LGBTQI+ repression in East Africa: ‘They say that Westerners are turning us gay’

In Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, homophobia has worsened, with political and religious leaders pushing for tougher laws. Much of this agenda is being supported by foreign money

A Ugandan gay couple
A Ugandan gay couple wraps themselves in an LGBTQI+ flag on March 25, 2023.AP
Raquel Seco

Koei lives in a permanent state of tension. A baby-faced young man in his early-20s, he works in an insurance agency on the outskirts of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. But he carries a secret, a part of his identity. Koei is actually a trans man. But, except for a couple of close friends, the people around him — friends, neighbors, coworkers, clients — have no idea. And he intends to keep it that way.

“I worry that my friends will slip up,” he admits. He worries constantly that someone will share his secret. His country’s political climate invites people like Koei to hide and not attract too much attention. His social life doesn’t include bars: he only goes to some LGBTQ collective parties, occasional “safe spaces” in Nairobi. Meanwhile, in other, smaller cities across Kenya, the idea of a rainbow-decorated party is a far-off dream.

In recent months, East Africa seems to be experiencing an intense wave of homophobia, which also rages against transgender people. This resentment is in the laws, in political speeches, in fiery church sermons, and also in the streets.

Koei — who does not wish to share his last name or his exact location for security reasons — can attest to the boom of this rhetoric. He passes for a cis man, which gives him a bit of privilege in a world that detests him. “Thanks to being able to pass [as a cis male], I listen to many conversations. And people don’t realize who they’re talking to. One day, for example, a client criticized men who pierced their ears for being ‘effeminate.’ I have pierced ears; I wore earrings before my [gender] transition,” Koei says over the phone.

In Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, the same discourse circulates: that Africanness is incompatible with being gay, lesbian, trans, or not identifying as a man or a woman. The idea that the so-called LGBTQ agenda is a foreign imposition has, historically, been one of the most common political arguments on the continent. Several experts and activists consulted by EL PAÍS note that this is a paradoxical argument, because the laws against homosexuality come from the colonial era.

“It’s as if the more liberal the West gets, the more conservative we get. It seems like an anti-Western position,” reflects Tanzanian lawyer Fatma Karume. “Politicians are using anti-LGBTQI stances to get their 15 minutes of fame.”

“There’s a completely prefabricated panic, which is being financed by Christian fundamentalist organizations,” says Imani Kimiri, head of the legal department at Kenya’s National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC). “They use the argument that they want to ‘protect African culture and family values,’” Imani explains. “Thus, they create a homophobic, biphobic and transphobic propaganda machine that has a lot of resources and that successfully disseminates inaccurate and ignorant information.”

The appearance of the anti-LGBTQ agenda is both an international and national phenomenon, according to Barbara Bompani, an associate professor at the Center for African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. “Religions are competing in a market in which the more they speak out against homosexuality, the more followers they get,” she notes. For this reason, Pentecostal churches — which are growing rapidly across the continent, although there are no reliable figures — have become much more political over the past decade.

In some cases, anti-LGBTQ efforts appear to be linked to U.S. and European religious organizations, funders and activists. An investigation by the Institute for Journalism and Social Change published in April revealed that humanitarian aid from various Western governments — such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway and the Netherlands — ended up, indirectly, in the coffers of organizations with anti-LGBTQ positions in Uganda, including some churches, according to data from the International Aid Transparency Initiative. That figure is estimated to be around $40 million since 2014. The governments and institutions cited in the report have since disassociated themselves from the groups in question and have reaffirmed their commitment against homophobia.

Another report — this one from Open Democracy, published at the beginning of May — identifies two U.S. citizens as being organizers or collaborators in the political mobilization that led to anti-LGBTQ legislation in Uganda. The report alleges that one of them is Sharon Slater, the leader of Family Watch International, an ultra-conservative lobby group in the U.S.

