JOHANNESBURG – “Breaking news, I am officially legal.”
Ugandan gay activist Frank Mugisha tweeted that news to supporters around the world after Uganda’s Constitutional Court on Friday overturned a law that punished homosexuality with life in jail.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Uganda celebrated the ruling that nullified a law President Barack Obama has called “odious.”
But Mugisha’s tweet might be overly optimistic.
The court’s move isn’t likely to herald a new era of freedom for gay people in Uganda, where homosexuality remains illegal under an anti-sodomy law rooted in colonial times.
Gay and lesbian activists said that although the court’s decision was positive, it was a small step in a long battle for equality.
Exiled physician Paul Semugoma, a gay activist who was among those pressing the court to overturn the bill, said there was a mood of joyful celebration in the gay community, tempered by the knowledge that lawmakers could swiftly take the bill back to the parliament.
“Uganda is homophobic, so these guys (Ugandan lawmakers) are going to bring something else” up for a vote, Semugoma said in a telephone interview from Cape Town, South Africa. “They will have the capacity to pass it again.”
Petitioners said the bill was unconstitutional because it violated fundamental human rights. They also pointed out that it was passed without a parliamentary quorum.
A panel of five judges agreed with the parliamentary argument but sidestepped the human rights issue.
Homosexuality is taboo in many African countries, where traditional societies and deeply conservative religious beliefs meet. It is illegal in 37 countries, where many politicians rely on anti-homosexual remarks as populist bait.
Even in South Africa, where homosexual rights are guaranteed under the constitution, lesbians and gays have been victims of beatings, rapes and killings.
Uganda’s government came under immense pressure over the bill, including threats from Western governments to withhold aid. President Yoweri Museveni, however, signed the bill into law with enthusiasm in February, vowing that the country didn’t need aid.
Afterward, the U.S. announced sanctions, redirecting aid to nongovernmental organizations, halting funding of Ugandan police and canceling a military exercise. European countries also slashed aid to Uganda.
In the weeks after passage of the law, Ugandan gays were beaten, harassed and killed, activists said.
“People were attacked. People were beaten up. Our faces were put in the paper. I know one person who was killed,” Semugoma said. “It just stirred up everything that was ugly.”
Semugoma left Uganda two years ago after coming out as a gay man.
In Uganda, he said, “All you hear is people condemning gay people, people talking in your face even if they don’t know you are gay.”
He said that living in Uganda, he expected such attacks. “But living outside of the country, you are like, ‘This thing is evil.’”
The bill set out a life sentence for “aggravated homosexuality” and for the first time declared lesbian relations illegal. Before it was amended, the bill had called for the death penalty as punishment for homosexuality. It was dubbed the “kill-the-gays bill.”
The swift court decision Friday sparked speculation that Museveni might have played a behind-the-scenes role in an attempt to regain the financial support of the West without having to retract his support.
“Maybe the European and U.S. sanctions did have an impact,” Semugoma said. “For the president, it could be a face-saving gesture. If the president had a hand in this, then he most probably will prevent it from coming back.”
The court decision comes just days before a three-day summit of Obama and African leaders, including Museveni. It opens Monday in Washington.