should be free to express themselves without running afoul of fanciful moral and legal standards that contradict timeless human norms and desires.

The limited and erstwhile description of family and family values, as espoused by the likes of Museveni, is clearly wrong and outdated.

In early April, Sarah Opendi, the chairperson of the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association, who often sounds like a rambling clone of Museveni, declared, “We want all Africans, traditional leaders, religious leaders and legislators to ensure that we promote our African values”.

In earlier times, I mistakenly subscribed to such views.

Now, I know that a family is not an inflexible social construction limited to heterosexuals, but a strong and fundamental manifestation of love, commitment and happiness open to all.

Africa should embrace all of its beautiful people and allow the LGBTQ community to thrive. If anyone deserves rejection, it is the likes of Museveni.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.