Many gays in Uganda now feel hunted and outcast

The new Anti-Homosexuality Law, which has broad public support, imposes harsh penalties for gays and those 'who fail to report suspected gays to police,' including landlords and employers.

Rebecca Vassie/AP
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni signs a new anti-gay bill that sets harsh penalties for gays and those 'who fail to report suspected gays to police,' including landlords and employers, in Entebbe, Uganda Monday, Feb. 24, 2014.

For two years, Kelly Mukwano has been an ideal house tenant, someone who pays his rent on time and keeps his two-room apartment tidy and well-maintained.

All that counted for nothing this week, though, when his landlord kicked him out with 24 hours notice, leaving him nowhere to go. The reason: Mr. Mukwano is gay, and lives in Uganda.

The East African nation this week became the latest on the continent to ink strict new laws banning homosexuality, even going so far as to introduce jail terms for people who fail to report suspected gays to police.

The Anti-Homosexuality Act, signed Monday amid criticism by the international community, would allow authorities to prosecute Mukwano’s landlord – if he knows that his tenant is gay and does not report him. Employers who fail to tell the authorities about staff who they suspect are gay can be prosecuted. There are life sentences for repeatedly being convicted of having gay sex.

Mukwano's landlord was afraid of gangs or police harassing him or entering his property and damaging it. “My landlord is not a bad man," Mukwano says in a cafe in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. "He said he had no choice, he knew I was a homosexual and he could go to prison for hosting me.” 

“He said I no longer was welcome in the area, that people knew and they could come and kill me at any time. When I left, people were staring, whispering. I did not realize the danger I was in,” Mukwano adds.  

In the five days since Uganda’s law was passed, “dozens” of gay people have faced threats of violence, eviction from their homes, or the loss of their jobs, says Sandra Ntebi, who advises the lesbian-gay-bisexual- transgender (LGBT) community here on security. 

Western donors, who together pump more than $1.5 billion into Uganda each year, have almost universally denounced the legislation.

The World Bank said Thursday it was suspending $90 million in new loans for health services while its experts reviewed whether the new law “adversely affects” development strategy. 

Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway have halted aid. Washington said it was “reviewing its relationship” with Uganda over the law, which John Kerry, the US secretary of State, compared to Nazism and apartheid.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and senior figures in his government have scoffed at Western outrage and said that outsiders have no right to interfere in domestic matters. 

“We want to rid this country of homosexuality and if that means these people, Obama, Kerry – you name them – want to stop their aid, then let them,” says Simon Lokodo, Uganda’s minister for ethics and integrity, in an interview.

"We don’t need [aid], we won’t die poor," Mr. Lokodo continues, "and we will at least be able to save these gays from damnation."

This week in Kampala, unconfirmed reports of physical assaults on gays are circulating. National newspapers have published stories “outing” men as gay with little proof. All of the gay Ugandans interviewed here this week said they feared for their lives and were now fugitives in their own country.

One, who gave his name only as Akram, said his mother and sister had thrown him out of the family home after his name and photograph appeared in the country’s Red Pepper tabloid’s front-page story this week.

“I think my mom and sister suspected something, they were always asking me where was my girlfriend, [and that] I was 26 and by now I should be married,” Akram says at a Kampala coffee shop. 

“But then with the newspaper story, they said they had proof, and they packed my bags and threw me out of the house. We are Muslims, they said I was disgusting, that I had shamed the whole family," Akram continues. His eyes dart around the cafe as he searches different faces for recognition or hostility, and adds, “I have nowhere to stay. Friends are too afraid of mobs or the police to allow me to sleep at their houses. Last night I slept in a bar. I am so stressed I have thought this week about committing suicide.”

Lokodo, the minister for ethics and integrity, defended Uganda's position saying that, “Those who recruit minors, children, to their homosexuality with promises of gifts and money, they are intolerable, and the law is there now and we will arrest them all, they will be in prison for life.”

Uganda's invoking of national sovereignty and its right to pass the law has found favor among many ordinary Ugandans. Many citizens here are baffled at the West’s choice to cross swords so fiercely with Mr. Museveni over gay rights, but not over other human rights crackdowns, police abuse, or corruption.  

“They turn a blind eye to years of human rights abuses against all Ugandans, then get so vocal and animated about the rights of this tiny minority of people,” says Timothy Kalyegira, a popular social commentator here.

“It intensely irritates us. In fact it offends us," Mr. Kalyegira says. "It turns the middle class, the urban elite who could have led a rational debate about so-called gay rights, against the West, and plays to Museveni’s hand.” 

Some 97 percent of Ugandans back the law, according to one survey. That means Museveni's support for it can only help his bid for a fifth electoral term in 2016, analysts said. “How contrarian do you have to be as a politician to stand up and argue against 97 percent of your electorate?” Kalyegira asks rhetorically.

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