In May 2023, a strict anti-gay law came into effect in Uganda. This has drastically changed the lives of many LGBTQI people in the country, who have either had to flee there or risk facing oppression and persecution at home. Development magazine has spoken to two of them. Photo credit: John Cyprian.


Two voices on the situation of LGBTQ people in Uganda: "It's hell out there"

In March 2023 Uganda's parliament passed a strict bill om hharsher punishments for LGBTQI people, which The development magazine reported on. Despite international criticism, the law finally came into force in May – which has put LGBTQI people and activists in the country in an even more vulnerable position than before. Development magazine has spoken to John Cyprian and Rebecca N Naava - two ¥ Ugandan LGBTQI people who have both been affected by the change in the law.

- I'm keeping my fingers crossed that LGBTQI people in Uganda will feel safe, because it's hell there out, saygives John Cyprian. 

John Cyprian: The doctor who was forced to flee the country

While the situation for people within Uganda's LGBTQI community has worsened in several ways since then Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023 (AHA) entered into force in May last year, the media's coverage of the situation has greatly decreased - to the great despair of LGBTQI people and human rights activists.

One of the LGBTQI people who have been hit hard by the law, both privately and in their working life, is John Cyprian. He is a doctor and has for several years contributed in various ways to the fight for the rights of LGBTQI people in Uganda. He has done this, among other things, through voluntary work for the organization LGBTQI Voices, who work to promote visibility and inclusion for Uganda's LGBTQI people, and research on challenges faced by men who have sex with men in accessing HIV/AIDS services in public hospitals in Uganda. Because of several attacks on John Cyprian and his work he has had to move around to several different places in the country, which has contributionagit to physical and financial losses and mental challenges.

- The anti-gay law that came only exacerbated the torment and pain I had endured all my adult life because of my sexuality and the fact that I have offered medical help to my fellow human beings as a doctor, he tells Uttvecklingsmagasinet.

In March 2023, John Cyprian was subjected to another attack. This after people where he lived at the time found out about his sexual orientation and that he had previously been kicked out of various communities and fired by employers because of his orientation and that he treated homosexuals in his work. After the attack, he was once again on the run for his life, with no fixed address or hiding place. John Cyprian tells us that he almost wanted to give up on life. Then he finally got a visa to Canada - after three years of waiting.

- I would say that my lifeline was that I got a Canadian visa at the right time. It really scared me to go to a new place where I didn't know anyone, but I had no choice, he says.

Even after the news about the visa, John Cyprian has had to tackle many challenges. When he arrived in Canada, he was homeless and had to sleep on the streets for the first few weeks, before he managed to get a place in a shelter. Even there, he struggled with feelings of loneliness and thoughts about his situation.

But John Cyprian says that he has also found legal and emotional support from the Canadian state and various organizations during the last months that he has lived there. This has helped him discover more about his sexuality and regain his self-esteem.

- The love given to me and us here in Canada compared to the hate in Uganda is so unreal, you know. It's amazing and makes you feel like a human being worth living for once, says John Cyprian.

John Cyprian and his teammates in the LGBTQI Voices Uganda soccer team before he fled to Canada. Soccer is part of the organization's activities for LGBTQ people. Photo credit: John Cyprian.

Because of the risks to their personal safety, it has been difficult to keep in touch with many of the LGBTQI people and activists who remain in Uganda, but he is still in contact with his mother and people at LGTBQI Voices Uganda. The organization has been able to give John Cyprian support through, among other things, loans for plane tickets, collection of evidence about his case and moral support. John Cyprian believes that it is impossible to describe the gratitude he feels for LGBTQI Voices Uganda, for their support to him and others in similar situations.

- I'm keeping my fingers crossed that LGBTQI people in Uganda will feel safe, because it's hell out there, he says.

In Canada, John Cyprian has been able to continue volunteering for several LGBTQI organizations, which has helped him regain a sense of purpose. He also attended the Pride parade in July to show his displeasure with the law in Uganda. He appeals to the Ugandan government to repeal the law and instead pursue an inclusive policy even for sexual minorities, as these people also possess talents that Uganda as a country can benefit from. He also highlights that conscious efforts should be made to fund LGBTQI organizations in Uganda, as measures are needed to keep LGBTQI people in Uganda safe.

- Love is not a crime, he says and continues:

- There are better things to be interested in than our sexuality - like punishing tax evaders, he says.

Several countries have condemned the law

Homosexuality was already punishable by life imprisonment in Uganda before 2023, according to colonial-era laws - but that was not considered enough. The strict anti-gay bill was passed by parliament in March 2023, and then approved by President Yoweri Museveni in May. The president's approval of the proposal was, despite demands for a number of revisions, expected with his previously stated stance towards homosexuality. The law has, among other things condemned by the US, UK, Canada, Germany and the EU, as well as several local and international NGOs. Even the World Bank has reacted by announcing in August that they would refrain from considering new loans to the country, but President Museveni responded quickly that he would not abandon "faith, culture, principles and sovereignty" in exchange for "money". At the same time there is also one massive support for the law in Uganda, especially among clerics who have praised President Museveni for signing the bill.

