Gay voters in Uganda are anxious after President Yoweri Museveni called homosexuals a “deviation”
Despite a presidential campaign marked by homophobic rhetoric, LGBT+ Ugandans turned out to vote on Thursday, with many hoping for change and finding unexpected camaraderie. In the capital Kampala, a ballot officer asked 30-year-old transgender lawyer Noah whether he was male or female when he handed over his identity documents, but fellow voters spoke out to support him and he was allowed to vote. “Voting always surprises me because there is always so much camaraderie. I feel like that there is a threshold of tolerance that Ugandans are capable of. We just need the right language,” Noah said.
“This is why it’s a big issue when politicians drum up the homophobic rhetoric because they are only playing into people’s fears. They are not reasoning with people, explaining that these are other human beings that you need to co-exist with.”
Millions of Ugandans queued to vote in a election pitting Yoweri Museveni, 76, who is seeking to extend his 34-year rule, against Robert Kyagulanyi, 38, a pop star turned lawmaker, also known as Bobi Wine, who has won popular support with the youth. Campaigning has been blighted by the worst political violence in decades, with crackdowns on opposition rallies that have left more than 50 dead, and the intimidation and arrest of some opposition candidates, their supporters and campaign staff.
In a country where gay sex is punishable by life imprisonment, Museveni has blamed the protests on groups funded by foreign LGBT+ groups and called homosexuals a “deviation” while other candidates have pledged to eradicate homosexuality. Wine was denied a British visa in 2014 for homophobic lyrics in his songs, but has since said that he would respect all Ugandans and promote tolerance.
Eighteen-year-old Anna, a trans sex worker, said she was anxious due to the scapegoating of LGBT+ people during the campaign, which gay rights activists have said has increased harassment, but she wanted to see change. “If we need change, we need to go with the change that is available,” she said, adding that she would vote for Wine.
“We may not get acceptance, but we will get tolerance.” Attacks on LGBT+ people spiked in 2019 after a minister proposed bringing back the death penalty for gay sex. The government later denied the plan. LGBT+ activists encouraged worried LGBT+ voters to go to the polling stations early when it is quieter and they are less likely to attract attention. Elizabeth, a 33-year-old lesbian who works in architecture and construction, said she had been inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and the ENDSARS protests against police brutality in Nigeria. “It felt like a powerful thing for me. I voted to participate in a sense of change, a change that is bigger than me,” she said, adding that she had also voted for Wine. “If there is no obstacle stopping me from being part of the change, I have no excuse not to vote.”
But for some LGBT+ Ugandans, the choice of candidates was not worth the trip to the polling station. Arts producer Raldy, 29, who does not identify as either male or female, chose not to vote because none of the 11 presidential candidates mentioned LGBT+ rights in their manifestos. “In this system, there is really no place for us queer people,” said Raldy.
Photo: Jessica Rinaldi. Reporting by Alice McCool, Writing by Nita Bhalla, Editing by Katy Migiro Thomas Reuters Foundation