Kenya and Uganda are taking steps to further restrict the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people, whose relationships are already considered illegal in conservative East African countries.
After a nearly seven-hour session, Ugandan lawmakers passed the anti-homosexuality law on Tuesday, imposing harsh penalties on anyone engaging in same-sex activities.
While more than 30 African countries, including Uganda, already ban same-sex relationships, the new law that has been passed appears to be the first to ban only identification as LGBTQ, according to Human Rights Watch.
In Kenya, a Supreme Court ruling in February upheld lower court decisions that said the government could not legitimately refuse to register an organization calling itself the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC).
But President William Ruto and many religious leaders and political pundits have condemned the court’s conclusion that the constitution prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“I am a God-fearing man and whatever happened in the court, even if we respect the court, our culture, values, Christianity and Islam cannot allow women to marry each other, or men to marry fellow human beings” said local media outlet Citizen TV reports Ruto.
Supporters in both countries say the lifestyle of the LGBTQ community threatens traditional values.
Here’s what you need to know about the latest developments:
What are the latest measures?
If Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni agrees, the bill will give authorities broad powers to target gay Ugandans already facing legal discrimination and mob violence.
It prohibits promoting and inciting homosexuality, as well as conspiracy to engage in homosexuality, in addition to same-sex sexual intercourse.
Violations of the law carry severe penalties, including death for so-called aggravated homosexuality and life in prison for gay sex.
According to the law, aggravated homosexuality includes homosexuality with people under the age of 18 or when the perpetrator is HIV-positive.
Same-sex relationships are legal in only 22 of Africa’s 54 countries and can be punishable by the death penalty or long prison terms in some countries, according to a global review by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) .
According to the review, Africa accounts for nearly half of the countries worldwide where homosexuality is banned.
In Kenya, a Supreme Court ruling prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has sparked fear among some citizens who oppose the legalization of same-sex relationships.
The commission’s registration was one of two lawsuits over LGBTQ rights.
Analysts say the response to the February ruling may be an attempt to influence the second case, which directly challenges the constitutionality of the sections of the penal code that ban sex “against the order of nature.”
Why is this happening?
Uganda is notorious for its strict views on sexuality and intolerance of homosexuality, which is a criminal offense under colonial-era laws.
But opposition politicians on Thursday boycotted a speech by Museveni, in which he described gays as “abnormalities”, to protest human rights abuses and the illegal detention and enforced disappearance of their supporters.
In his speech, Museveni said, “Western countries must stop wasting humanity’s time trying to impose their practices on other people.”
Under his rule, journalists have been attacked, lawyers imprisoned, election observers prosecuted, the internet shut down and opposition leaders muzzled.
The increasing visibility and assertiveness of sexual minorities is also attributed to the West.
Meanwhile, conspiracy theories accusing shadowy international forces of promoting homosexuality are gaining popularity on social media.
In Kenya, Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit of the Anglican Church speculated that the alleged spread of homosexuality was a sinister ploy by environmentalists to depopulate the world in an effort to tackle climate change.
Meanwhile, at a parliamentary session, MP Joshua Kimilu condemned the court’s ruling as a breach of the law and warned that Kenyan culture “could be ruined by the West”.
What was the international response?
The United Nations and the United States on Wednesday called on Museveni to reject what they call a “terrible” anti-gay law.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk urged Museveni not to pass the bill into law.
“The passing of this discriminatory law – probably one of the worst of its kind in the world – is a deeply disturbing development,” he said in a statement.
“If the president signs the law into law, lesbians, gays and bisexuals in Uganda will become criminals simply because they exist, because they are who they are. It could provide carte blanche for the systematic violation of almost all of their human rights and serve to turn people against each other.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the legislation “would undermine the fundamental human rights of all Ugandans and could reverse gains in the fight against HIV/AIDS” and urged Uganda to reconsider implementation of the bill.
The United Kingdom’s Special Envoy for LGBTQ Rights, Nicholas Herbert, said that “while many countries, including some on the African continent, are moving towards decriminalisation, this is a very worrying step in the opposite direction”.
Amnesty International also called on Museveni to reject the “appalling” legislation, describing it as a “serious attack” on LGBTQ people.
“This ambiguous, vaguely worded law even criminalizes those who ‘promote’ homosexuality,” said Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty’s director for Eastern and Southern Africa.
Critics say the latest developments are likely telltale signs of an ongoing witch hunt.
In recent weeks, Ugandan authorities have cracked down on LGBTQ people after religious leaders and politicians claimed students were being recruited for homosexuality in schools.
This month, Ugandan authorities arrested a high school teacher in the eastern district of Jinja on charges of “inciting young girls to engage in unnatural sexual practices”. She was subsequently charged with gross indecency and is in jail awaiting trial.
On Friday, a day after Museveni’s speech, Ugandan police said they had arrested six men for “practicing homosexuality”.
Police said on Monday they had arrested six people accused of running a network “actively involved in inciting young boys to commit acts of sodomy”.
Kenya’s education ministry announced it would send chaplains to schools to prevent “infiltration” by LGBTQ people.