When the Ugandan President Yuweri Museveni signed a significant piece of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation last month, the global outcry was huge. The bill criminalizes same-sex conduct, attempted same-sex interactions, promotions of homosexuality and “aggravated homosexuality,” which can be penalized with the death sentence. President Biden called the legislation shameful saying in a statement, writing: “The enactment of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act is a tragic violation of universal human rights—one that is not worthy of the Ugandan people. . . . I join with people around the world—including many in Uganda—in calling for its immediate repeal.”
However, the truth is that the United States itself is also in the middle of the global war on gay rights. Current legislation in states around the U.S. such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and the record-breaking number of anti-trans bills in other states across the country is targeting LGBTQ+ youth, jeopardizing their safety.
In Arkansas, a federal judge just overturned one of these bills, a ban on gender-affirming care for trans youth, by disputing false claims that justified the law. In Alabama, Florida and Indiana similar laws are currently blocked by injunctions. But still, dangers for trans youth in the U.S. persist. Meanwhile, DeSantis’ anti-LGBTQ+ agenda enrages the Walt Disney corporation to an extent where the governor willingly jeopardizes jobs and investments in his own state. The conglomerate just canceled plans for a one billion dollar-worth corporate campus, which would have housed 2,000 employees—many of whom do not want to move to Florida anymore.
Going back to Uganda, a closer look reveals that Uganda is one example among many in the bigger context of the African continent. About half of the 54 countries on the African continent have legalized same-sex relationships, while they remain illegal in the other half. Many of these laws date back to countries’ colonial histories, where homosexuality was criminalized under foreign rule. In the past decade, five countries have legalized same-sex relationships: Lesotho (2012), Mozambique (2015), the Seychelles (2016), Botswana (2019) and Angola (2021). Crackdowns such as the recent attacks on queer communities in Egypt are common across the continent.
While some countries move towards the decriminalization of homosexuality and try to eliminate anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, some countries have passed harsher legislation harming LGBTQ+ communities, especially targeting the queer youth in those countries. Ms. is highlighting some cases and reflecting on what this means for queer rights in America and globally.
The latest news from Uganda about the criminalization of same-sex relationships is nothing unheard of before, but the expanded reach of this new law is drawing increased global attention. In 2014, Uganda passed an anti-LGBTQ+ law that then was struck down by the courts on procedural grounds. This new attempt is another visible attack on queer Ugandans who already have feared their lives and fled the country to neighbors such as Kenya.
Queer activists around the world have protested this law as it endangers the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals globally. Many fear that the success of homophobic forces will spark similar efforts elsewhere. In South Africa, a crowd of hundred people protested outside of the United Nations Information Centre in Pretoria.
PaPa De DeLovie Kwagala, another Ugandan LGBTQ+ rights activist and photographer, who also participated in this protest told Reuters, “World leaders should put pressure on Museveni to not sign the bill because it’s not only a Ugandan issue, it is an African continent issue.” They continue, “Queer people don’t owe anyone anything, but we also deserve to live just like everyone else. You can’t strip all our rights. This is a world emergency.”
The interconnectedness between Uganda and Kenya can also be seen in their queer activist efforts. In Jan. 2022, LGBTQ+ Kenyan students were banned from schools after Cabinet Secretary for Education George Magoha stated that gay and lesbian students should be unable to attend boarding schools.
In Kenya, similarly to its neighboring country Uganda, the school system is built upon the white, Christian missionary schools from the colonial era. Nonetheless, the enforcement of heteronormative standards in schools is not limited to Christian-influenced schools. As Mahmood, a student attending a Muslim school in Uganda told openDemocracy: “Sexual assault of supposed queer kids is used as a form of bullying by the supposed straight kids. Because of homophobia, there aren’t enough honest conversations on the sexual violence against young boys by older males in schools.”
Marylize Biubwa, from Queer Republic, a Kenya-based LGBTQ+ organization, helped organize the protest in Kenya against the discrimination of LGBTQ+ students. Many queer students joined the protest pressuring the educational leaders of the country. Biubwa also stated that Queer Republic would continue fighting back against the education ministry to assure that LGBTQ+ students are safe in Kenyan schools.
