At the entrance to a sprawling, open-air bar and restaurant in downtown Kampala, a large sign advertises what–six days out of seven–is on offer: Music food massage. Inside, prostitutes in tight tank tops and miniskirts lounge on plastic chairs under the shade of a mango tree, waiting for customers. But for one night each week, the prostitutes take a break and this place of heterosexual commerce becomes the closest thing Kampala–a city of 2 million and the capital of the East African nation of Uganda–has to a haven for gay people.
At the bar, Kampala’s lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people gather over bottles of the local Club beer to soothe rattled nerves and take refuge in a place where strangers do not glare at them with hostility. When the bar closes a few hours after midnight, most will go home to closeted lives, hiding their sexual identity from family, friends and employers. “When you are gay, life in Uganda is not good at all,” says transgender activist Joseph Kawesi as she knocks back her third bottle of Club. “When I go home, there is a boy who keeps shouting, ‘You are gay, we are going to kill you.'”
Over the past decade, Ugandan tabloids have mounted repeated attacks on gay people in the country, outing prominent figures and calling for them to be killed. Following the February 2014 enactment of a bill that allowed courts to sentence LGBT citizens to life in prison, the tabloid Red Pepper printed a list of “Uganda’s Top 200 Homos.” Those named were evicted, fired from their jobs and disowned by their families. The rise in anti-gay sentiment has many LGBT Ugandans despairing of ever being able to walk down the street without fear of being spat upon, cursed or even physically attacked. “This is not a life,” says Kawesi. “This is existing despite the odds.”
So it is across much of Africa. According to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of Africans–98% in Nigeria, 90% in Kenya and 96% in Uganda, Senegal and Ghana–say homosexuality is unacceptable. At a moment when a large majority of North Americans, Latin Americans and Europeans have come to accept homosexuality–and when same-sex marriage is legal in 20 countries, including the U.S. after a June Supreme Court decision–homophobia remains the norm in Africa, and may be getting worse. Thirty-four of 54 African nations currently criminalize homosexuality, with penalties ranging from a few years to life in prison or, in some cases, the death penalty. “Over the last five years, we have seen more laws being proposed and being passed into law in Africa,” says Laura Carter, Amnesty International’s adviser on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Religious conservatives may be losing the battle on LGBT rights in the West, but in Africa, where church and mosque remain cornerstones of society, some of the same anti-gay activists have been determined to hold ground, says Ty Cobb, global director of the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT-rights advocacy group. U.S. evangelicals, he adds, have sought to win in Africa the war that they lost at home. “We are seeing a lot of conservative American influence playing out in this debate.” Many African politicians have come to see LGBT rights as an unwanted Western import, and they’ve responded by drafting anti-gay legislation even more draconian than the colonial-era sodomy laws that remain on the books in many African countries.
The cultural divide was highlighted during President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Africa, where he raised the issue of gay rights with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, comparing anti-gay legislation to the laws that once justified slavery and segregation in the U.S. “I’m unequivocal on this,” Obama said. “If somebody is a law-abiding citizen who is going about their business, and working in a job, and obeying the traffic signs and doing all the other things that good citizens are supposed to do, and not harming anybody–the idea that they are going to be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong.”
Kenyatta’s government has staunchly defended laws imposing up to 14 years in prison for homosexuality. Kenya and the U.S., he said, shared many values. Gay rights were not among them. “There are some things that we must admit we don’t share–our culture, our societies don’t accept,” Kenyatta said. “It is very difficult for us to be able to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept.”
Nowhere is the Toxic Brew of African conservatism, American evangelical influence and political gay-baiting more visible than in Uganda, where LGBT citizens fear for their lives. Kawesi, the baby-faced transgender activist in Kampala, still has nightmares about the night, 2½ years ago, when she says police officers dragged her out of her home after a tip-off that she might be gay. She says the officers beat her, then raped her with a club. Hospital records, friends and her lawyer attest to the physical damage, but Kawesi decided not to push for a prosecution of the officers she says assaulted her because she did not believe she would be able to prove their involvement in court.
For decades, Uganda’s small LGBT community survived in the shadows, with the majority remaining closeted. Ugandan society at large tended to leave alone those they suspected of being gay, says lesbian activist Clare Byarugaba. That started changing in 2009, when conservative Ugandan pastors became concerned about what they saw as the growing influence of liberal Western values in Uganda and what they feared would be the accompanying acceptance of homosexuality. They invited a trio of American evangelicals to Kampala to lead a conference on what they termed family values and conduct a seminar titled “Exposing the Homosexuals’ Agenda.”
In the U.S., the three pastors–Scott Lively, Don Schmierer and Caleb Lee Brundidge–were members of a Christian movement that preached against homosexuality and promoted so-called gay-conversion therapy to what had become a rapidly dwindling audience. As the Massachusetts-based founder of Abiding Truth Ministries, a Christian organization hostile to homosexuality, Lively had spent nearly 20 years fighting what he called the gay community’s Marxist plot to break down the nuclear family model and destroy civilization.
Lively and his colleagues brought that message to Uganda, preaching at churches and visiting schools, community groups, even parliament. Their visit had the impact of “a nuclear bomb,” as Lively wrote in a blog post in March 2009. LGBT Ugandans agreed. “All of a sudden [Ugandans] who had been O.K. with LGBT people before heard these lies and began to see us as a threat to children, to traditional marriage and to society,” says Byarugaba, who sports a porcupine-like array of tiny, blond-tipped dreadlocks. She realized it was time to come out and take a stand when her church leaders asked her to sign a petition demanding the death penalty for LGBT people.
