ENTEBBE,,(AFP) – Dancing and waving rainbow-coloured flags, Ugandan activists held their first gay pride rally Saturday since the overturning of a tough anti-homosexuality law, which authorities have appealed.
“This event is to bring us together. Everyone was in hiding before because of the anti-homosexuality law,” organiser Sandra Ntebi told AFP.
“It is a happy day for all of us, getting together,” Ntebi said, noting that police had granted permission for the invitation-only “Uganda Pride” rally.
The overturned law, condemned as “abominable” by rights groups but popular among many Ugandans, called for proven homosexuals to be jailed for life.
The constitutional court threw it out on a technicality on August 1, six months after it took effect, and the government swiftly filed an appeal, while lawmakers have signed a petition for a new vote on the bill.
Homosexuality remains illegal in Uganda, punishable by a jail sentence. But it is no longer illegal to promote homosexuality, and Ugandans are no longer obliged to denounce gays to the authorities.
Amid music and laughter, activists gathered at botanical gardens on the shores of Lake Victoria, barely a kilometre (half a mile) from the presidential palace at Entebbe, a key town some 35 kilometres from the capital Kampala.
“Some Ugandans are gay. Get over it,” read one sticker a man had pasted onto his face.
– ‘Now I have the courage’ –
Ugandan Deputy Attorney General Fred Ruhinda said Saturday that state lawyers had lodged an appeal against the ruling at the Supreme Court, the country’s highest court.
“We are unsatisfied with the court ruling,” Ruhinda told AFP. “The law was not intended to victimise gay people, it was for the common good.”
In their surprise ruling last week, judges said it had been passed without the necessary quorum of lawmakers in parliament.
Rights groups said the law triggered a sharp increase in arrests and assaults on members of the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Homophobia is widespread in Uganda, where American-style evangelical Christianity is on the rise.
Gay men and women face frequent harassment and threats of violence.
On Saturday, however, activists celebrated openly.
“Since I discovered I was gay I feared coming out, but now I have the courage after the law was thrown out,” Alex Musoke told AFP, one of more than 100 people at the event.
One pair of activists waved a rainbow flag with a slogan appealing for people to “join hands” to end the “genocide” of homosexuals.
Some wore masks for fear of being identified — Uganda’s tabloid newspapers have previously printed photographs of prominent activists — while others showed their faces openly and wore colourful fancy dress.
But activist Pepe Onziema said he and his colleagues would not rest until they were sure the law was gone for good.
“Uganda is giving a bad example, not only to the region but to the world, by insisting on this law,” he said.
“We are Africans, we want to show an African struggle by civil society.”
There was little police presence, and no one came to protest the celebration, even if many in the town said they did not approve.
“This is unbelievable, I can’t imagine being a gay,” said motorbike taxi driver William Kamurasi in disgust.
“It’s a shame to Uganda. Police must stop these activities of the gays.”
– Lawmakers demand new vote –
Critics said President Yoweri Museveni signed the law to win domestic support ahead of a presidential election set for 2016, which will be his 30th year in power.
But it lost him friends abroad, with several international donors freezing or redirecting millions of dollars of government aid, saying the country had violated human rights and democratic principles.
US Secretary of State John Kerry likened the law to anti-Semitic legislation in Nazi Germany.
Analysts suggest that Museveni secretly encouraged last week’s court ruling as it provided a way to avoid the appearance of caving in to foreign pressure.
But gay rights activists warn the battle is not over.
Lawmakers signed a petition calling for a new vote on the bill, and to bypass parliamentary rules that require it be formally reintroduced from scratch — a process that could take years.