‘I have to lie low. I’m totally on edge’: Uganda’s club scene fears anti-gay law

Kampala’s wildly innovative underground music scene has become a home for queer east Africans. A proposed law change not only endangers them, but an entire cultural movement

Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni, in his 38th year of increasingly authoritarian rule, has declared that his people will never embrace homosexuality and that the west’s “deviations” are not to be normalised. Instead, Ugandan MPs have approved an anti-LGBTQ+ bill which recommends heavy sentences – including the death penalty – for acts of homosexuality in a country where it is already illegal. It awaits the president’s signature to become law.

The 2023 anti-homosexuality bill criminalises those touching another person “with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality” and any person who identifies as “a lesbian, gay, transgender, a queer” with up to 10 years in prison. Up to five years in prison is deemed adequate for the vague act of “promotion of homosexuality”. Only two out of 389 MPs voted against the bill, which has been broadly welcomed across Ugandan society.

Kampala is one exception. The underground electronic music scene in the capital has flourished in the past decade, drawing global recognition for its openness, verve and innovation; its festivals and labels have produced cross-continental collaborations and drawn a stream of first-time musical tourists to Uganda. This scene has become a safe space for members of the east and central African LGBTQ+ community, creating their own niche in an already thriving subculture. But with homophobic vitriol increasing across society, and one MP, Sarah Opendi, calling for the castration of gay men, this community finds itself pushed further underground.

“Queerness has always existed in underground spaces, and it is in the weirdness of musical expression where we became camouflaged,” says producer Frankie (names have been changed). Homosexual sex was already punishable by life imprisonment in Uganda, but there was some leeway: “[If we were] dressed weirdly at a festival, we could be stopped by police but say, ‘I’m an artist,’” he says. “But now the climate is changing. An attack on us is an attack on being different.”

Frankie, 25, makes “experimental electronic music that has a techno feel, inspired by traditional Ugandan rhythms”. I catch him as he returns from lunch with his family. “When I came out a few years ago, it was messy – they didn’t kick me out of the house, but we basically don’t talk about it,” he says. Theirs is a complicated relationship that could easily exist anywhere across the globe, but should Museveni pass the bill, it could make his parents’ perceived silent approval a criminal act.

Frankie is incredulous when he considers that many Ugandans consider homosexuality a choice: “To believe that means that being gay is in the frame of possibility for a homophobe.” For him, these banal hypocrisies highlight the fragility of a patriarchal society. “Anything that threatens male power and authority creates violence. We cannot think about men being treated like women [within a sexual context] – this is what they find the most appalling, because women are treated so badly.

“I feel like I have to lie low right now – I am totally on edge,” Frankie continues. “As for social media: I opened it to [see] a story of a trans person being castrated in the street … it’s too much.”

It is not just the organisations put in place to protect the community, such as Smug (Sexual Minorities Uganda), that have halted their operations after being criminalised by the bill: the law would also make it illegal for a landlord to rent an event space or a music studio, or for someone to help put on an event or even DJ on the same bill if there was the merest inkling that someone identifying as a homosexual was performing or recording. “Everyone is guilty by association now,” says Anthony, a 27-year-old events curator and music promoter.

Sindy is a 23-year-old music producer from Tanzania. She identifies as a queer female and has lived in Kampala for five years. “There is a special power in knowing who you are and showing it to the world,” she says, “but our safe space, our bubble, and community is at risk.”

Since the bill has moved to the forefront of Ugandan society, she has been living in fear. “My mind is spiralling unbearably. I feel unsettled and can’t even think about making music,” she says. “But I can stay home. I worry for friends who you would not consider ‘straight acting’ and have to work in busy places downtown.”

LGBTQ+ groups in Uganda have documented a rapid increase in attacks since 2019, fuelled by violent political rhetoric on television and social media. The furore has become accompanied by conspiracy theories, such as one perpetuated by minister for security Gen Elly Tumwine claiming that an LGBTQ-affiliated terrorist group called the Red Movement is attempting to create anarchy all over the world by weaponising homosexuality and cryptocurrency.

It has reached a point where many artists are now being forced to consider their future in Kampala. “There’s only a sense of self-preservation right now. We are more interested in being safe than defiant,” Anthony says on the prospect of any fightback from the community. “Many artists are looking outside the country, where they are already breaking commercially. Anyone whose queerness is attached to their art is in an impossible position.”

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni.
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni. Photograph: John Muchucha/AP

Sindy refers to herself as a “bad bitch”, but “as human bodies, we are not just sexual beings. We perform on stage, we work, and contribute to society in so many ways – to think of us only sexually is fucked up.” She is confident that the hatred fed into her society is a distraction “for a failing economy and the general injustices we are forced to see every day – but let us not forget that it is colonialists who brought homophobia with them”.

Homosexual acts were openly accepted in the pre-colonial era in east Africa, but made illegal with the introduction of the Ugandan penal code, with “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” still used to arrest homosexuals today. Introducing a European morality on “native cultures” they found unruly and permissive, the anti-sodomy law subjugated a vast swathe of the population located across the British empire.

These laws have rendered LGBTQ+ people at risk not only of police violence but of bribery and extortion, too. “It goes further than police corruption now,” says Sindy. “We had an incubation space to nurture queer talent in a city we love, and now the idea of being forced to become a refugee … ” The thought stops her in her tracks: not everyone has the option to leave.

• Names and some other identifying details have been changed. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help those in need

Frank L'Opez

The GuardianTramp

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