Gay hunting: Uganda loses the plot

Saturday September 20 2008

The weekend before last, two members of Uganda’s gay community were picked up from their own homes — “helpfully” identified by a neighbour.

They remained in detention in Kampala far over the time that is legally proscribed for detention without trial.

They were denied access to their advocate. They were, however, allowed access to a priest, who pressurised them to give up names of other members of the gay community.

It became clear that the Criminal Investigations Department had a list of 11 Ugandans known to be involved in organising against the discrimination and violence faced by the gay community.

The CID even went to the astonishing extent of visiting several banks in Kampala, in an apparent attempt to freeze the accounts of those on the list.

The two gay men were threatened during their detention with charges of “recruitment.” This, of course, is not currently a criminal offence articulated in Uganda’s penal code.


If it were, it would be (yet) another indication of how little understood issues of gender identity and sexual orientation are — nobody “chooses” their gender identity or sexual orientation and therefore nobody could be “recruited” into one other than the one innately theirs.

Even if there were a choice, what person, in the face of the extreme homophobia that obtain here, would consciously make such a difficult choice?

In fact, the very reverse is true — the homophobia actually forces many with different gender identities and sexual orientations to hide that fact for as long as they possibly can.

The news went out. Those in the human-rights and women’s movements in Uganda courageous enough to stand up in defence of the two gay men, together with Uganda’s fledging lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex movement, did so.

But the point being made by the state was clear — and its warning was heard. The citizenship and equality rights due to Uganda’s LGBTI community will not only not be upheld—they will be deliberately trampled upon by the state. With the almost full support of the moral majority.

Two Ugandan lesbians on the CID list fled the country. The rest of the LGBTI community is now living in fear — simply because of who they are.

The writing has been on the wall for a long time. Take the Ministry of Ethics and Integrity, for example.

Originally established to deal, appropriately, with ethics in governance and having failed to do so, it is now venturing into areas where the state has absolutely no business. The minister’s latest proposal was to ban miniskirts on the spurious grounds that they cause road accidents by distracting drivers. Honestly!

Meanwhile, a debate has been raging in parliament and the executive around the legalisation of sex work. As usual, the focus is not on demand — the men who buy sex — but on supply — the women who, in response to that demand, sell sex.

And the focus on women has no regard for their safety and security — in terms of health as well as in terms of violence — but on their supposed lack of morality. Again. Honestly.

The obsession of any state with morality — conservatively and patriarchally defined — is the sign of a state in crisis.

It is the sign of a state ready to do anything to mobilise the moral majority at the expense of those who most need its protection. It is the sign of a state desperate to distract attention from the much more pressing and real needs of its population.

Paedophilia and violence against women are legitimate reasons for state intervention in the personal, on the basis that citizen’s safety and security are at stake. But consenting adults? Again, honestly.

Museveni must call off his storm troopers.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission