As an attorney and Uganda human rights activist, America’s elections thrill me. It is breathtaking to witness democracy in full roar, as candidates vie for the nation’s highest office.
In Uganda, we hold elections on Feb. 18, and our eight candidates for the presidency are fiercely vying, too. But their ferocity is different; it may put at risk the lives of many Ugandans — our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and transgender-intersex people.
As the election fervor mounts, so have vitriol and physical attacks against these people — despite our success in August 2014 at overturning Uganda’s most draconian anti-homosexuality law in our Constitutional Court. Unfortunately, the government still makes use of several other legal avenues that allow it to punish and silence people whose sexual identity is out of public favor.
Imagine this scene: Uganda was holding its first-ever televised presidential debate last month (though it was shunned by the incumbent candidate, President Yoweri Museveni). Joseph Mabirizi, a pastor and independent candidate, tried to turn voters away from one rival — a former prime minister — by accusing him of supporting “gays,” toward whom the public is nearly unanimous in its hostility.
Public opinion surveys conducted at the end of 2015 by Afrobarometer reported that 92 percent of the Ugandans interviewed think that homosexuality is inconsistent with Ugandan culture and religion. An equal percentage expressed the belief that L.G.B.T.I. people do not deserve the same legal and constitutional protection of their rights as other Ugandans.
This harsh climate and these campaign tactics have inspired yet another rise in sentiment against L.G.B.T.I. people and emboldened the government’s resolve to enact laws that outlaw or severely limit organizing by them and other human rights advocates. Formal registration as a group is already forbidden to L.G.B.T.I. organizations.
In this campaign to suffocate the civic space for L.G.B.T.I. groups, the Uganda Registration Bureau explained its refusal to register the leading umbrella group, Sexual Minority Uganda, or SMUG, by declaring that the name itself “offends the law.“ The bureau labeled the group “undesirable,” explaining that the organization advocates for the “rights and well-being of lesbian and gay (sic) among others which persons are engaged in criminal activities” under a British colonial law enacted in 1950.
To silence groups like SMUG, the bureau was granted special powers in 2015 to refuse permits to any organization that works against the “dignity of the people of Uganda.” To make this more punitive, the new law (which awaits the assent of President Museveni to take effect) offers no definition for what is meant by the “dignity of the people of Uganda.” Given the current climate, it will not be enough for the anti-gay campaign to merely silence expression or forbid organizing; we can expect it also to criminalize L.G.B.T.I. people and send them to jail.
Despite the draconian political climate and new legal threats, however, there are also some ripples of hope, dignity and survival. The rights of L.G.B.T.I. persons are now at least a subject of public discussion, no longer just whispers. The debate occupies mainstream political discourse and conversations throughout Uganda. However hostile the public, it at least is acknowledging that we have Ugandans with different sexual orientations in our midst.
This is in part because of the resilience and courage of the Ugandan L.G.B.T.I. community and its allies, abroad and at home, who have refused to give in to the widespread hostility from the state and the religious fundamentalists who incite public contempt.
It may be surprising to learn that for the past five years, Ugandan L.G.B.T.I. people have held pride parades. To be sure, they have been held only in secluded locations, but still they provide a space for celebrations of their love and their sexuality.
Even though denied official registration, L.G.B.T.I. groups have bravely sprouted up as informal associations in most parts of Uganda; they provide social and other forms of life-sustaining support to their peers. In addition, thanks to reformed birth registration laws, intersex or transgender people, with the certification of a doctor, can now change a wrongly assigned gender on their birth certificate.
Our American partners and others across the globe should take heart in these glimpses of hope and resistance. They should also know that more than ever, we need them to join with us to banish complacency. Pushing back on the vitriol during and beyond this election cycle is necessary, urgent and lifesaving.
Winning our constitutional battle in 2014 and defeating the Uganda anti-homosexuality law did not promise us victory in this long war for justice. Wherever complacency has set in, it has instead led to the rollback of past progress by a drumbeat of hatred led by American Pentecostal leaders and their Ugandan allies.
So Uganda’s L.G.B.T.I. groups and human rights allies still look to international voices, minds and hearts to help snuff out the spark of hatred that is being lit again and again by the American Pentecostal movement.
Ugandans have long been known to love our nation, and to love our people — all of our people. We have been renowned for warmth and tolerance, not for harboring such venom toward the weak in our society. We must now double our efforts to live up to that reputation.
Nicholas Opiyo, an attorney who received the 2015 Human Rights Watch Global Voices of Justice Award for Extraordinary Activism, is the founder and executive director of Chapter Four Uganda, a Kampala-based legal charity.