Biden calls for repeal of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act

Kampala, Uganda. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

On May 29, Uganda passed the most stringent anti-gay law in the world.  Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which calls for life imprisonment for anyone convicted of homosexuality and the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.”

The passage of the law brought immediate outrage from many world leaders and human rights advocates, among them President Biden.

“The enactment of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act is a tragic violation of universal human rights — one that is not worthy of the Ugandan people, and one that jeopardizes the prospects of critical economic growth for the entire country,” Biden said in a statement.

Biden said, “I join with people around the world — including many in Uganda — in calling for its immediate repeal. No one should have to live in constant fear for their life or being subjected to violence and discrimination. It is wrong.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz called the law “horrific and wrong.” On Twitter, Cruz, who has an LGBTQ daughter, wrote: “This Uganda law is horrific & wrong. Any law criminalizing homosexuality or imposing the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’ is grotesque & an abomination. ALL civilized nations should join together in condemning this human rights abuse. #LGBTQ”

In contrast to his recent tweet, Cruz has taken numerous anti-LGBTQ positions, including demanding the vitiation of same-sex marriage and calling for a taxpayer-funded investigation into Bud Light’s partnership with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney. He previously said the US Supreme Court was “clearly wrong” about its 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, which legalized same-sex marriages. 

“Obergefell, like Roe v. Wade, ignored two centuries of our nation’s history. Marriage was always an issue that was left to the states,” he said during a July 2022 podcast

In November 2022, Cruz voted against the Respect for Marriage Act, which he said would be an “attack on religious liberties.”

Same-sex relationships were already illegal in Uganda, but the new law imposes harsher penalties. The death penalty would be implemented for “aggravated homosexuality,” which is defined as same-sex relations involving HIV-positive people, minors or “other vulnerable people.” Anyone convicted of “attempted aggravated homosexuality” can be imprisoned for up to 14 years. Ugandans who engage in gay or lesbian sex face life in prison, and Ugandans who attempt to engage in same-sex relations face 10 years in prison.

Biden said in his statement that “This shameful Act is the latest development in an alarming trend of human rights abuses and corruption in Uganda,” and said that it could impact U.S.-Uganda relations.

“I have directed my National Security Council to evaluate the implications of this law on all aspects of U.S. engagement with Uganda,” he said, “Including our ability to safely deliver services under the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and other forms of assistance and investments.” 

Human rights organizations and LGBTQ rights groups in Uganda and elsewhere were quick to respond. Human Rights Watch has been charting the law’s trajectory for months, calling for submissions to oppose it.

The United Nations’ Human Rights office said in a Twitter post that, “We are appalled that the draconian and discriminatory anti-gay bill is now law. It is a recipe for systematic violations of the rights of LGBT people & the wider population. It conflicts with the Constitution and international treaties and requires urgent judicial review.”

Human Rights Watch said, “If the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is adopted, it would violate multiple fundamental rights guaranteed under Uganda’s Constitution and international human rights instruments to which Uganda is a party, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

HRW added, “In this respect we recall the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ Resolution 275, ‘Resolution on Protection against Violence and other Human Rights Violations against Persons on the basis of their real or imputed Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity’, which spells out the obligation on governments to prevent violence and other human rights violations against individuals on the basis of their sexual or gender identity. The bill would not only contravene that obligation, but pervert it by facilitating violence and rights violations.”

In a joint statement May 29, the leaders of the UN AIDS program, the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and the Global Fund said they were “deeply concerned about the harmful impact” of the legislation on public health and the HIV response.

“Uganda’s progress on its HIV response is now in grave jeopardy,” the statement said. “The Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023 will obstruct health education and the outreach that can help end AIDS as a public health threat.”

That statement noted that “stigma and discrimination associated with the passage of the Act has already led to reduced access to prevention as well as treatment services” for LGBTQ people.

Ugandan gay and lesbian activists filed a petition in the constitutional court against the new Anti-Homosexuality Act Monday night. Activist Jacqueline Kasha tweeted a photo of the legal challenge, writing, “#Petition filed challenging the Anti homosexuality law. We shall fight until justice is served.”

Uganda’s Parliamentary Speaker Anita Among cheered the decision, saying in a statement the president had “answered the cries of our people” in signing the bill. “With a lot of humility, I thank my colleagues the Members of Parliament for withstanding all the pressure from bullies and doomsday conspiracy theorists in the interest of our country,” the statement said.

An earlier version of the bill was passed by Uganda’s parliament in March, but created outrage from businesses and the international community. The amended, final version stipulates that merely identifying as LGBTQ isn’t a crime as was stated in the initial version.

Uganda passed a previous anti-homosexuality law in 2014, but the courts struck it down on procedural grounds following outrage in Uganda and from international donors. Homosexuality is criminalized in more than 30 of Africa’s 54 countries. The new law is expected to drive many underground or to leave Uganda altogether.

Citing dangers to the health and well-being of Ugandans, Human Rights Campaign said, “This new law to restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ Ugandans is by far the most horrific display of bigotry we have seen in recent memory in Uganda, and in all of Africa. The Ugandan Parliament should be ashamed of themselves for considering this draconian law that erases the internationally recognized rights of LGBTQ+ Ugandans, and President Museveni should be condemned for not using the full power of his position to stop it. We at the Human Rights Campaign stand in solidarity with human rights defenders and the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda.”

HRC added, “This law will have a ripple effect across the continent, as we are seeing similar laws being introduced, most recently in Kenya, with many being promoted by the same forces spreading anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in the United States. Additionally, we have seen this law’s chilling effects before it was even passed: individuals have already been reported to officials for being LGBTQ+, despite breaking no laws. We must do everything in our power to ensure that this decision is reversed. We condemn this attack on LGBTQ+ lives to the fullest extent. No person or authority should have the right to decide who a person loves or how they identify.” 

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.