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A Draconian New Anti-LGBTQ Bill in Uganda Could Impose Death Penalty

Frank Mugisha, a leading Ugandan LGBTQ and human rights activist, discusses the legislation.

Full interview with Ugandan LGBTQ activist Frank Mugisha about a draconian new anti-gay bill the country is on the verge of imposing, which makes it a crime to identify as queer, considers all same-sex conduct to be nonconsensual, and even allows for the death penalty in certain cases.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We look now at how LGBTQ and human rights activists are raising alarm about a sweeping new measure in Uganda that further criminalizes LGBTQ people and allows for the death sentence in certain cases. It appears to be the first attempt to outlaw even identifying as LGBTQ. It also targets HIV-positive people who engage in same-sex relations, bans the so-called promotion of homosexuality, and declares all same-sex conduct as nonconsensual. Uganda’s Parliament has passed the measure. It now awaits the signature of the president.

This comes as a recent editorial by The Washington Post notes Uganda is hardly alone in its anti-LGBT posture. Of the 64 or so countries that still criminalize same-sex relationships, at least half, at least 32, by most counts, are in Africa.

For more, we’re joined by Frank Mugisha, a leading Ugandan LGBTQ and human rights activist, who is here in Washington, D.C., this week.

Frank, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the legislation that’s being passed.

FRANK MUGISHA: Thank you so much for having me.

The legislation that has been passed by our Parliament, that is pending the signature of the president, is one of the most extreme legislations, anti-gay legislations, to be passed in Africa. This legislation would compel any person who knows an LGBTQ person to report them to the authorities. A Catholic like myself, if I confess to my priest, my priest has to report me to the authorities. Any person who goes to seek treatment from a health practitioner, they would have to report them to the authority. This law, further, would criminalize any landlord who provides housing to an LGBTQ person. This law would outlaw the work I am doing on speaking out for LGBTQ persons, but also it would criminalize anything I post on my social media that advocates or promotes the human rights of LGBTQ persons. This interview that I’m having now, if I had it in Uganda, the studio, the entity, myself would be criminalized. This legislation is here to erase the entire livelihood of the LGBTQ person in Uganda.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does the death penalty fit into this, Frank Mugisha?

FRANK MUGISHA: The death penalty — first of all, it’s important to note that the initial text of the bill did not have the death penalty. To show you how extreme the members of the Ugandan Parliament are, the death penalty was introduced during the debate.

The death penalty would criminalize any person who engages in sexual acts with a minor, or if someone is an authority. But let us not confuse the death penalty for only punishing people — pedophiles, people who abuse children. The death penalty would criminalize any person who is a serial offender. It means that any person who breaks the law more than once, under this legislation, would be criminalized. If a landlord rents out their premises to a person who is known or perceived to be LGBTQ, and they are convicted under this law more than once, they are defined as a serial offender. If any LGBTQ person who is living their life in Uganda breaks the law more than once — that could be speaking out, that could be identifying as LGBTQ, that could be two consenting adults — but as long as you’re convicted more than once, then you become a serial offender, and you could be executed.

AMY GOODMAN: What about two young people, two minors?

FRANK MUGISHA: That’s very interesting. This law, that the Ugandans, the Ugandan members of Parliament, are saying is here to protect children, this law would criminalize young queer persons, young LGBTQ persons, and I’m saying young LGBTQ persons who are under the age of 18, to three years in prison, if they’re identified as LGBTQ. Well, previously, we have seen that young people, if they identified as LGBTQ, they could get frowned upon, they could get suspended from school or expelled from school. Right now this law proposes that they should go to prison for three years. And three years in Uganda for a child, that is the maximum penalty under the Children’s Act.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, already there is a ban on gay sex. Is that right, Frank?

FRANK MUGISHA: There’s already a law that criminalizes same-sex acts to life in prison. We have the sodomy laws that most of the African countries have, that were, unfortunately, introduced by the British.

AMY GOODMAN: Where is all of this coming from? Talk about the trajectory of this increasing targeting, oppression of the LGBTQ community in Uganda.