The Kenyan protest served as an inspiration for LGBTQ+ students not only in Kenya but also in Uganda. Students like Mahmood explained that they hoped that something similar would happen in Uganda. It is a hope that can be transformative. As he told openDemocracy: “The world is much bigger than my school now.”
Nonetheless, gay sex is punishable with up to 14 years of imprisonment and attacks on queer individuals are still common in Kenya. Last year, non-binary lesbian Sheila Lumumba was killed. Earlier this year, fashion model Edwin Chiloba was found dead in a metal box alongside the road near the city of Eldoret.
Zambia also is fighting its queer citizens. Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema confirmed publicly that the Zambian government will not support LGBTQ+ communities in the country. The legal consequences for sexual activities between people of the same sex can be up to 15 years of imprisonment.
As Anold Mulaisho, a Zambian refugee living in South Africa, shared about another LGBTQ+ refugee to New Frame: “He was facing persecution in Zambia and now he’s here. Literally, everyone who’s queer in Zambia, you can never, never be who you are. Not when you’re gay,” said Mulaisho. A 2016 study found that Zambia is one of the most anti-LGBTQ+ countries in southern Africa.
Public misinformation regarding transgender and intersex identities in Zambia is another issue. Often individuals are criminalized because the government believes they are breaking the law. In the face of these challenges, Mphatso Sakala, a prominent Zambia intersex activist, is trying to assist intersex people by connecting them to counseling and medical experts.
Sakala, who founded the Intersex Society of Zambia (ISSZ), utilizes the organization to fight for the recognition and protection of rights for Zambian intersex people. This includes advocating to wait with any surgery meant to “correct gender” in intersex people until people are old enough to make their own bodily decisions.
Sakala’s motivation to help other intersex people relies on the knowledge that they need them as stated to New Frame: “There have been times when I’d say why am I troubling myself? This work is too much. But I find that every time I tell myself that, there will always be that call that will come through, saying there is this or that person who needs you.”
In March of this year, Zambian police forces arrested four feminists of the Sistah Sistah Foundation. The organization had planned a march against sexual violence against girls and women. Government officials argued that the march was promoting LGBTQ+ rights.
While South Africans have protested alongside Ugandans to stop the Ugandan anti-LGBTQ+ legislation from passing, South Africa faces many of its own challenges regarding LGBTQ+ communities.
In 2021, South Africa underwent a hate crime wave targeting the LGBTQ+ community. By April 2021, six LGBTQ individuals had already been murdered. Since then at least three more victims were confirmed during Pride month. People demanded justice by holding protests in front of the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town by urging the government to take actions against the current surge in anti-LGBTQ+ violence and persecute the killers of the victims.
South Africa is the only country in Africa to have marriage equality after the parliament had passed it in 2006. Nonetheless, similarly to the legalization of abortion, same-sex marriage is not fully approved by the South African society. Most of the Zulu people, which composes one-fifth of the whole population and are led by a traditional monarch, believe that same-sex relationships are morally wrong.
With the death of Desmond Tutu in December 2021, one of the largest advocates for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the church was lost. In 2013, Tutu was publicly attacked by the former leader of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, who said, “Tutu should just step down because he supports gays, something that is evil.” Tutu responded the same year that “I would not worship a God who is homophobic. I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say, ‘Sorry, I would much rather go to the other place.'”
LGBTQ+ activists in South Africa still fight conservative forces and find themselves at daily danger of being victims of homophobic and transphobic attacks.
Transnational Solidarity Is More Important Than Ever
The global war on gay rights is exactly that—global. Conservative forces from DeSantis to Museveni are attempting to restrict queer visibility and target LGBTQ+ communities. These communities are not safe. These are human rights violations.
While statements about human rights violations in Uganda from political leaders in the global North like President Biden are definitely important, they often overlook the daily violence against queer communities in the U.S. and Europe.
We need to address our own issues and not just point at others, when discussing LGBTQ+ rights. At the same time, a transnational perspective on LGBTQ+ rights can be extremely valuable. LGBTQ+ activists such as Marylize Biubwa, Mphatso Sakala, PaPa De DeLovie Kwagala, students such Mahmood, and many more already show us what they are doing to make change. We are dealing with a global war on gay rights. And a global war requires global solutions.