As It Happens

Ugandan activist vows to keep speaking out despite new law that bans identifying as LGBTQ

Uganda's parliament passed a harsh anti-gay bill this week that includes life in prison for having same-sex relations, and the death sentence for 'aggravated homosexuality.' Ugandan LGBTQ rights activist Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera tells As It Happens host Nil Köksal why she will continue to fight back.

Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera says members of her community are 'panicked' by law that targets their identity

Medium shot of a wman with dark hair, looking seriously towards the camera
Ugandan LGBTQ rights activist Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, seen here in 2015, says her country's new anti-gay law is most dangerous because it targets people's identity and intent. (Reuters)

Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera says Uganda's harsh new anti-homosexuality law wields an even more perilous threat to her fellow members of the LGBTQ community than existing penalties because it targets an individual's very existence, along with their actions.

"The most dangerous is that even identity has been criminalized," the longtime LGBTQ rights activist told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. But Nabagesera refuses to deny her lesbian identity, including in the East African country.

"Some of us are on record, on national TV … and there's nothing we can change about that because we are proud of who we are."

Uganda's parliament passed the bill on Tuesday with a near-unanimous majority, making it a crime to identify as LGBTQ, and handing authorities broad powers to target gay Ugandans who already face legal discrimination and mob violence. 

It includes steep sentences of life in prison for having same-sex relations, and the death sentence for "aggravated homosexuality," which is described in the law as same-sex relations with people under the age of 18 or when the individual is HIV positive.

Nabagesera, who is currently in Worcester, Mass., receiving medical care, says people in her home country are panicking. 

"Especially the young ones who are already on buses crossing the border because they're very worried, because they're even telling parents to report their own children. They're telling landlords to stop renting their houses to people perceived to be LGBT," she said.

'Organized crime'

Nabagesera founded Freedom and Roam Uganda 20 years ago, one of the main organizations for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women rights in the country.

She has won international awards for her activism, works for the Kuchu Times Media Group and publishes Bombastic magazine, an LGBTQ-focused publication she says showcases the "lived realities" of people in her community — and aims to change the mindset of Ugandans.

But after the bill passed, she tweeted that it appeared to be "organized crime" by the politicians, whom she says are trying to distract Ugandans from "ongoing problems" the country is facing by talking about risks to their children.

"The parliament was so full that even some members were standing. And that has never happened," she said. 

"It's like they all organized themselves to come and disrupt the country, because right now no one is talking about all the problems the country is facing. Everyone is talking about homosexuality."

Same-sex relations were already illegal in Uganda, but supporters of the new law said it is needed to punish a broader array of LGBTQ activities that they say threaten traditional values in the conservative and religious nation.

During debate on the proposed legislation, lawmaker David Bahati told MPs: "Our creator God is happy [about] what is happening ... I support the bill to protect the future of our children."

All but two of the government's 389 members of parliament voted in favour of the bill.

Wide shot of room in legislature with green carpet and breen benches all fully occupied.
Ugandan legislators participate in the debate of the Anti-Homosexuality bill, in Kampala, Uganda, on March 21. Nabagesera said never had she seen the legislature so full. (Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters)

Criminalizing intent

Nabagesera says another troubling aspect of the legislation concerns the issue of intent. 

"The mere fact that the bill also talks about the intent — intention to commit a crime — this is going to be abused by so many people," she said. The wording is so vague that it could, for example, mean a woman risks being targeted for simply appearing to show interest in another woman, she added.

"I could be actually criminalized for that, especially if I start writing love letters to this person expressing my attraction."

She also worries that some will use the law to falsely accuse others of being gay.

"This is just the beginning," said Nabagesera. "Unfortunately, these members of parliament forget that this bill is not only about LGBT people.… This bill talks about reporting people suspected of being homosexual."

Cover of a magazine called Bombastic, with photo of a face of someone wearing face pain and a mask around their eyes.
Nabagesera publishes Bombastic magazine in Kampala, the country's capital, to bring to light the 'lived realities' of LGBTQ individuals. (Isaac Kasamani/AFP/Getty Images)

'We shall get through this' 

Watching it all unfold when she is thousands of kilometres away has been difficult for Nabagesera. 

"I feel terrible not being down on [the] ground with my community because I've inspired so many members of the community to stand out and be proud," she said. "Many have joined the movement because of the inspiration I've given them."

Nabagesera says she has been the target of online hate, attacked in public back home and received death threats. She worries about the people she loves. 

"Many people say that if they cannot get to me, they will go after after my loved ones," she said. "Over the years, I've learned how to protect myself, but I can't protect all my loved ones, so I worry more about them than myself."

Two individuals standing atop a float in a parade, the woman wearing a colourful dress and sash and smiling
Nabagesera, seen here serving as grand marshal of the 2015 Heritage Pride March in New York, says she will return to Uganda and continue to fight for the rights of her community. (Kathy Willens/The Associated Press)

But she is going back to Uganda. 

"The movement needs to go on. We have to devise means on how we can continue to operate, continue to provide services to the community in a safer way," she said. "We are stronger when we are together. So I have to go back home to continue the fight that I started." 

She does still believe the fight to change minds can be won, though likely not any time soon. She says anti-gay groups are given a wide platform to promote their beliefs in Uganda, while LGBTQ rights activists have to create their own means to promote awareness.

She hopes other countries will help in the fight, too, by putting pressure on Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni to to not sign the bill into law. But if it does, she will still fight. 

"What is the use of me starting something and I stop halfway? So I'll go back and be with my community and we shall get through this. We've been here before. And so there's no reason why we shouldn't continue to fight."


Stephanie Hogan

Digital producer

Stephanie Hogan is a digital producer with CBC News, based in Toronto. She writes on a variety of subjects, with an interest in politics, health and the arts. She was previously political editor for The National and worked in various roles in TV and radio news.

Interview produced by Sheena Goodyear. With files from Reuters and The Associated Press