Explainer: Why Did Uganda’s Second-Highest Court Uphold the Death Penalty for ‘Aggravated Homosexuality?’ Features
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Explainer: Why Did Uganda’s Second-Highest Court Uphold the Death Penalty for ‘Aggravated Homosexuality?’

Uganda’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday upheld most provisions of controversial legislation that imposes a sentence of death by hanging against individuals convicted of “aggravated homosexuality.”

In upholding the Anti-Homosexuality Act, the court maintained that though the country’s penal code is “undoubtedly … considered to be a relic from the country’s colonial past,” the bill’s overwhelming parliamentary and public support made clear it encapsulated the zeitgeist.

And in doing so, the Constitutional Court cited the US Supreme Court decision Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — the ruling that overturned the reproductive rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How will the Constitutional Court judgment affect Uganda’s beleaguered LGBTQ+ population? Why is homophobia so widespread in the country? And what do US reproductive rights have to do with any of this? In this explainer, we will explore these questions and more.

What is the background of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023?

The Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023 is not Uganda’s first foray into anti-gay legislation. The country’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2009 sought to impose the death penalty for certain homosexual acts but was ultimately derailed by Western pressure. Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2014 softened the punitive structure, swapping out the death sentence for life in prison, but was ultimately struck down by the Constitutional Court on procedural grounds.

In 2023, lawmakers tried again, purportedly spurred on by societal fervor and the alleged “forced recruitment of children into homosexual acts.” The new law, which re-established the death penalty option, earned presidential assent on May 26, 2023. Critics turned to the Constitutional Court, asserting that the law contravened human rights and fundamental freedoms guaranteed by Uganda’s constitution.

What same-sex activities are criminalized under the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023?

Homosexuality was already criminalized under the Ugandan penal code, which authorizes  sentences of life imprisonment for sexual acts that are “against the order of nature.” The newest anti-gay legislation simply expands the scope of homosexual activities that can be prosecuted and increases punitive measures.

Most controversially, the new law imposes the death penalty in cases of “aggravated homosexuality,” the sprawling definition of which includes, among other offenses, pedophilia, incest, the spread of terminal illness, and acts where “the offender is a serial offender.” Included among the “aggravated” offenses are sexual acts committed with disabled people, which Human Rights Watch (HRW) has described as discriminatory toward gay people with disabilities.

The court upheld most of the substantive aspects of the law, with the exceptions of provisions criminalizing the rental of premises for “homosexual purposes,” the failure to report homosexual activities to the police, and engagement in homosexual acts by people with terminal illnesses.

How prevalent is homophobic sentiment in Uganda?

In justifying its decision to uphold the bulk of the restrictive Anti-Homosexuality Act, the court leaned on widespread anti-gay sentiment in Uganda, which it described as a: “public outcry, social and broadcast media discussions[,] and homosexuality victims’ ‘painful and grueling’ stories of children and families that were ‘dying in silence’ from the psychological trauma of forced recruitment of children into homosexual acts.”

Indeed, homophobic sentiment is rife in Uganda. A 2023 study by the organization Afrobarometer found that 94 percent of Ugandan citizens would “dislike” having a homosexual neighbor.

Notably, the study showed that Ugandans were far more averse to homosexuality than they were to other areas assessed for public tolerance. Though a staggering majority voiced repulsion at the thought of having gay neighbors, the majority were open to neighbors from different countries (74 percent), with different political (79 percent) and religious views (93 percent), or of different ethnic backgrounds (85 percent).

Researchers and advocacy groups have long linked Ugandan homophobia with the influence of socially conservative US Christian Evangelical groups in the country. In particular, this theory holds that homosexuality is framed as a Western import, thus fueling its rejection with a post-colonial repulsion to external influence. A 2009 report for Political Research Associates described the phenomenon:

If they had faced strong opposition, U.S. conservatives might not have been so successful in promoting their homophobic politics. Traditionally, evangelical African churches have been biblically and doctrinally orthodox but socially progressive on such issues as national liberation and poverty, making them natural partners of the politically liberal western churches. But their religious orthodoxy also provides the U.S. Right with an opportunity. Africans resonate with the denunciation of homosexuality as a postcolonial plot; their homophobia is as much an expression of resistance to the West as it is a statement about human sexuality.

A 2020 openDemocracy investigation revealed that upwards of 20 Christian groups from the US had poured at least $54 million into conservative social causes in Africa since 2007. One group in particular — the Fellowship Foundation, which reportedly played a role in drafting earlier anti-gay legislation in Uganda — spent more than $20 million in Uganda between 2008 and 2018.

Afrobarometer also reported that Uganda was the least tolerant toward same-sex relationships of 37 African countries surveyed between 2021 and 2022. That said, anti-gay sentiment has been on the rise in other African countries as well. In December 2023, Burundi President Evariste Ndayishimiye said in a quote carried by the New York Times: “I think that if we find [LGBTQ+] people in Burundi, it is better to take them to a stadium and stone them.” Last month, Ghana passed a law that would impose a three-year prison sentence for merely identifying as a gay person. Across the continent, 31 countries criminalize same-sex relationships and activities, according to Amnesty International.

What does any of this have to do with US reproductive rights?

The Constitutional Court cited Dobbs in response to criticism that the law compromised the autonomy of LGBTQ+ people by failing to adequately distinguish between criminal sexual behavior and private sexual acts between consenting adults. The court wrote:

In [Dobbs], the US Supreme Court considered the nation’s history and traditions, as well as the dictates of democracy and rule of law, to overrule the broader right to autonomy. The court considered the implications of upholding the right to autonomy under the guise of personal dignity … and held that it was time to return the permissibility of abortion and the limitations thereon to the people’s elected representatives as demanded by the Constitution and the rule of law. This is precisely what was done with the issue of homosexuality in Uganda.

The US decision was thus illustrative in the court’s determination that matters of personal autonomy are not absolute and can be balanced against a country’s history and traditions.