NAIROBI, Kenya — Pretty Peter flicked through frantic messages from friends at home in Uganda.
The transgender woman is relatively safe in neighboring Kenya. Her friends feel threatened by the latest anti-gay legislation in Uganda prescribing the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.”
Frightened Ugandans are searching for a way to get out like Pretty Peter did. Some have stayed indoors since the law was signed on Monday, fearing that they’ll be targeted, she said.
“Right now, homophobes have received a validation from the government to attack people,” the 26-year-old said, standing in a room decorated with somber portraits from a global project called “Where Love is Illegal.”
“My friends have already seen a change of attitude among their neighbors and are working on obtaining papers and transport money to seek refuge in Kenya,” she said.
That's challenging: One message to Pretty Peter read, “Me and the girls we want to come but things a(re) too hard.” Another said that just one person had transport, and some didn't have passports.
Homosexuality has long been illegal in Uganda under a colonial-era law criminalizing sexual activity “against the order of nature.” The punishment for that offense is life imprisonment. Pretty Peter, who wished to be identified by her chosen name out of concern for her safety, fled the country in 2019 after police arrested 150 people at a gay club and paraded them in front of the media before charging them with public nuisance.
The new law signed by President Yoweri Museveni had been widely condemned by rights activists and others abroad. The version signed did not criminalize those who identify as LGBT+, following an outcry over an earlier draft. Museveni had returned the bill to the national assembly in April asking for changes that would differentiate between identifying as LGBTQ+ and engaging in homosexual acts.
Still, the new law prescribes the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” which is defined as cases of sexual relations involving people infected with HIV, as well as with minors and other categories of vulnerable people. A suspect convicted of “attempted aggravated homosexuality” can be imprisoned for up to 14 years. And there’s a 20-year prison term for a suspect convicted of “promoting” homosexuality, a broad category affecting everyone from journalists to rights activists and campaigners.
After the law’s signing, U.S. President Joe Biden called the new law “a tragic violation of universal human rights.” The United Nations human rights office said it was “appalled.” A joint statement by the leaders of the U.N. AIDS program, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Global Fund said Uganda’s progress on its HIV response “is now in grave jeopardy,” as the law can obstruct health education and outreach.
While a legal challenge to the new law is mounted by activists and academics seeking to stop its enforcement, LGBTQ+ people in Uganda have been chilled by the growing anti-gay sentiment there.
The new law is the result of years of efforts by lawmakers, church leaders and others. Scores of university students on Wednesday marched to the parliamentary chambers in the capital, Kampala, to thank lawmakers for enacting the bill, underscoring the fervency of the bill’s supporters.
The new bill was introduced in the national assembly in February, days after the Church of England announced its decision to bless civil marriages of same-sex couples, outraging religious leaders in many African countries. Homosexuality is criminalized in more than 30 of Africa’s 54 countries. Some Africans see it as behavior imported from abroad and not a sexual orientation.
The top Anglican cleric in Uganda, Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba, has publicly said he no longer recognizes the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury as spiritual leader of the Anglican communion. In a statement issued after the bill was signed, Kaziimba spoke of “the diligent work” of lawmakers and the president in enacting the law.
However, he added that life imprisonment is preferable to death for the most serious homosexual offenses.
There were signs a new anti-gay bill was coming in late 2022. There had been widespread concern over reports of alleged sodomy in boarding schools. One mother at a prominent school accused a male teacher of sexually abusing her son.
Even some signs of solidarity or support with LGBTQ+ people have been seen as a threat.
In January, a tower in a children’s park in the city of Entebbe that had been painted in rainbow colors had to be reworked after residents said they were offended by what they saw as an LBTGQ+ connection. Mayor Fabrice Rulinda agreed, saying in a statement that authorities “need to curb any vices that would corrupt the minds of our children.”
In Kenya, Pretty Peter has watched the events closely.
“Ugandans have in recent days been fed with a lot of negativities towards the LGBT, and the government is trying to flex its muscles,” she said of the administration of the 78-year-old Museveni, who has held office since 1986 as one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders.
Pretty Peter said Kenya, a relative haven in the region despite its criminalization of same-sex relationships, is not as safe as she and fellow LGBTQ+ exiles would like it to be. Still, Kenya hosts an estimated 1,000 LGBTQ+ refugees and is the only country in the region offering asylum based on sexual orientation, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
In a secluded safe house on the outskirts of Nairobi, a sense of threat remains.
“We’ve been evicted twice before because neighbors got uncomfortable and accused us of bringing bad values around their children. We also got attacked once at a club in Nairobi so one must really watch their backs,” Pretty Peter said.