The experts consulted by this newspaper warn that the cornering of the LGTBQ community will have effects in many areas, particularly global health. According to data from the United Nations Agency for the fight against HIV, in countries where same-sex relationships are criminalized, HIV prevalence is five times higher among gay men. And, when this persecution is recent, it is multiplied by 12.

Growing hostility

Koei opines that what is said in the upper echelons of his country’s politics has an effect on everyday life. He notes how hostility has grown in Kenya since February of this year, when the Supreme Court admitted the official registration of the NGLHRC, after a 10-year-long legal battle. “It’s as if this [decision] has reminded people that we exist… It has redoubled the hatred,” he says. The Supreme Court declared the veto against the NGO as being unconstitutional, but made sure to include the following words in the judgement: “Any person, whether heterosexual, lesbian, gay, intersex or other, is subject to sanctions if they contravene existing laws, including those Sections 162, 163 and 165 of the Penal Code (the articles that punish same-sex relationships).” President William Ruto was quick to comment: “Our culture and religion do not allow same-sex marriages.”

In Kenya, homosexuality is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. However, while laws prohibit same-sex relationships, in practice, there does not seem to be as much active legal persecution taking place. But Peter Kaluma wants this to change. The opposition parliamentarian is trying to pass a bill for the “protection of the family.” It tackles several areas, including tougher penalties for homosexuality and a ban on sex education in schools that promotes “LGBTQ nonsense,” explains Kaluma, in a telephone conversation with EL PAÍS. While the proposed legislation is still being considered by parliament, Kaluma claims that it has “overwhelming support, because it appeals to the feelings of the [Kenyan] people, who are really concerned about this issue.” Kaluma says that he was motivated to write this bill when he saw how young people with few resources were being “recruited” to have homosexual relationships in exchange for money.

Something similar is spreading in Uganda, via certain political forums and media outlets. Frank Mugisha, director of the Sexual Minorities Association of Uganda, criticizes the prevailing misinformation in a telephone interview. “Some media outlets have published that we are gay because we are paid; they’ve written that Westerners are making us gay, or that we’re indoctrinating children.” In April, six educators were arrested in eastern Uganda on charges of being part of a sexual exploitation ring. The police confirmed that they had examined them anally, according to complaints from human rights organizations.

The disinformation in Uganda is part of a coordinated anti-LGBTIQ campaign, says Oryem Nyeko, a Human Rights Watch researcher. These efforts have resulted in the passage of a new anti-gay law this month in Uganda, one of the toughest in the world. “For months, an atmosphere of fear has been growing,” he stresses. The new law — harshly criticized by the UN and the United States — has sown real terror in the LGBTQ community, even after President Yoweri Museveni returned the bill to parliament for it to be softened. In the previous version, individuals were to be punished with jail time for merely identifying as gay, while citizens would be obligated to report on alleged homosexuals. Now, President Museveni must decide whether to actually implement the new version, which sentences those who “promote” homosexuality to 20 years in prison, while imposing the death penalty on “aggravated homosexuals” (HIV-positive people having sex).

Meanwhile, Mugisha says, the consequences of this law are already being felt on the streets: “There is more violence… There are more arrests, more people being kicked out by their families. [Under this administration], there have been attacks on journalists, the imprisonment of lawyers, internet cuts and repression.” Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian association that helps LGBTQ people escape persecution in their countries of origin, has received 515 Ugandan asylum requests so far this year — more than any year in the decade it has spent working in Uganda.

In Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania, the tensions of an “anti-gay operation” — launched by Governor Paul Makonda — are still echoing. The politicians threatened to imprison any LGBTQ person, encouraged citizens to become informers, and claimed to have received “hundreds” of messages about alleged homosexuals. Makonda was removed from office in 2020, but even with his departure, the situation in Tanzania hasn’t improved much. This past March, the leader of the ruling party’s women’s group, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, publicly called for the castration of gay men. Meanwhile, Minister of Information Nape Nnauye has threatened legal measures against those who disseminate content that promotes same-sex relations, which endangers the few associations that defend the LGBTQ community in Tanzania.

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