New law drives Uganda's embattled gays deeper into shadows

Sun Mar 9, 2014 6:27am EDT
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By Drazen Jorgic and Philippa Croome

KAMPALA (Reuters) - With a World Bank scholarship and top grades in the first year of her masters degree in agriculture, 27-year-old Cleo Kambugu should be well on the road to her goal of an academic career in Uganda.

Instead, she's working out how to leave after the passing of a law that toughens prison sentences for homosexuality and a tabloid campaign to "out" gays.

"There is totally no hope right now," said Kambugu, still legally a man despite a sex change in the last year that is not recognized by Uganda, a nation that now has some of the toughest anti-gay laws on a continent where 37 states ban homosexuality.

She worries about her safety on the streets after the newspaper Red Pepper slapped her picture on its front page under the headline "How we became homos". The paper said such articles were in the public interest. Rights groups say it simply encourages people to take the law into their own hands.

The bill, signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni on February 24, has forced embattled gays deeper into the shadows, by threatening life in jail for "aggravated homosexuality" and a seven-year term for "aiding and abetting homosexuality".

The United States has condemned the law and other donors have withheld aid. Some foreign investors are quietly reviewing plans. But it has broad backing from politicians and the public, while many popular churches preach against gay sex.

Fearing the worst, members of the gay community retreated. For weeks, Kambugu has stayed in her flat where she lives with her boyfriend. Her curtains are drawn and she rarely goes out.

"I can't even open my windows," she said, her breast implants, red lipstick and long hair belying her legal gender. "I don't walk any more, I drive. I don't want to overstep the little security I have."   Continued...

Ugandan anti-gay activist Pastor Martin Ssempa (R) leads anti-gay supporters as they celebrate after Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni signed a law imposing harsh penalties for homosexuality in Kampala February 24, 2014. REUTERS/Edward Echwalu