A dramatic surge in attacks on LGBTQ+ people in Uganda has been recorded by rights groups this year, as the environment for sexual minorities turns increasingly hostile.
More than 110 people reported incidents including arrests, sexual violence, evictions and public undressing, to advocacy group Sexual Minorities Uganda (Smug) in February alone. Transgender people were disproportionately affected, said the group.
“We haven’t seen anything like this in years,” said Frank Mugisha, director of Smug.
It comes just days after Ugandan MPs reintroduced a controversial anti-homosexuality bill, which would punish gay sex and “recruitment, promotion and funding” of same-sex “activities”. Religious groups in Uganda have been vocal in their condemnation of homosexuality.
Attempts to introduce a similar anti-gay law in 2013 were struck down, but not without a “notable increase” in police abuse and extortion, evictions and harassment.
A leaked report by the ministry of internal affairs’ showed that as of January, 26 organisations were or had been under government investigation over involvement in LGBTQ+ advocacy. Mugisha called the move a “witch-hunt”.
“It is part of a deliberate, calculated, very systematic move by groups within government, parliament and the conservative evangelicals trying to erase the LGBTQ+ community,” said Mugisha.
Smug’s operations were suspended in August because it had failed to register. Smug said it had made several attempts to register the organisation. Uganda also declined to renew the mandate of the Office of the UN high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR), which will expire at the end of this month.
Rights campaigners claim the crackdowns are a diversionary tactic to shift public attention from issues including corruption scandals and spiralling public debt.
Smug said it had received reports of people having to flee their homes to avoid arrest by police tipped off by the public. Attacks have taken place at private events, parties and football games. Three trans women were arrested at their homes in the capital, Kampala, last month, andcharged with committing “unnatural offences” and subjected to anal examinations.
Last week, a teacher at a girls’ school in Jinja, east of the capital, was arrested over allegations of “promoting homosexuality” at the school, amid suspicion she was a lesbian.
“It’s a madhouse,” said Mugisha, adding that his organisation is overwhelmed by the numbers who need help. Smug campaigners say they are having to vet calls carefully and increase security measures.
“Things have escalated to the worst. Before, there was fear from law enforcement but not fear from communities, from ordinary Ugandans like we are seeing now,” he said.
Trans people have been most affected by the violence, reported by Smug.
“Being the face of the LGBTQ+ community makes us targets,” said John Mukisa*, a trans man who has been transitioning for about six years through self-managed hormone therapy. Over the past two years, Mukisa, 36, has been subjected to arrests, as well as physical and sexual attacks.
“You always have to do ‘something extra’ to remain alive,” he said.
In 2021, he says he was beaten, arrested and questioned over his sexuality and gender identity. Mukisa, who is yet to undergo sex reassignment surgery, reports being placed in a cell with male inmates, despite his pleas against it, where he was allegedly raped , encouraged by police authorities – a traumatising attack from which he says he contracted HIV.
Transitioning in Uganda is difficult with few medical providers willing to offer hormone therapy, and people who want to undertake sex reassignment surgery need to travel out of the country – placing it out of reach for the majority.
Trans people can legally change their names and IDs, but the procedure for doing so is not specified, and leaves a lot to the discretion of the National Identification and Registration Authority. Activists say that laws which indirectly criminalise trans people, such as impersonation and public indecency, or those that criminalise same-sex relations, add intense scrutiny.
“The law says one thing and allows you to make these changes, but in practice the journey to actually exercise these rights means that you encounter a lot of really harsh homophobia,” said Noah Mirembe, a human rights lawyer. “There are a lot of demands to strip down and undress to prove your [manhood or womanhood], and trans people are constantly expected to put up with those forms of intrusion.”
Mukisa, a former nurse, managed to change his national ID to reflect his preferred gender. He tries to help other trans people to navigate the process, but says it was much easier to do a few years ago. Mukisa adds, however, that he has been unable to change his academic certificates from his old name due to pushback from national exam bodies and professional nursing associations, which he says has stunted his professional and educational career.
“I can’t compete in the mainstream economic world,” said Mukisa, who is unemployed. Most trans people he knows have to become self-employed or work with the few, mainly poorly funded LGBTQ+ organisations.
Mukisa says that today’s anti-LGBTQ+ environment in Uganda will marginalise people further.
“People are living in fear and in hiding,” he said. “This whole situation is setting us back.”
* Name changed