The first wave of anti-gay legislation criminalizing same-sex relationships and gender identities in Africa arose in 2009 to 2015. However, it had seemed like the trend of anti-gay bills had come to a halt—until the Ugandan parliament decided to revisit the country’s already-existing legislation to add some new laws.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed one of the world toughest anti-LGBTQ bills on May 29. In its genocidal fantasies, the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023 allows executions for certain types of consensual same-sex activities, marking the latest in the string of setbacks for LGBTQ+ rights in Africa where same-sex relations are already illegal in 32 countries. Tragically, a 20-year-old man just became the first person to be charged and prosecuted with “Aggravated Homosexuality,” which is punishable by death under the new law that was signed three months ago. According to Reuters, three other people have also been charged since the law’s enactment.
LGBTQ+ communities across Africa have made so much progress—Angola overturned a ban on same-sex relationships in February 2021—that it is disheartening to see multiple African countries doubling back on those advances. But we have seen a similar domino effect before. In 2014, Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act triggered Nigeria’s Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, demonstrating how one country's policy can embolden another country into discrimination.
The perturbing reality is that Uganda’s recent draconian bill has set a dangerous precedent, with countries like Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, and South Sudan adopting similar policies and intensifying existing homophobic sentiments. Collectively, they are pushing LGBTQ+ individuals further into the margins of society and perpetuated an atmosphere of fear, stigma and intolerance.
“The enactment of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act is a tragic violation of universal human rights. I join with people around the world—including many in Uganda—in calling for its immediate repeal,” U.S President Joe Biden said recently. Reuters reported that the United States has imposed travel restrictions on Ugandan officials in the wake of the law being passed—while the World Bank released a statement and halted loans to Uganda over the law. Ugandan officials called that “draconian” and “blackmail,” which seems pretty hypocritical given the hateful intent of the anti-LGBTQ bill.
The implications of this domino effect are far-reaching and alarming, unraveling years of progress in the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights. African politicians are fond of using anti-LGBTQ rhetoric to divert attention from important issues and appeal to conservative and religious sentiment. In the genocidal ideologies underpinning the new law, 387 members of Uganda parliament voted to execute gay people by firing squad for having consensual sex. Tanzanian politician Mary Chatanda called for castration, triggering a surge in anti-LGBTQ+ attacks in the country, while Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum made remarks about criminalizing homosexuality right before his government was overthrown by a coup in the country.
Kenyan MP George Kaluma, who is insatiably focused on pushing his anti-LGBTQ views, drafted an anti-gay bill for the National Assembly of Kenya. “Wow! What a leader we’ve in Africa! Congratulations Uganda! Kenya is following you in this endeavor to save humanity... Perversion is treated, not normalized!” he bragged on Twitter. Another Tanzanian politician, Jacqueline Ngonyani, confirmed anti-gay legislation would be introduced in Tanzania this year, and in June Ghana’s members of parliament unanimously passed the 2021 Promotion of Appropriate Sexual Rights and Family Values Bill.
It is perhaps no surprise then that violent attacks on LGBTQ+ people are so widespread across Africa—the despotic penalties and legitimization of discrimination against LGBTQ+ communities, who are already at risk from violence, have created a fertile ground for hate and emboldened extremist groups to accelerate violence and attacks against the community.
The domino effect has also intensified the public health crisis surrounding HIV/AIDS in Africa. Criminalizing homosexuality has driven LGBTQ+ individuals away from essential health-care services, exacerbating the challenge of controlling the epidemic. The passage of such bills has also led to a surge in the number of LGBTQ+ individuals living in Africa seeking asylum in other countries.
This alarming trend not only undermines basic human rights but also poses significant risks to public health, social cohesion, and regional stability. From health-care obstruction, exclusion from proper housing, calls for castration to death penalties, these laws and tyrannical utterances seek to destroy LGBTQ+ lives.
LGBTQ+ rights have always been limited in post-colonial Africa, together with decades-long arguments that homosexuality is entirely un-African and being imposed on African countries. Although historically existing in many pre-colonial African societies, it was European colonial powers who first introduced laws in the 20th century that changed attitudes towards sexuality in Africa. After African countries gained self-governance, some colonial-era laws, including those criminalizing homosexuality, remained intact and that was how African societies began to adopt more rigid attitudes towards sexuality and gender identity, which have persisted to this day.
Anti-LGBTQ bills have since led to a crackdown on LGBTQ+ advocacy and human rights organizations in African countries, increasing surveillance on LGBTQ+ activists, arrests, harassment, and intimidation. LGBTQ+ activists and campaigners in Africa have made no secret of their stance, and how they feel about the new law that directly targets them too. Regional activists like Stella Nyanzi and the Rev. Kapya Kaoma have been fighting anti-LGBTQ+ moral panics for decades.
“When two elephants fight, the grass will suffer,” said Mr. Kaoma, an Anglican priest from Zambia who has documented the ties between American evangelicals and the anti-gay movement in Africa. “This is what’s happening in Africa. African LGBT persons are just collateral damage to U.S. politics on both ends.”
Some Ugandan activists filed a petition in the Constitutional Court to challenge the draconian law. “I joined the petition because the law’s vaguely defined offense of promotion of homosexuality endangers my work and freedom as a journalist and researcher covering queer and feminist movements in Uganda,” activist Jackline Kemigisa told OpenDemocracy.
“Should my work, in which I write about minority communities with fairness and dignity, be deemed ‘promotion of homosexuality’ under Section 11 of the new law, I would face up to 20 years in prison,” she added.
Collins Afolabi, a non-binary Nigerian activist, said they believed that by stifling LGBTQ+ activism these laws already undermine activist efforts to advance LGBTQ+ rights and diminish the likelihood of achieving legal recognition and protections.
“I think the urgency of this situation cannot be exaggerated and it has become clear to me that we have a long way to go to achieve equality for LGBTQ+ folks in Africa,” they say. “It will take co operative interventions from international organizations, governments, and activists to halt the spread of these odious laws, and foster an environment of tolerance and inclusion for all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity in Africa.”