FRANK MUGISHA: The oppression we are seeing now in Uganda is not Ugandan at all. The hatred, the radicalization of the Ugandan population to hate and fear LGBTQ persons is not Ugandan at all. The Ugandan society has always lived with homosexual persons, as we call homosexuals in Uganda, with LGBTQ persons in societies. They were never killed. They were never arrested. The homophobia and transphobia we are seeing towards queer and trans persons in Uganda is from the West. It is mostly peddled by extreme American evangelicals.

Just last week, we had American evangelicals in Uganda attending a conference that was titled “The Interparliamentary Conference on African Values.” But the agenda for this conference was anti-gay and anti-gender. In fact, some of the African members of parliament who attended this conference are trying to introduce similar legislation in other countries. For example, Kenya, a member of parliament who attended this conference in Uganda, that was heavily supported by American evangelicals, is now trying to introduce a similar legislation in Kenya. We are seeing this anti-gay propaganda and anti-gay legislations moving around Africa. Ghana already has one. We are worried about other countries, like Burundi, Tanzania, that could introduce similar legislations.

AMY GOODMAN: The Washington Post recently ran an article headlined “The U.S. connection to Uganda’s ‘kill the gays’ bill.” I want to read from the article. It says, “In 2020, London-based OpenDemocracy found that more than 20 American religious organizations advocating against LGBTQ rights, safe abortion, access to contraceptives and comprehensive sex education had spent at least $54 million furthering their agendas in Africa since 2007. Close to half that figure was spent in conservative, predominantly Christian Uganda alone.” That’s the piece from The Washington Post. Frank, can you talk more about this, and specifically about the U.S. evangelical pastor Scott Lively, who’s told the Ugandan Parliament that homosexuality is a Western-imported disease?

FRANK MUGISHA: Scott Lively is an American evangelical pastor. And I’m sure many people in America, in the United States, may not know him. But in Uganda he’s famous. When he first traveled to Uganda and he publicly held meetings with politicians, Ugandan government officials, he told Ugandans homosexuality is a Western agenda that needs to be fought. He introduced Western — excuse me — Western language that was not Ugandan. He introduced the language of “homosexuals promote homosexuality.” He introduced language like “homosexuals recruit children into homosexuality.” He introduced language, “Homosexuality is a Western agenda.” This was not Ugandan language. This was language that was introduced to Ugandans by American evangelical Scott Lively.

We worked together with our partner, the Center for Constitutional Rights, CCR, to hold Scott Lively accountable. In fact, we went to court. And for the first time, a judge in Massachusetts said that persecution of LGBTQ persons could amount to crimes against humanity. And for us, we exposed the hatred that Scott Lively was exporting to Uganda.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the role of the Ugandan president.

FRANK MUGISHA: The Ugandan president has had different views on this issue. He has told Ugandans many times that homosexuality has always existed in Uganda, that homosexuals have always been in Uganda. But as a politician, he looks at the majority of Ugandans and what their views are. So, for my thinking is that, when he signed the legislation back then, he was responding to the views of a majority of Ugandans. But right now he’s thinking deeply about, you know, if LGBTQ Ugandans existed in Uganda, why should they be criminalized? Why should they be killed? Why should they be sent to prison? I think those are thoughts that are weighing on in the president’s mind at this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about why you’re in the United States.

FRANK MUGISHA: I am in the United States to draw attention to this very extreme anti-gay legislation in Uganda. And very many times, activists like myself have used advocacy to draw attention, but not only to draw attention on the fact that this legislation is in Uganda, to draw attention that the biggest supporters and the biggest people driving this legislation in Uganda and other countries are actually from the United States. And that is very key for very many Americans to know, that the homophobia we are seeing rising and growing in Africa is not African. That is being — it is homophobia and transphobia being exported by American evangelicals. So I’m here to draw attention to that.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden is expected to make his first visit to Africa as president of the United States. What role could he play, do you think? What are you calling on him to say? And what about U.S. support for countries and presidents like Museveni in Uganda?