Six weeks after Lively’s visit, Uganda’s U.S.-educated Finance Minister David Bahati introduced a bill calling for the death penalty for gay people, even though colonial-era laws–rarely enforced–already banned homosexual sex. “The preexisting laws were not sufficient,” says Minister for Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo, who is also a Catholic priest. “You had to catch someone in the act, which was very difficult. We had to improve the penal code, to address recruitment, promotion and exhibition of homosexuality.”
Parliament debated Bahati’s 2009 bill at various intervals and passed it in December 2013; a few months later, President Yoweri Museveni publicly signed the bill into law, declaring to a gathering of international journalists that homosexuality was an example of the West’s “social imperialism.” Lively, for all his boasts about the impact of his visit to Uganda, wrote in a 2010 statement that he was “mortified” that Bahati’s Anti-Homosexuality Act included the death penalty, and he lobbied to have it changed. He declined to speak to TIME on the issue, but through his lawyer he disputed as “uncorroborated and self-serving” any evidence that suggests violence against LGBT Ugandans arose in the wake of his visit, or the subsequent implementation of the law. “Scott Lively has continually and strongly condemned all violence against homosexuals,” writes his lawyer, Horatio G. Mihet, via email.
As the anti-homosexuality act worked its way through parliament, Uganda’s LGBT community decided to fight back. In 2012 the New York City–based Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization, brought a civil case in a U.S. federal court in Boston against Lively on behalf of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a Kampala-based LGBT advocacy group. The case argues that Lively violated international law through his “involvement in anti-gay efforts in Uganda, including his active participation in the conspiracy to strip away fundamental rights” from LGBT persons under the Alien Tort Statute, which gives survivors of human-rights abuses the ability to sue the perpetrators in the U.S.
The case, which is pending, may be difficult to prove, but the fact that it is being fought in the U.S. court system is itself a victory, says Diane Bakuraira, a SMUG activist. “It provides a check for those evangelicals who want to preach homophobia and lets them know that it is no longer acceptable,” she says. Lively’s lawyer, Mihet, argues that the case is unwarranted. “The notion that Africans cannot think for themselves and independently enact their own public policies on homosexuality is both racist and offensive. The sovereign people of Uganda, and their duly elected parliament, are responsible for Uganda’s laws and policies.”
Uganda’s courts overturned the law in August 2014 on a technicality–there was no quorum the day it was passed in parliament–and many LGBT activists and political analysts privately say that it might have been a face-saving measure for the President to do away with a law that had brought on an international backlash. But the colonial-era law against same-sex practices is still in place, and now that overt homophobia has taken root in Ugandan society, each member of the LGBT community is a potential target. “Those evangelicals planted a bad seed,” says Hakim Semeebwr, a 26-year-old drag queen who goes by the name Bad Black. “The politicians watered it. Now that it has taken root, it can grow for years.”
Less than three months after the Anti-Homosexuality Act was overturned, a new bill was submitted to parliament in November 2014. It is tentatively being called the Prohibition of Promotion of Unnatural Sexual Practices Act, and, according to LGBT activists who have seen copies, it is even more draconian than the original act. “Promotion” in the context of the new bill includes publishing materials in support of Uganda’s LGBT community or even providing health care to LGBT citizens. “If you are homosexual, it is unfortunate,” says Minister Lokodo. “But to go out on the streets of Kampala and say, ‘I am gay,’ is the same as saying, ‘I am a thief or a murderer.’ It’s like handing yourself to the police for arrest.”
Uganda’s gay-rights activists say they will fight the new law as they fought the last one–through the courts, by raising awareness and by lobbying for international support. They are also hoping to find allies among more-liberal Ugandans who are disgusted by the ugly rhetoric that accompanied the introduction of the last law. Bakuraira notes that while most Ugandans publicly supported the bill, many were shocked and alienated by the real-world repercussions.
The so-called kill-the-gays bill, as the Anti-Homosexuality Act was dubbed in the popular press, may have had the unintended consequence of bringing homosexuality out of the shadows and into the public, weakening long-existing taboos. “There is a discussion around homosexuality now that wouldn’t have happened without the anti-gay movement,” says activist Byarugaba. “It is no longer something people are afraid to talk about. They are saying, ‘Who are these people the government is focused on?'”
Those changing attitudes are a small spark in an otherwise dark reality for LGBT people in Uganda and throughout much of Africa. As public rhetoric mounts around the soon-to-be-proposed new anti-homosexuality bill, LGBT people in Uganda are bracing for a new spate of homophobic violence. And elsewhere in Africa, leaders have recently been openly hostile to gay rights: Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto told a church congregation in May that there was “no room for gays” in the country. Gambian President Yahya Jammeh threatened to slit the throats of gay men the same week.
Nonetheless, lawyer Ladislaus Kiiza Rwakafuuzi, who has taken on many LGBT cases, believes that attitudes toward gays will eventually change, both in Uganda and in Africa, as they have in much of the rest of the world. “When something is in the public domain, it is no longer taboo. The more of these laws they bring, the more they are watering down the fear of homosexuality.”
Semeebwr, the drag queen, agrees that despite the danger, the constant exposure that came during the debate over the bill inadvertently helped the cause. “We didn’t want to be outed. It caused a lot of problems,” she says, noting that her own promising career as a male television presenter was cut short when one of the tabloids exposed her gender identity in December. “Ugandans, they had something in their heads that gays are sick, cursed, abnormal and not African. Now that we are out, they can’t deny we are Ugandan. They can’t deny that Africans can be homosexual too.”
–With reporting by NAINA BAJEKAL/LONDON and ROBIN HAMMOND/KAMPALA
This appears in the August 17, 2015 issue of TIME.