Uganda recently signed an anti-gay bill into law. Called by some the “worst of its kind in the world,” the law imposes life imprisonment for same-sex relations while using colonial language that such acts are “against the order of nature.”
It calls for the death penalty for a category called “aggravated homosexuality,” which includes relations with minors and those considered to be vulnerable. It also criminalizes the “promotion and funding” of same-sex “activities.”
For Uganda, this is a third round of anti-LGBTQ+ legislative furor, following similar bills that were passed by the Parliament in 2009 and 2014 and then overturned on technicalities. Still, the 2023 act is unique in its severity and reach. The Biden administration has called for immediate repeal – and threatened to cut aid and investment to Uganda.
As a scholar of politics and religion in the region, I have been working with Ugandan community activists and NGO leaders since 2017. These leaders express growing concerns about state corruption and abuse of civil rights.
Leaders pushing anti-LGBTQ+ laws claim to be protecting their citizens from foreign cultural threats, but the 2023 law is better understood as a political tactic to retain power by distracting the public from failures of governance. I argue that it is an example of what sociologists call a moral panic, and part of a worrying global trend.
Globalizing anti-LGBTQ+ politics
Anti-LGBTQ+ legislation has been on the rise globally and is often used by political factions to gain public support.
Many authoritarian heads of state play up the cultural threat of so-called gender ideology and LGBTQ+ rights, describing them as foreign or Western “perversion” that will undermine their citizens’ values.
In Russia in 2022, Vladimir Putin ratified a law against LGBTQ+ propaganda, using language that is strikingly like Uganda’s new bill. This law makes it illegal to promote same-sex relations or suggest they are normal.
In 2014, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan likewise signed a law against the public display and promotion of same-sex relationships. And in Brazil, former President Jair Bolsonaro weakened HIV/AIDS medical care systems and pushed laws to ban gender and sexuality education in schools.
In each case these leaders stoked anxieties about LGBTQ+ groups and then took forceful action against the perceived moral danger. They positioned themselves as protectors of core cultural values while expanding their executive power. In other words, they fed and manipulated a moral panic.
Moral panic as distraction tactic
In sociology a moral panic is described as a surge in social anxieties about certain deviant groups.
Moral panics start as social norms that are inflamed into something larger: a sense of diffuse and imminent threat from categories of people like delinquents, foreigners or minority groups, seen as agents of broader moral decay.
There is a difference between cultural norms against divergent forms of sexuality and gender expression, and a moral panic over LGBTQ+ groups. Moral panics over sexual minorities are not automatic in religious or conservative cultures. They are usually triggered by larger social disruptions or political events. This happened in South Africa, for example, when public concern over same-sex relations among men peaked in the later years of apartheid.
Moral panics can also be manipulated by political leaders to distract from material problems and failures of governance. If a moral panic starts to drive citizens’ views of political leadership, they may support leaders who affirm their anxieties, even as those leaders violate civil rights and democratic systems.
History in Africa
Sexuality in Africa is a complex terrain and ripe for the eruption of moral panics.
In the colonial period, European powers often interpreted examples of same-sex relations in Africa as evidence of those cultures’ so-called primitivism. Colonial laws enforced the heterosexual, monogamous and conjugal family model by criminalizing homosexuality and other common practices like polygamy.
Then in the HIV/AIDS era of the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. evangelical missionaries brought extensive humanitarian aid to the region, promoting the belief that HIV/AIDS was caused by homosexual activity and the so-called gay rights agenda. They worked closely with local partners in African religious life and politics, many of whom became the sponsors of current anti-LGBTQ+ laws.
Today anti-LGBTQ+ moral panics serve an added function. Many African economies are growing through state-managed capitalism and foreign trade. Political power means access to these channels of wealth, which creates incentives for leaders like Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to resist democratic changes in leadership.
For such leaders, passing laws in response to anti-LGBTQ+ moral panics can shift the focus away from these more systemic problems. It is a public show of governance to cover for broader failures and abuses.
The Uganda case
President Museveni has led Uganda for nearly 40 years, and many citizens are frustrated at his tightfisted hold on power. In recent years Museveni has become more explicit in silencing dissent.
Community activists and NGO leaders, LGBTQ+ and otherwise, are directly in the line of fire. From my research, I have learned that these activists are regularly jailed without due process. Even leaders of churches and mosques now avoid discussing politics publicly for fear they will be harassed.
Meanwhile, rumors about homosexual groups targeting children in school are rampant. As is common with moral panics, it is hard to verify or pinpoint the source of such rumors. They spread the idea that LGBTQ+ groups are trying to force the vulnerable into homosexual relationships, stoking protective anxieties among parents.
The wording of the 2023 act, focusing on “aggravated homosexuality” as abuse of minors, and the “promotion and funding” of homosexuality by people and organizations, appears to play into such fears. The use of this language can serve to portray the act’s sponsors as protectors of children and families, even as the government becomes more blatant in its violations of civil rights and freedoms.
Regional activists like Stella Nyanzi and the Rev. Kapya Kaoma have been fighting anti-LGBTQ+ moral panics for decades. And Ugandans are already challenging the act in the courts, not just as an LGBTQ+ rights issue, but as part of their push for a different political future.