Last month, as Pope Francis marched in defense of the marginalized in Uganda, Kenya and the Central African Republic, local and international pro-LGBT organizations expressed a simple but urgent request: not the blessing of their sexual orientation but a message of tolerance aimed as much at courtrooms as civil and religious communities. Their appeal was met with a loud silence and remains completely disregarded.
Built in 1992 to house the thousands of Lost Boys who fled what was then southern Sudan, the Kakuma refugee camp is northwest of Nairobi, in the district of Turkana, 60 miles from the Kenyan border. It is home to about 185,000 people, mostly from South Sudan (but also from Somalia, Ethiopia and the Great Lakes region) and is preparing to embrace a further 80,000, the U.N. refugee agency announced in June.
Among the people who live there are about 500 gay, bisexual and transgender people who left Uganda to escape legalized persecution. They sought asylum in Kenya but suffered police harassment, kidnappings, extortion and insults from a society and a political class just as homophobic as Uganda’s. Now they live in three compounds in a secluded corner of the Kakuma camp.
Like most of Sub-Saharan Africa, Uganda is socially ultra-conservative and religious. As human rights groups have noted, it’s often religious leaders who are at the forefront of inciting violence against the LGBT community. And while the police intervene in the more serious homophobic attacks, they seldom go after those responsible and in many cases refuse to collect statements from the victims of crimes.
Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda and is regarded as pedophilia. “When we talk about homosexuality in Uganda, the only things that resonate in people’s minds are child abuse and our culture,” says Frank Mugisha, director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, the leading LGBT organization in the country. His colleague, David Kato, a LGBT rights activist, was brutally murdered in 2011.
In August 2014, the Constitutional Court of Uganda overturned for technical reasons (the parliament lacked a quorum) a draconian law against LGBT relationships. It passed six months prior, spearheaded by President Yoweri Museveni, with the support of wide sections of the civil and religious community.
Early versions of the law provided for the death penalty for repeat offenders of “aggravated homosexuality,” opened the possibility of imprisonment for those who refused to denounce homosexuality and would have criminalized HIV. Even after the annulment of the law — also known as “Kill the Gays Bill” — homosexuality in Uganda is still a crime and is punishable by several years in prison. But at least Ugandans are not compelled by law to report LGBT people to the authorities.
That could change, however. In recent months a new bill reintroduces the crime of “promoting homosexuality.” The proposal is popular among Ugandans and suits Museveni (despite strong criticism from the international community) ahead of presidential elections scheduled for early 2016.