I Want to Hold Your Hand: Gay Rights in Uganda

Article by Tom Hartley. Edited by Patrick Sturgess. Additional Research by Tom Hartley.


Protests in New York against the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill

Twenty years after the developed world used the threat of aid withdrawal to force African states to move towards democracy, a new battleground has emerged in which the West has challenged Africa. Except to date, Africa has rebutted its demands, even in one case telling Americans to ‘go to hell’. The battleground in question is not unfair elections, of which there are many, corruption, of which there is lots, nor is it poverty and health, of which there have been few positive stories since independence. Africa is instead being challenged on a civil rights issue, one which has existed since colonialism but been ignored until recently – the issue of gay rights.

To date, 38 of 54 African nations criminalise homosexuality in some way. One of those is Uganda, which has assumed a position at the forefront of the anti-gay campaign. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which has been discussed in parliament since 2009, has seen what is an otherwise relatively harmonious country achieve notoriety. The Bill is said to have exacerbated underlying anti-homosexual tension in Uganda, and the case has now achieved fame worldwide. Some may laugh off the anti-gay propaganda – for example Rolling Stone’s ‘outing’ of 100 gay Ugandan figures or Martin Ssempa’s infamous ‘poo poo’ propaganda talks – but after the murder of gay rights campaigner David Kato in January 2011, the world finally started to take note.


Memorial banner produced after the murder of David Kato

But why is homosexuality so taboo in Africa, and in Uganda in particular? Any visitor to Uganda would be surprised to see two men or two women walking down the streets holding hands. In a country where public displays of affection between men and women are rare, handholding between friends of the same sex is surprisingly common. In this sense, Uganda is ahead of the UK or the USA in accepting this level of affection. Yet a significant number of the population are in favour of making homosexual acts punishable by death.

Across Africa as a whole, homosexuality had been branded as ‘unAfrican’ – an import of colonialism – and only in post-Apartheid South Africa have gay rights been embraced. A dislike for homosexual behaviour can be seen to stem from early nationalist movements of the 1920s and 1930s that evolved into successful uprisings and formed the basis for future governments in the 1960s. Nationalist leaders argued that colonialists had spread myths of African homosexuality and promiscuity, so the idea of a ‘traditional sexuality’ became key rhetoric in establishing indigenous support. It is not hard to see how such statements gathered steam to dismiss homosexuality as ‘unAfrican’. However, denial of inherent homosexuality in African society has evolved since the 1980s, and is now accepted as a means to excuse heterosexuals from blame in the spread of AIDS. Recent homophobia can thus be linked to a moral panic about the epidemic, and is not just an emotional response but also a political and cultural reaction to the more visible portrayal of homosexuals.

The lack of discussion about historic homosexuality within Africa has been reflected in academic debate, and only recently has the history of homosexual activity on the continent been analysed. The idea that homosexuality was not significant in Africa changed in the 1970s, as neo-Marxist historians accused colonialists of condoning and in some cases supporting homosexual activity amongst Africans to undermine their ‘advancement’. In ways, advocates of the ‘unAfrican’ theory can look towards European penetration as spreading same-sex activity.  Developments under European rule created situations where such activity was more likely, for example in mines and racially segregated prisons. Evidence of same-sex activity in mines dates from the early twentieth century. However while homosexual relationships amongst mineworkers were not challenged, those in prisons were often punished. Overall the European colonial system showed an ambivalent attitude to homosexuals.

Mwanga II

Prior to the spread of same-sex activities due to colonial-led developments, such behaviour was restricted to elites. A.J.G.M Sanders argues that in pre-colonial times homosexual relationships were known to exist in royal residences and within the military. One notable example is that of Mwanga II, who became King of Buganda in 1884. Christian missionaries in east Africa argued that Mwanga was an unsuitable monarch, as he practiced the ‘unnatural vice’ of homosexuality that had been brought to Africa by Arab Muslims. Mwanga was more reactive to missionary activity than most African leaders of the era, and the standoff between Muslims and Christians in Buganda led to civil war and the establishment of formal British control.

The response to Mwanga’s homosexuality is an early example of the influence of missionaries on sexual activity in Africa. The growth of Christianity has contributed to a rise in homophobia across Africa, as Marc Epprecht explains:

‘One of the first monographs to query the topic in explicitly historical terms reveals relatively relaxed attitudes among the Igbo toward sexual difference in the early twentieth century. This is in such sharp contradiction to the current political rhetoric in Nigeria that it suggests a similar kind of cultural transfer of homophobia from Christian missionaries that has been found in Southern Africa’.

Writing in 1997, Sanders said that sexual tolerance was characteristic of African cultures, and that the enshrinement of gay rights in the South African constitution would be a positive step for the whole continent. This has undoubtedly not been the case – regardless of whether homophobia is more commonplace, or simply more talked-about, the situation for African homosexuals certainly has not improved. Human rights organisations have been present in Uganda since Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986, but they seem quite unprepared to tackle the issue of gay rights. Fear of state repression and the loss of foreign aid means HROs often restrict themselves to less contentious lobbying.

To the outside world, the speeches of Ssempa and the publication of Rolling Stone’s ‘100 top gays’ may seem like empty threats and minority interests. But the proliferation of anti-gay messages into the mainstream media is a warning for the future. In January, the Daily Monitor criticised Ugandan Diaspora members for spreading ‘lies’ about homophobia in the country. Their intransigence is shown in the suggestion that:

‘It wouldn’t be farfetched to say that the Rolling Stone stunt could have as well been a stunt by the homosexuals themselves to elicit international sympathy and the cash that no doubt followed it’.

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