How to live and love under oppressive laws

Uganda is among the latest countries to turn up the legal temperature on its LGBTQ+ populations. Countries in the Middle East and North Africa offer lessons on how to hold the ground on sexual health and rights.

Expert comment
Published 23 June 2023 3 minute READ

Charbel Maydaa

Founder, MOSAIC

In May, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the ‘Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023’ into law – a particularly brutal twist on decades’ worth of legislation tightening the screws on sexual minorities.

Uganda’s criminal code already penalizes same-sex conduct with life imprisonment, but the new law adds provisions including up to 20 years in prison for  ‘promoting homosexuality’ and the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’.

In addition to the law’s direct effects – LGBTQ+ individuals arrested, abused or in exile and the closure of NGOs providing support and advocacy – the vaguely worded legislation gives licence to community violence and has profound implications for Uganda’s once-vaunted HIV response.

A country that was on track to meet international targets on prevention, testing and treatment of HIV is now seeing clinics shutting down because those at risk – particularly men who have sex with men and trans individuals – are afraid to seek services.

While many are shocked by developments in Uganda, they look like just another day for those living in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Those who provide care are also fearful that they too may fall foul of the law. This is despite ample evidence to show that criminalization of people living with HIV and those at risk only fuels the epidemic.

While many are shocked by developments in Uganda, they look like just another day for those living in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

More than four-fifths of countries in the region criminalise same-sex relations (including the death penalty in a handful of states), compared with a global average of around a third. Stigma and discrimination are rife.

Nonetheless, progress is being made in opening space for LGBTQ+ populations, offering lessons for Ugandans and others on how to live and love in troubled times.

On paper

Laws are not commandments, written in stone. Where independent judiciaries exist, legal challenges can make a difference.

This is true even in Uganda, where an earlier version of the anti-homosexuality bill, drafted in 2009, was overturned on a technicality by the constitutional court five years later.

‘Convening for Equality’, a Ugandan coalition of LGBTQ+ activists and allies, has filed a number of petitions challenging the latest legislation.

In MENA, we have seen a handful of successes from ‘strategic litigation’ in countries with legal systems that are amenable to such manoeuvres.

In Lebanon,for instance, the courts have offered more open interpretations in cases where gay or trans individuals are being prosecuted under the country’s article prohibiting ‘sex contrary to the order of nature’.

In practice

Where the law cannot be tackled on paper, it can be softened in practice. In countries across MENA there have been a number of positive experiences of working with police, state security and other long arms of the law to turn, if not a blind eye, then at least a blinkered one to those contravening the laws on homosexuality, sex work or drug use.

It helps that those on the sharp end of such prohibitions know their rights (such as they are) in order to push back. It also helps where individuals can be supported with access to lawyers willing to represent them, and with financial support.

In MENA, HIV-focussed NGOs such as ALCS in Morocco provide prevention, testing, treatment and other support to a range of key populations (including LGBTQ+ individuals)

Such justice initiatives have been trialled in a number of countries in MENA, among them Egypt, with mixed success. Such efforts depend critically on local NGOs being in place to take the lead. In many cases, allied groups can step in when those in the line of fire are under arrest or on the run.

In MENA, HIV-focussed NGOs such as ALCS in Morocco provide prevention, testing, treatment and other support to a range of key populations (including LGBTQ+ individuals), even in the presence of laws criminalising such groups – doing so by making use of the protective white coat of public health.

Online

But when authorities are on the hunt, even allies such as women’s rights groups, civil rights defenders and medical associations can find their room to manoeuvre on this issue sharply curtailed.

Similarly, information and education is key to shifting hearts and minds of the opposition.

In MENA, social media, for all the risks of state-sponsored entrapment, offers a lifeline to LGBTQ+ individuals and supporters – though it’s essential that they have a grounding in digital self-defence in order to safely support, strategize and organize to keep their flame alive.

In society

Similarly, information and education is key to shifting hearts and minds of the opposition. Public support for Uganda’s new law is fed by a torrent of fake news, and a pernicious conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia, in which persecuting LGBTQ+ populations is portrayed as a mission to protect the nation’s children.

Across MENA, there has been some progress in working with media, as well as religious leaders, to soften their language and dispel the myths and prejudices that colour their stance on LGBTQ+. Such efforts are small-scale, take time, and are often prone to public backsliding – but are essential steps on the long journey to changing social norms.  

Article 2nd half

In the short term, it is just as essential for donors to keep development assistance money flowing, albeit discreetly, and fluid enough to be redirected into channels that offer the greatest chances of support to populations in need.

International

It also takes round after round of behind the scenes diplomacy to reconfigure the issue in ways that offer wins for Ugandan leaders riding this anti-LGBTQ+ wave, framed as it is as a battle for traditional values, religious teachings and national sovereignty against the depredations of the West.

Political peers in the region or elsewhere in the Global South with similar socio-cultural and political constraints can play an important part.

In this regard, political peers in the region or elsewhere in the Global South with similar socio-cultural and political constraints can play an important part in quietly and pragmatically helping square this particular circle.

Ugandans, as well as those in MENA, looking for a way out know to put on their bifocals when it comes to LGBTQ+ crackdowns – focussing for now on survival strategies, while keeping an eye on that far-off day of legal and social change.