“Something evil has been put into society. We would be attacked, we would not be safe, Uganda is not safe”, says Diane, a young Ugandan woman forced to flee the country due to the LGBTQ violence. After friends rummaged through her phone, she and her partner were outed. Her partner’s father and two other men broke into their houses, beat them unconscious, and locked them in their homes for days. It was not until they contacted friends from the LGBTQ community that they were saved. Eventually, they were forced to flee the country, as they were unable to move around in the daytime in fear of being caught by the man-hunt out for them. This is just one example of over 300 suspected human rights violations targeted against homosexuals since the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was passed in May 2023.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed one of the world’s harshest anti-LGBTQ bills to date. The bill criminalizing same-sex conduct was approved by Parliament with a large majority, paving the way for Museveni to sign it into law shortly after. The anti-LGBTQ Act suppresses civil liberties and utilizes scapegoating to promote the power of authoritarian leaders.
What is the bill?
Since independence, Uganda’s politics have been characterized by strongman rule, human rights violations, and conflict, and Uganda has been in armed conflict with four out of five neighbors. In 1986, Yoweri Museveni’s forces eventually won a rebel battle against former leader Milton Obote and took power. Since then, Museveni remains in power, becoming Uganda’s longest-running leader. He has since opposed multiple human rights violations through torture, harassment, and police brutality, and recently by bringing the anti-LGBTQ bill into power. The bill outlaws gay marriage, punishes same-sex acts with life imprisonment, and allows the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” which includes homosexuality among ‘vulnerable people’ or people with disabilities. Lawmakers claim the bill is necessary because homosexuality is “un-African,” framing it as a threat to their culture and nation.
The bill punishes anyone who “promotes homosexuality”. Anyone advocating for the rights of LGBTQ people or reporting on LGBTQ matters faces up to 20 years in prison. Ugandans are required to report any suspicious act of homosexuality, demanding them to out their friends and neighbors. The bill also threatens landlords with up to seven years of imprisonment if they knowingly rent to homosexuals. All of these statutes are leaving LGBTQ people homeless and afraid. This bill expands on the existing 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act, which increased political violence, extortion, arbitrary arrests, loss of employment, and discrimination evictions by landlords against LGBTQ.
How is this democratic backsliding?
This is an example of democratic backsliding on many accounts. First, it is a curtailing of civil liberties. Robert Dahl claims that, for a polyarchy to exist, there must be the protection of basic civil liberties. These include freedom of speech, association, and assembly. The Ugandan government imprisons groups that come together to protest government policy or support its victims, also known as restrictions on the freedom of assembly. When an erosion of civil liberties occurs, democracy begins to erode even if there are free and fair elections.
Next, this bill controls the media. In Zakarias’s “Illiberal Democracy,” illiberal democracies appear when institutions start to become constrained. By limiting institutions such as the media or judiciary, the government loses its accountability. People become miseducated and misinformed, as government control of the media leads to amplification and dissemination of demagogic rhetoric. Ugandas Anti-LGBTQ bill imprisons journalists who report on LGBTQ issues and weaponizes media to push anti-gay rhetoric. Restriction of the media is another example of scapegoating.
The reason this bill was created is not necessarily due to deep-seated homophobia. Political leaders target victims for political gain, known as scapegoating, the second reason this bill is an example of democratic backsliding. Scapegoating diverts citizens from corruption happening within the government. In May 2023, Uganda arrested multiple journalists on claims of “offensive communication,” opposition leader Kizza Besigye and six other politicians, and four activists. Museveni blatantly violated democratic rules by arresting opposition and protestors, but by passing the bill, people looked past the corruption happening among leaders. In creating a common enemy, Museveni pushed the blame for his own political corruption onto the LGBTQ community, and due to a lack of education and high rates of misinformation, the people believed him.
Not only does scapegoating push the blame on the LGBTQ community, but it also creates a level of fear. Political demagogues, such as Museveni, rely on persuasive communication to maintain power by exploiting public fears, grievances, prejudices, and driving polarization. When Museveni, a leader seen as legitimate to Ugandans, passes an official legal bill, citizens are going to believe the content of the bill. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill states homosexuals are dangerous and a threat to the culture. It creates a level of panic that there are enemies amongst their own. Museveni then uses populist appeals to frame himself as the savior of the people; protecting them from the “Western infiltration of homosexuals.”
However, Museveni is not entirely wrong about Western infiltration. Since colonialism, the Evangelical church has been the head of the homophobic movement, implementing conversion camps, leading the 2009 bill “Kill the Gays” which implemented the death penalty, and spreading rhetoric claiming gays are “recruiting” and “out to get children”. Yet it is the perpetuation by Ugandan officials that curtails civil liberties and uses weak spots in civil society for political boosts.
How do we solve this issue? If Museveni uses tactics to limit education and opposition, he is more likely to maintain power. A way to a strong democracy is through a vibrant civil society. People are more likely to oppose autocratic governments if they know the government is manipulating them. When people are allowed to organize, share opposing views, and oppose the government, democracy flourishes as those in power are held accountable. Promoting civil society through policy could be one way to reverse Western and Ugandan homophobia.