By Tonte Spiff
Members of the LGBTQ+ community in many societies around the world regularly show their courage in the face of prejudice and discrimination. Here in Canada, same-sex sexual activities, even between consenting adults, were considered as crimes punishable by imprisonment prior to 1969. It was at that time when the Canadian government passed an omnibus bill to decriminalize private sexual acts between two people, over the age of 21, which was a breakthrough in treating members of the LGBTQ+ community equally under the law. Close to 10 years later, in 1977, the province of Quebec became the first jurisdiction in Canada to amend its provincial charter of human rights to ensure the inclusion of sexual orientation, as a prohibited ground for discrimination.
Thankfully, the Government of Canada continued their efforts to ensure that LGBTQ+ individuals are protected under the law, as the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended in 1996, specifically to include sexual orientation as one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination across Canada. This amendment was the Parliament’s declaration that members of the LGBTQ+ community are entitled to: “have an opportunity equal with other individuals to make for themselves, the lives that they are able and wish to have, and to have their needs accommodated, consistent with their duties and obligations as members of society, without being hindered in, or prevented from doing so by discriminatory practices."
Unfortunately, LGBTQ+ individuals in other parts of the world are not granted the same level of constitutional protections as those in Canada. African countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and Egypt have been ranked as some of the most difficult places to live in as an LGBTQ+ person, due to extreme prejudice and discriminatory laws. The number of LGBTQ+ refugees a country produces is an indicator of how dangerous a country is for them to live in, and in the case of Uganda, between 2014-2016 the Friends of Ugandan Safe Transport Fund (a US-based Quakers association) reports that they assisted over 1,800 LGBTQ+ individuals in escaping the country. The high number of individuals escaping the country is a direct result of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act that went into effect in February of 2014, which was approved by the Ugandan Parliament and signed by President Yoweri Museveni. The act criminalizes same-sex sexual activity with sentences up to life imprisonment. This same law also made any type of aiding or abetting same-sex sexual activity an illegal act, with sentences up to seven years in prison.
The Friends of Ugandan Safe Transport Fund state: “When the law was passed, attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people increased, with large numbers of beatings and several murders.” This is no coincidence, as the discriminative laws passed by the Ugandan government emboldened some citizens to act on their prejudice beliefs and commit hate crimes such as these. Although, after it was discovered that Anti-Homosexuality Act had been passed by Ugandan Members of Parliament in December of 2013, without the requisite quorum and was therefore illegal, the Constitutional Court of Uganda annulled the law in August of 2014.
Even though the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act was annulled, there were and still are laws that make homosexuality illegal in Uganda, and many other African countries. As stated by the Friends of Ugandan Safe Transport: “There continue to be many arrests, with few emerging from jails; lawyers are afraid to take cases as they might be seen as aiding and abetting homosexuality.”
Another African country with harsh, discriminatory laws against LGBTQ+ people is Kenya. Lelei Cheruto, of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) says: “Our constitution is very progressive but there is legislation in place that is not. Repealing laws would mean equal recognition … with rights such as the freedom to exist, to associate, to be free from discrimination. All of these rights will finally be recognised for queer people in Kenya.” According to the NGLHRC, there have been more than over 1,500 attacks against LGBTQ+ Kenyans since 2014, which is only supported by survey results from the Pew Research Center.
The survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows a clear global divide on homosexuality, as there are greater levels of acceptance in more secular and affluent countries. The Pew Research Center posed the question: “Should society accept homosexuality?” Countries such as Canada, Spain, and Germany continue to progress towards creating absolute equality for their citizens, as more than 80% of participants from these countries answered “Yes” to the survey question. But on opposite end of the spectrum, countries such as Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria have discriminatory laws towards LGBTQ+ people, as more than 90% of participants from these countries answered “No” to the survey question.
LGBTQ+ Africans have endured being the targets of not only discriminatory laws passed by governments, but also hate crimes committed by their fellow citizens, and things do not appear to be heading in the right direction. Even though here in Canada, we may not have direct connections to some of these African countries, it is our responsibility to act and ensure culpability, if others are being mistreated anywhere in the world.
The United States took a strong stand against Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which the Obama Administration said was “counter to universal human rights,” by imposing sanctions. These sanctions included banning any Ugandan involved in human rights abuses against LGBTQ+ people from entering the United States, funding cuts to a number of programs that were being run in tandem with Ugandan authorities, and cancelling a military exercise.
The United States were not alone in their response to the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act, as many other governments, media outlets, and activist groups from Western countries put pressure on Uganda in different forms to have the law removed.
It is our responsibility to ensure human rights standards, even outside of Canada, are being met, and to support LGBTQ+ people across the continent of Africa as they strive for legislative equality.