A toxic wave of homophobia is sweeping East Africa. It has collapsed in Uganda, where members of parliament recently passed a bill making homosexuality a capital offense and not reporting it a criminal offense. The most common claim of the anti-gay movement is that homosexuality is un-African.
This belief is completely unfounded and historical. As an African mother of a gay child, it breaks my heart to hear arguments like this. I know my son and thousands of other kids all over Africa are gay and utterly proud African. In and around our home in Cape Town, South Africa, Lilisa Mafu is always one of a kind. As early as his third birthday, we knew he had some qualities that set him apart from his brothers. In his nursery, he would consider himself a princess, and in his early years he would firmly insist on wearing more feminine clothes than his brothers.
As a mother, I don’t want to fight about it. I knew I needed to support him to be who he really was, so that’s how he was brought up. Later, he identified himself as gay. Now 21, when people ask him when he “comes out”, he often says that he has no closet to come out because his family accepted him from the beginning and made him realize that he had nothing to hide or be ashamed of . Like many other gay children, he faces stigma and discrimination at school and elsewhere, but he will rely on his family and his strong character to overcome them. Today, he is a staunch advocate for social justice, believing that all people—African or not—must have the opportunity to be who they are and love who they want to be. I am proud of the young man he has become and will always stand by his side in the fight for a just world. If the Uganda Bill becomes law, it will mean that gay men like Lilitha will not have the right to exist in Uganda. I and every African mother of a gay child is prepared to grapple with this situation.
I love a good fight. Twenty years ago, AIDS swept Africa, killing millions, shattering families, disintegrating communities and destroying economies. During those dark and hopeless days, I joined the AIDS movement and did my part to save lives. As advocates, we take to the streets to fight for the rights of the millions who have been denied treatment. We call on the government to be negligent and the drug companies to put profits before the people. We call for measures to ensure access to treatment for all.
In those days, President Yoweri Museveni’s fight against the virus was encouraging. He pioneered high political leadership and inspired his country, Uganda, to roll back HIV and AIDS. Many in the AIDS movement were fascinated by his leadership. We have praised Museveni for his leadership and condemned other leaders — like my country, South African President Thabo Mbeki — who seem deaf to the realities of the disease.
President Museveni is again leading the front lines. If the president signs the bill passed by Congress into law, the effect would be a major setback for the fight against AIDS. Criminalizing sexual orientation deprives people of access to health and makes them vulnerable to disease. If left in force, the new law will have a significant detrimental impact on Uganda’s ability to end AIDS. Globally, in 2021, gay men and other men who have sex with men have a 28-fold higher risk of HIV infection, and transgender women have a 14-fold higher risk of HIV infection. In Uganda, HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men is estimated to be more than 13%, compared with about 5% among the general population.
Research shows that when people face stigma and discrimination, or when they are abused, imprisoned or prosecuted because of their sexual orientation, they are less likely to seek HIV testing, prevention and treatment services. These actions limit access to health care and undermine HIV control efforts. This is already starting to happen due to the moral panic caused by heightened homophobia.
By shelving this repugnant bill, President Museveni can reclaim his leadership on the AIDS response and help strengthen health as a human right in Uganda and beyond. He can bring hope and meaning to thousands of gay Ugandans living in fear that this law will ruin their lives. If the President vetoes this bill, it will be another major victory for African human rights defenders, like my son Lilitha and myself. Aside from the events in Uganda itself, our greatest fear is that if the homophobia epidemic sweeping East Africa goes untreated, it will spread and upend the lives of millions of gay men and women across our beautiful continent and permanently damage The fight against AIDS.
This column was first published on protector.