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A group of LGBTQ and intersex activists from Uganda traveled to D.C. this week.

Sexual Minorities Uganda Executive Director Frank Mugisha, GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders Senior Manager of Organizational Culture and Community Partnerships Quin Mbabazi and Chapter Four Uganda Executive Director Nicholas Opiyo on Monday spoke about the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in D.C. Maria Burnett, senior associate of CSIS’ Africa Program, moderated the panel discussion in which Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights rights, also participated.

Mugisha, Mbabazi, Opiyo and Jacqueline Kasha Nabagesara while in D.C. met officials from the White House, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development and representatives from the Council for Global Equality. The activists also briefed the Congressional Equality Caucus.

Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine, a four-star admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service who is the first openly transgender person confirmed by the U.S. Senate, on Thursday tweeted a picture of her with Mugisha.

“It was such an honor to meet (Frank Mugisha.) His courage gives me strength, but no one should have to be brave just to be their authentic self,” tweeted Levine. “Progress is not real unless it means progress for all.”

The activists came to D.C. less than a month after Ugandan MPs passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act.

Opiyo notes the measure would impose a “mandatory” death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” and “anybody who is convicted of being engaged in same-sex relations” would face life in prison.

The bill would also punish the “promotion, recruitment and funding” of LGBTQ-specific activities in Uganda with up to 10 years in prison. Any “person who ‘holds out as a lesbian, gay, transgender, a queer or any other sexual or gender identity that is contrary to the binary categories of male and female’” would also face up to 10 years in prison. Opiyo also noted the measure’s provision that would require Ugandans to report LGBTQ-specific activities to authorities would create “a moral police force.”

Uganda is among the dozens of countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations are criminalized.

President Yoweri Museveni in 2014 signed that year’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which imposed a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts. The law was known as the “Kill the Gays” bill because it previously contained a death penalty provision.

The U.S. subsequently cut aid to Uganda and imposed a travel ban against officials who carried out human rights abuses. Uganda’s Constitutional Court later struck down the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act on a technicality.

Museveni has said he supports the current bill for which MPs with close ties to anti-LGBTQ American evangelical groups have championed.

“Anti-gay groups and anti-gender groups (are) radicalizing the Ugandan society against the LGBTQ community,” said Mugisha during the CSIS panel. “We’re seeing a lot of hatred. We’re seeing a lot of fear of LGBTQ persons.”

Mugisha noted there has been an increase in violence against LGBTQ and intersex Ugandans over the last year. Uganda’s National Bureau for Non-Government Organizations last August forced Sexual Minorities Uganda to shut down.

“We’re seeing a very systematic, targeted, group that is targeting the LGBTQ community and we’ve seen that Ugandans have sort of been prepared for this legislation,” said Mugisha. 

US ‘has significant concerns about the Anti-Homosexuality Act’

Stern during the CSIS panel reiterated the Biden-Harris administration’s criticisms of the Anti-Homosexuality Act.

“The U.S. has significant concerns about the Anti-Homosexuality Act that the Parliament of Uganda passed on March 21,” said Stern. “If the Anti-Homosexuality Act is signed into law and enacted, it would threaten the human rights of Ugandan citizens, jeopardize progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS, deter tourism and investment in Uganda and damage Uganda’s international reputation.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre during her March 22 press briefing reiterated many of the same points that Stern did. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby that day also noted the U.S. provides substantial aid to Uganda through the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and other programs.

“If this bill passes as it is now, the work that PEPFAR currently funds would be criminalized,” said Burnett. “We’re talking about people who are implementing U.S.-funded programs who could not do their jobs without potentially running afoul of the law and losing their liberty.”

Stern said the U.S. “continues to raise issues around the Anti-Homosexuality Act with the government of Uganda at all levels” and is “coordinating with diplomatic partners, with the private sector and with human rights organizations directly.” Stern also noted she and her colleagues are in “daily communication” with Mugisha and the other activists who were on the CSIS panel.

“We’re in constant contact with the community because they know how severe this issue is, how high the stakes are, how to push, what messages to use and what consequences the threat of the bill is already having on the community,” said Stern. “LGBTQI human rights defenders and human rights defenders of all stripes in Uganda are some of our greatest partners in this work. We are working with partners to engage at the multilateral level to address this issue.”

Stern also warned the U.S. would reconsider foreign assistance to Uganda if Museveni signs the Anti-Homosexuality Act.

“We are investing the potential impact of the Anti-Homosexuality Act on U.S. foreign assistance,” said Stern. “If this bill is signed into law, it will be an action-forcing event.”

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