Rebecca N Naava: The life of someone who continues to live as an LGBTQI person in Uganda

Someone who, unlike John Cyprian, has remained in Uganda since the law came into force is Rebecca N Naava*, LGBTQI person and activist who works with young people in the LGBTQI community. She tells Uttvecklingsmagasinet that it has never really been easy to live as a queer or work for LGBTQI rights in Uganda, but that the challenges for organizations that work with this have become even greater since the law came into force - because much of their work is now criminalized . This means that her involvement in a local association has suffered, as the law categorizes the organization's work as promoting homosexuality, which can be punished with a long prison sentence. Rebecca N Naava also lost her job at LGBTQI Voices, when they had to close down parts of their business.

In addition to her working life, her personal life has also been greatly affected by the law in several ways. The freedom to be able to call oneself a bisexual woman and live with one's same-sex partner is, according to Rebecca N Naava, an elusive reality nowadays.

- I continue to live in fear of my life because those who know me in society can harm me at any time. The law has pushed the very homophobic society to a new level, she says.

Since the law was passed, it has also become very difficult for Rebecca N Naava to feel safe in any of the accommodations she has rented. Therefore, she has had to start living a life as a nomad, and she moves from place to place for safety. However, she is not alone in having difficulties finding safe and permanent accommodation. She says that many LGBTQI people in Uganda are homeless, either because their landlords have evicted them, or they simply cannot find housing due to discrimination. One explanation for this is that many landlords are afraid that the law may be used against them if they house LGBTQI people. The organization that Rebecca N Naava works for also had to close the shelter that previously housed queer youth, which has increased the need for emergency housing. There have also been cases where people who have fled the country have been subjected to violence because of their sexuality in refugee camps where they have been forced to settle, according to a report by Strategic Response Team.

Since the law came into effect, victims of LGBTQ-related discrimination cannot report abuse to the police. Photo credit: John Cyprian.

With an increased homophobia in society direct confrontations between the rest of the population and LGBTQI people in Uganda have intensified, according to Rebecca N Naava. Since May 2023, she has been confronted three times by strangers who have told her to kill her because she is gay, and even been told by family members that she is a curse on the family and that she would be reported to the police if she dared show up at the next family gathering. That the situation would become so frightening for her within her own family was both surprising and sad for Rebecca N Naava, but at the same time it is something she is far from alone.

- There has always been very little help or solidarity from society here, even before the law. So you could not expect any social support even after the adoption of the law, she says.

Since the law went into effect, victims of LGBTQ-related discrimination cannot report cases of abuse to law enforcement, which has contributed to the intensification of discrimination. Rebecca N Naava has experienced this herself when she went to the police to report a case of sexual harassment, but when the other party demanded to be confirmed that she was not gay, she got no help.

LGBTQI people are calling for the law to be repealed

Rebecca N Naava can see some success in the advocacy work for LGBTQI people in Uganda, for example in the form of the various sanctions of the World Bank and foreign governments. People from the LGBTQI community have submitted one matter to the country's constitutional court that the law should be repealed and some of the LGBTQI-allied non-governmental organizations are unwavering in their efforts to, for example, help those who have been arrested. Although the space for activism in Uganda is narrow, many individuals who have managed to escape to other freer countries have also been involved in campaigns to advocate for international support.

Despite these glimmers of light and the efforts made so far, the LGBTQI movement in Uganda is in huge need of financial resources. Rebecca N Naava expresses a fear that international efforts in particular will die out due to other emergencies, such as the wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

- I feel that the efforts to continue fighting this law have lost their flame, which has put many lives at risk here in Uganda. I call on those who can do anything to restore sanity in Uganda to come forward. Efforts to save LGBTQI people should be initiated so that lives can be saved, concludes Rebecca N Naava.

*Rebecka N Naava actually has another surname, but for security reasons she does not want to state it. 

Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023 (AHA)

documents prescribes life imprisonment for sex between two people of the same biological sex and the death penalty for "gross homosexuality". The latter includes, for example, sex with the disabled and the mentally ill, as well as homosexual acts committed by a person with a previous conviction for homosexuality. Even the promotion and normalization of homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment for up to 20 years and a fine. The law also implies a obligation to notify homosexuals to the government and prohibition of providing certain services to homosexuals. Ssince the AHA was adopted has a stream of abuse have been committed against both LGBTQI people and people who have been presumed to belong to the group in the form of, among other things, arrests, evictions and violence. The requirement to report homosexuality and the ban on providing certain services to LGBTQI people have also put aid and development workers at legal risk, according to LGBTQI Voices Uganda. You can read more on the situation in Uganda in an August 2023 report charting human rights abuses and abuses against LGBTQI people, written by Strategic Response Team. 

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