LGBTQ rights in East Africa: U.S. sometimes takes an active role
FOURTH IN A SERIES: U.S. diplomats in Tanzania say they take a hands-off approach to violations of LGBTQI citizens’ rights, but those in Uganda and Kenya describe a much more active role.
This is the fourth in an eight-part series focusing on the impact of President Joe Biden’s February 2021 order to U.S. government agencies to “promote and protect the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons around the world.” In April 2022, a total of 14 U.S. departments and agencies, ranging from the State Department to the Peace Corps, combined to create a comprehensive report about what they have done in response to that presidential order.
Related commentary: “Biden is silent when a loud message on global LGBT rights is needed” (Erasing 76 Crimes, November 2021)
Of the 32 African nations where homosexual activity is illegal, today’s post focuses on East Africa. It includes excerpts about U.S. activity promoting LGBTQI rights in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.
In 2021, Uganda’s parliament passed a Sexual Offenses bill that provided for up to ten years imprisonment for same-sex sexual activity and criminalized sexual activity between females. The U.S. Department of State firmly and clearly noted its public opposition to violence and discrimination against members of the LGBTQI+ community and its concerns with wording in the bill that might violate the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons. In August, President Museveni returned the bill to parliament, and the Embassy has continued engagement with key members of parliament.
After police in Uganda arrested 44 LGBTQI+ youth (many of whom identify as transgender women) for violating COVID-19 countermeasures in May , the U.S. Embassy coordinated closely with diplomats from like-minded missions to successfully advocate for non-discriminatory treatment toward the detainees, particularly regarding forced anal examinations. The Embassy and like-minded diplomats attended hearings for those detained. The Embassy continues to press for accountability for those who performed the forced examinations. Charges against the individuals were dropped in September.[The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported about] Specific Support for Transgender and Intersex Persons — The NIH is working to provide information on actions being taken to advance the human rights of transgender and intersex persons. Each year, the [NIH’s Sexual & Gender Minority Research Office] publishes two reports highlighting SGM-related research and related activities at NIH. The SGM portfolio analysis provides a review of the NIH SGM grants portfolio, and examines funded research at a subpopulation level, including for both transgender and intersex populations. The portfolio analyses highlight research being conducted and promotes visibility and awareness of SGM-related research. The portfolio analysis for FY 2019 revealed research among transgender populations taking place in Brazil, Thailand, and Uganda. Research portfolio snapshots were released in the fall of 2021 highlighting the specific intersex and transgender-related portfolios at NIH. The SGMRO Annual Report highlights additional research-related activities beyond grant funding and demonstrate NIH’s commitment to SGM-related health research. The FY 2020 Annual Report highlights several initiatives that are specific to transgender and intersex populations.
The Bureau of African Affairs [reported that] Kenya is one of only two countries in the region to offer official refugee status because of persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity (along with South Africa). The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi continues to work closely with UNHCR and others to address reports of violence and harassment against LGBTQI+ refugees, including measures such as increasing security presence within refugee camps. The Embassy continues to work on LGBTQI+ resettlement cases and urges the Kenyan government to speed up the exit permit process. In a focus group discussion with the Refugee Coordinator, participants discussed challenges such as violence and harassment, access to social services and assistance, and mental health challenges caused by a sense of isolation in camps.
A major barrier to advancing rights protection in many sub-Saharan African countries is the perception of LGBTQI+ identity or behaviors as “Western,” “imported,” “un-African,” or against cultural or religious values. The U.S. Embassy in Tanzania, informed by the “do no harm” principle, limits public actions, programs, and initiatives to advance the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons. Tanzanian law criminalizes consensual same-sex relations. Those arrested and charged for consensual same-sex sexual conduct have been subject to forced anal examinations and can be sentenced to up to thirty years in prison. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. LGBTQI+ persons remain afraid to report violence and other crimes due to fear of harassment or arrest by the Tanzania Police Force.
However, in comparison to the crackdown on the LGBTQI+ community under former President Magufuli, LGBTQI+ organizations report a subtle but meaningful shift under President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s administration, noting an absence of targeting and organizational deregistration. Some within the LGBTQI+ community have reported an uptick in social media harassment, however, which has led to the outing and subsequent harassment of several LGBTQI+ persons.