FRANK MUGISHA: President Biden has a very big role. The U.S. is a very key and strategic partner to many countries in Africa. So, I think for President Biden to raise the concern of these legislations and how these legislations affect the partnerships with countries like Uganda and other countries in Africa, the concern how the citizens, the American citizens, are asking him questions — What are you doing about extreme legislations that are exported and supported by Americans themselves? — to raise the concern around the safety and protection of LGBTQ persons in the region, but also the partnerships that the United States has with Africa, and how that could be affected by countries that have these legislations.

AMY GOODMAN: To follow up, I want to talk about people in Uganda and what kind of organizing is going on, both grassroots organizing, though they face great danger, though you face great danger — and I want to ask what it even means for it to be known you’re here organizing — and also if people are trying to flee.

FRANK MUGISHA: There’s a lot of resilience from LGBTQ persons in Uganda. There’s a lot of organizing. There is visibility. Many people have said some of the backlash we are seeing is because of the visibility that we have as queer persons in Uganda. And so, Ugandans are in shock to know that there are actually very many LGBTQ persons in the country. So, the organizing is there. The resilience is there. And we’ve been here before. Ten years ago, we had a similar legislation that was called the “kill the gays” bill. We have civil society partners who are supporting us in the country. We have legal and other academia and experts who are supporting us and supporting our work. So the resilience and organizing in the country is vibrant and there.

The challenge now is that the anti-gay movements have radicalized Ugandans against any person who is supportive of the LGBTQ community. So now we are losing some of our partners because of fear of homophobia and transphobia. We’re also seeing some members of the LGBTQ community getting worried and scared that if this legislation is passed, what will they do? Some are thinking of fleeing the country to neighboring Kenya or to other countries. We are already seeing people asking for that. But right now in Uganda there’s an increase on crackdown of civil society organizations that support the LGBTQ community. And some of them are being singled out by the government and being targeted to be closed down or shut down or their permits revoked. So there is a big fear from some of our partners that if they work with us, they risk being shut down or being arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: What about receiving political asylum, for example, in the United States? What is the U.S. policy right now?

FRANK MUGISHA: The U.S. policy for LGBTQ asylum seekers — I mean, there are many LGBTQ asylum seekers who have been granted political asylum here. But we are calling on the U.S. government and other governments to make these policies easy for some of the communities, because it is not only Uganda that is having these challenges. There are many other LGBTQ persons around the continent and from the Global South who are having these challenges. So we’re asking for these policies to be made easy for many of our colleagues, who need safety in countries that will accept them, to access these services in a much more easy way.

But also in the United States, when someone arrives here as seeking asylum, there is no support. There is no support for them to access some of the services that the person needs when they have just arrived here — legal services, housing services, food and other basic needs. So I think it’s about time for the U.S. to start thinking about providing humanitarian support for persons who are just arriving and seeking support, to be — to support to live in a safe environment, but, generally, for people to be accepted, for those policies to be loosened up for LGBTQ persons, and to work with civil society groups that are trying to provide this support. I know there are very many other groups that are trying to provide support. I know Rainbow Railroad in Canada is one of those groups that is trying to ask the U.S. government to provide more support to help LGBTQ persons who are in dangerous places to come to safety.

AMY GOODMAN: Frank Mugisha, in 2011, your friend David Kato, who’s really considered the father of Uganda’s gay rights movement, was bludgeoned to death. Can you talk about the kind of physical violence people face, and if the situation has improved at all? And even though it is over a decade later, my deepest condolences.

FRANK MUGISHA: Thank you so much. I mean, it was very painful, but also worrying, for many of us, when David, my colleague, David Kato, was murdered. David Kato was murdered at his house. So, that, you know, petrified me. And many people, indeed, were worried and scared for their own personal lives, but also for the safety of the community.

