Same-sex relationships have been a crime in Uganda since the colonial era, similar to many countries in Africa. But the country’s new, all-but-approved “anti-gay” law will criminalize LGBTQ identity itself.
In tandem, legislators are pushing to prohibit LGBTQ people from pursuing major life decisions, like having a relationship — or having children.
In early March, Ugandan lawmakers approved the 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Bill that brings back life imprisonment for same-sex relationships and imposes a slate of new penalties for related offences. This extends as far as restricting Ugandans from saying that they’re gay and speaking about LGBTQ topics.
It even prohibits land owners from renting or selling to LGBTQ people. The bill also dictates that “aggravated homosexuality,” which includes sexual assault, but also sex with a person under 18 years of age, is punishable by death.
The bill is now waiting for approval from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has never been shy about his homophobia. During his State of the Nation address on March 16, Museveni called gay people “deviants.”
In 2013, when the country’s original anti-gay law passed, local opposition, international outrage and a ruling by the country’s Constitutional Court defanged the policy. But the sentiments behind it appear to be driving legislative action once again.
But this is not the only law in progress that seeks to curtail gay people’s rights in Uganda. Another bill has come to the surface recently that would further cement state power over the private lives of LGBTQ people, as well as those of unmarried women.
Proponents of the Assisted Reproductive Technology Bill, an effort to regulate infertility treatment, say it would protect people seeking these services and the healthcare professionals that provide them.
But the bill also requires anyone seeking fertility treatment to be married under Ugandan law. As such, it discriminates against all unmarried Ugandans who might want to have children, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.
First proposed in December 2021, the bill had flown under the radar until a former Ministry of Justice attorney, Samantha Mwesigye, called attention to it on Twitter last month.
“That the Ugandan parliament is even considering tabling this is a travesty not only because of the unconstitutionality of the bill but because Uganda is and should be a progressive society,” Mwesigye told me. She also noted that Ugandan women are increasingly deciding to take the parenting journey on their own.
Rose Wakikona, an expert on reproductive health rights at the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development in Kampala, sees links between this bill and the anti-homosexuality bill.
“The purpose of this bill is to pass a law that expressly kicks out sexual and gender minorities from having children,” she said.
In its current form, the assisted reproductive technology bill would heavily constrain the reproductive rights of unmarried women and LGBTQ people who want to have children of their own. Ugandan law does not recognize same-sex marriage.
As the bill acknowledges in the introduction, infertility takes a toll on people who want children. And childlessness, and the decision not to have a child, are both heavily stigmatized in Uganda. It should come as no surprise that those who seek fertility treatment prefer to go on with it privately.
The bill could also threaten people’s privacy — and thereby potentially run afoul of Uganda’s constitution. If the bill were to pass, married couples would be required to present proof of marriage prior to accessing in-vitro fertilization or surrogacy services.
They would also be subject to a medical examination “to ascertain that the married couple suffers from infertility or other health challenges” and compelled to prove that they have been having unprotected sex for one year but have failed to conceive a child. The bill does not indicate how, exactly, state officials expect couples to provide such proof.
Healthcare providers who work in this area declined to speak with me about the bill. “This is a very sensitive topic,” said a worker at one fertility clinic. Their silence was not surprising, given the increasing threats to the freedom of expression in Uganda.
Both the assisted reproductive technology and the anti-homosexuality bills speak to a broader push among legislators to align Ugandan laws with notions of “morality” rooted in Christianity.
Dr Sarah Opendi, the country’s health minister who is now a member of parliament, is the bill’s main sponsor. Opendi has a history of promoting policies tied to “family values” and traditional notions of morality and is a co-sponsor of the 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
She also caught the attention of young, progressive Ugandans last year, when she pushed forward a motion to ban Nyege Nyege, an annual electronic music festival that attracts thousands of people from around the country and beyond. Calling for the festival to be cancelled, Opendi argued that it “breeds immorality” and “recruits” young people into the LGBT community.
Fox Odoi-Oywelowo, one of only two parliamentarians who voted against the anti-homosexuality bill, told openDemocracy that support for the bill was “fueled by Christian fundamentalism.”
In 2020, openDemocracy reported that U.S.-based Christian rights groups, many with close links to the Trump administration, spent at least $50 million on campaigns that sought to undermine the rights of women and LGBTQ people across Africa.
The Fellowship Foundation, a group with strong ties to David Bahati, the parliamentarian who wrote Uganda’s original anti-gay law in 2009, gave the Ugandan government $20 million between 2008 and 2018.
Mwesigye also expressed concern that Christian fundamentalists might have had a hand in promoting the assisted reproductive technology bill. “Lawmakers need to stop moralizing legislation,” she said. “There must be a separation of the church and the state because the state knows that it is bound to protect the constitutional rights of Ugandans. We cannot have members of parliament citing the Bible and the Quran on the floor of parliament.”
It remains to be seen whether the bill will pass the test of constitutionality. Bills of a similar nature have been tabled and passed in the Ugandan parliament but rejected by the Constitutional Court.
If the anti-homosexuality bill should pass, LGBTQ people in Uganda will be barred by law from seeking out some of the most fundamental components of a healthy and fulfilling life.
It will become a crime to seek love and speak about your identity. Even finding a place to live can lead to criminal penalties for your landlord. And if Opendi’s bill should pass, an important avenue for having a child will be outlawed too.
This article was first published by Coda. Cover image by Pexels/42 North.