Last month, Uganda made international headlines when President Yoweri Museveni signed the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Act, calling for the imprisonment of gay citizens. But one religious leader refuses to discriminate against people for their sexual orientation, and has become a hero to the country’s gay community.
In defiance of the legislation, commonly referred to as the “Kill the Gays” bill, Rev. Christopher Senyonjo hosts weekly prayer sessions and counseling services to LGBT worshipers and supporters. He also critiques fellow clerics’ “healing” approach to addressing the gay community, whereby church leaders attempt to fix people through prayer. “They said I should condemn the homosexuals,” he said, referring to Anglican leaders in Uganda. “I can’t do that, because I was called to serve all people, including the marginalized. But they say I am inhibited until I recant. I am still a member of the Anglican church.”
Citing questionable evidence provided by Ugandan scientists, the President justified signing the Anti-Homosexuality Act in February by arguing that being gay is a choice. According to the harsh law, first-time offenders can spend at least 14 years in jail, while others can serve lifelong sentences. As a result, LGBT people are ostracized and subjected to violence.
But the country also penalizes people who openly support or discuss LGBT issues. Prior to the law’s enactment, Senyonjo was cut from Uganda’s Anglican church in 2006 for calling on fellow religious leaders to embrace LGBT people. Since then, the cleric has lived as a social pariah, surviving off of “gifts” provided by family and friends. And his situation has became more precarious, as the Anti-Homosexuality Act signed last month states, “A person who aids, abets, counsels or procures another to engage in acts of homosexuality commits an offence and is liable, conviction, to imprisonment for seven years.”
Despite the threat of punishment, Senyonjo’s show of defiance and solidarity has garnered the title of elder among LGBT people in Uganda. During a time when they are forced to hideaway in safe houses or flee the country in fear of persecution, the religious ally is a source of comfort and encouragement to the LGBT population.
Uganda’s Kill the Gays bill has received international backlash. For example, the World Bank delayed a $90 million loan, indefinitely, and Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands have suspended aid promised to the African nation. However, the United States’ military alliance with Ugandan forces has produced a fragile relationship between the two countries — and has led to inaction from the former.