Right after that, a few years later, the situation improved a bit for the LGBTQ community, but, most recently, we’ve seen the situation get worse. Many LGBTQ persons in Uganda have been violated. Many LGBTQ persons in Uganda are getting arrested. There’s an increase in blackmail and extortion. There’s an increase of social exclusion. And right now what we’re seeing is not only crackdown on LGBTQ persons from law enforcement, but we’re seeing harassment from ordinary Ugandans. Ordinary Ugandans. We are worried that if this legislation is signed, we will see mob justice. We are seeing communities, for instance, raiding schools where perceived LGBTQ persons work. We are seeing workshops and events getting raided. We are seeing people getting arrested for simply — and getting undressed. Transgender persons on national television are getting undressed. So the situation has gotten worse in the past year and recent months.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you were arrested in 2016 over your advocacy. How are people, especially the LGBTQ community, treated in jail?

FRANK MUGISHA: When I was arrested in 2016, of course, there was a lot of derogatory and degrading and cruel and inhuman treatment when I was arrested. This happens every time an LGBTQ person is arrested. A lot of verbal abuse, sometimes physical abuse, and also a lot of insults, derogatory and inhuman treatment happens in many of the police stations when LGBTQ persons are arrested, but also sometimes delayed or denial of access by the lawyers who won’t support the LGBTQ persons.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, you’re here in the United States now, lobbying, educating people about what’s happening in your country, in Uganda, on your continent, Africa. I wanted to get your impression of what’s happening here. According to the ACLU, there have been 419 anti-LGBT laws introduced in the United States, just in this year alone. What message does this send to politicians in Uganda and Africa?

FRANK MUGISHA: That is very good to note, first of all, to see that the issue of homophobia, transphobia, the backlash the LGBT community is facing, is not only an African problem, it’s a global problem. So Africa should not be seen as the only, you know, homophobic place. But homophobia and transphobia is happening, and it’s increasingly around the world now.

The signal that these anti-gay legislations that are being introduced in the United States is sending to Africa is not good, because most and some of the text that we are seeing in some of the legislations, for example, in Uganda and other places in Africa, is similar to text of the legislations being introduced here. But for African politicians, this is good. This is good for them. They are using that in saying we can — even in developed countries, homosexuality is not accepted. And I’ve seen videos of misinformation or disinformation circulating around, quoting some of the political leaders and saying they don’t support homosexuality. And, you know, so, the politicians in Africa will use anything homophobic and transphobic to try and justify what they are doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Frank Mugisha, the Ugandan Parliament passed the legislation three weeks ago, March 21st. The Ugandan president has yet to sign it. What is taking him so long to decide? Does it have to do with the level of activism of the LGBTQ and human rights community?

FRANK MUGISHA: A part of that, yes. Part of the reason the president is not signing the legislation, the president of Uganda is known to carefully think about issues before taking a decision. And I believe that is what he’s doing now. I believe he may — he may or may not consult the party, his party. Also, I believe he might try to consult — I don’t know if he’s consulting — maybe try to consult other stakeholders on this before he signs. But I also believe that our advocacy, civil society and local voices from Uganda that have spoken out on this, definitely have — they have encouraged him not to sign the legislation hurriedly, because there are local voices amidst all this that have spoken out against this legislation.

AMY GOODMAN: And your final global call? We’re a U.S.-based show, but we’re a global TV/radio/internet broadcast.

FRANK MUGISHA: The United States and the international community needs to pay attention to what is happening in Uganda with this legislation, because the fear is that if this legislation in Uganda is signed by the president, passed into law, it will be replicated around the entire Africa. And it is important for the international community to partner with the local voices on the ground, not only in Uganda but in other countries where queer persons need a lot of support and solidarity. And it is important for the international community to listen to the local voices and take direction from the local voices on how they can support and how they can engage and how they can provide solidarity to the LGBT community, that needs this support urgently. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: I do have one last question as you head home: Are you scared?

FRANK MUGISHA: I’m very public and open, and my activism is known. I am not worried. I’m only worried after this law has been signed.

AMY GOODMAN: Frank Mugisha, thank you for joining us, and please be safe.

FRANK MUGISHA: Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

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