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LGBTQ Ugandans Adjust Life as New Law Looms

FILE - Quin Karala, 29, a member of the LGBTQ community in Uganda and a single mother of one, pictured at the offices of Rella Women's Empowerment Program, for LGBTQ rights advocacy, in Kulambiro suburb of Kampala, Uganda April 4, 2023.

KAMPALA — At a shelter for lesbian women in Uganda's capital Kampala, gone are the days when the residents, having fled abuse and stigma at home, could breathe easy and be themselves. 

That sense of freedom came to an end a month ago when parliament passed some of the world's strictest anti-LGBTQ legislation, which would criminalize the "promotion" of homosexuality and impose the death penalty for certain crimes involving gay sex.

The bill is awaiting President Yoweri Museveni's signature. Museveni this week asked lawmakers to make clear in a the proposed anti-homosexuality law that it is not criminal to merely identify as gay, as part of an attempt to tone down a bill that has drawn international condemnation.

The parliament's speaker Thomas Tayebwa referred the bill back to parliament's legal affairs committee which will process and report on it and return it to the full House for fresh debate and passage.

Meanwhile, staff at the shelter, a nondescript building in a busy part of town, now instruct residents to be discreet and blend into their surroundings, even if that means changing their behavior or physical appearance.

Other LGBTQ Ugandans said they were taking security precautions like changing the routes they use to travel between home and work and carrying pepper spray.

"You look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'What makes me queer? Should I take my rainbows off?'" said another resident at the shelter, also speaking on condition of anonymity. "Everybody's on alert and it's dangerous."

Others are looking to leave Uganda altogether. the safe house has been contacted by at least 14 people asking for help seeking asylum in Western countries.

Being LGBTQ in Uganda was not easy before this law was passed. A British colonial-era law bans gay sex, and members of the community are often victims of violence and discrimination.

But LGBTQ Ugandans say nothing could have prepared them for the past few weeks as the bill's passage sent homophobic abuse into overdrive, unleashing a wave of arrests, evictions, denunciations by family members and mob attacks.

The bill would impose the death penalty for cases of so-called aggravated homosexuality, which include having gay sex when HIV-positive.

One resident contrasted the current atmosphere with 2013, when parliament passed a bill that stiffened penalties for same-sex relations. The resulting law was struck down by a domestic court several months later on procedural grounds.

"When that bill of 2013 was enacted, it wasn't as scary as it is this time," the resident said, asking to remain anonymous. "This law has taken away the humanity from us. Like, 'You don't deserve to live. You're not human if you're doing that.'"

After parliament passed the bill, she deleted her Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter accounts. When a friend told her that people in the neighborhood were discussing her sexuality, she left home, fearing being sent to prison, where she would be a target of sexual violence.

Unlike most anti-LGBTQ legislation in Africa, the measure's opponents say the latest Uganda bill does not just criminalize same-sex acts but openly seeks to silence a community that lawmakers allege, without evidence, is conspiring to recruit children and weaken traditional family and religious values.