Sitting on a sofa in his tiny office, Simon Azarwagye, the owner of a travel company called Azas Safaris, points to numbers on his laptop — visual aids for a story that still makes him miserable to tell.
“See that?” he says, gesturing to a graph marked “quote requests.” It represents the 89 prospective customers he was communicating with earlier in the year. All of them had inquired about tours of Uganda’s lush forests; the expeditions cost about $15,000 per couple for 13 days of hippo and gorilla spotting.
That was before the country’s Parliament started debating one of the harshest anti-L.G.B.T.Q. laws in the world. It included a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality” — defined as same-sex relations with someone who is disabled, H.I.V.-positive or elderly, among other categories — and criminalized defending gay men and lesbians in public.
News of the bill made international headlines. On the day it was signed in late May, President Biden and leaders around Europe threatened sanctions that Uganda, which has an economy that lags in size behind those of Libya and Sudan, can ill afford. Within weeks, 60 of Mr. Azarwagye’s 89 potential clients, most of whom hail from either Europe or the United States, had canceled their plans or stopped returning messages.
“They ghosted me,” he said, noting that he typically secures paying customers out of two-thirds of all inquiries. “A few who spoke to me explained, ‘It’s not safe to come to Uganda because of that law.’”
Since the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023, as the law is officially known, there have been arrests and hundreds of human rights violations involving L.G.B.T.Q. people, according to a report by Convening for Equality, a coalition of human rights groups. Gay and transgender people have been evicted by landlords, as required by the law. And fear is keeping gay and transgender patients from health clinics, which are obliged by the law to report them to the police.
More quietly, the law is exacting a grim economic toll.
The hospitality industry is hurting, hoteliers say. Textile makers say buyers in the United States, in Britain and around Europe have canceled orders, fearing that a “Made in Uganda” label on a garment is now bad for business. Construction companies in Uganda say Western financial backers are spooked.
“We had a face-to-face meeting with an American private equity firm, and one of the guys, who runs the firm, made clear he had a moral problem with the law,” said Venugopal Rao, the chief executive of Dott Services, a construction company in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, that recently sought about $100 million in loans. “We could get money for our projects in Tanzania and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But not Uganda.”
Animosity toward gay people runs deep in this landlocked East African country of 49 million people. A poll conducted in 2022 by Afrobarometer, a nonpartisan research network, found that Ugandans were highly tolerant of people of different ethnicities and religious backgrounds, but highly intolerant of gay people. Close to 97 percent said they favored laws that criminalized homosexuality, and 94 percent of Ugandans said they would report a gay family member or friend to the police.
Business leaders and politicians trace Uganda’s intolerance of L.G.B.T.Q. people to the markedly conservative strains of Catholicism and evangelicalism that dominate the country.
“This is a Christian country, and especially the African Christians have a different view about homosexuality,” said Herbert Byaruhanga of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators. He was explaining why his organization didn’t lobby against the Anti-Homosexuality Act or issue a news release on the topic. There wasn’t time to analyze the law before its passage, he said, but even if he had weeks to study each word, resistance would have been pointless because the law is immensely popular.
“We couldn’t stand against the culture of Uganda,” he said.
The country’s longtime president, Yoweri Museveni, is the wild card in this entire matter. He has run Uganda with an autocratic grip for nearly four decades, and in testimony sent to the International Criminal Court, he has been accused of torturing and killing dissidents in the 2021 election.
He has publicly contended that gays undermine peace and stability and called them “disgusting” in a CNN interview. But several confidants, including Andrew Mwenda, a journalist who is also a spokesman for the president’s son, say the president is primarily a pragmatist who worries about the state of the economy and hates the idea of Uganda’s being seen as a pariah.
Mr. Mwenda and others have filed petitions against the Anti-Homosexuality Act, hoping that the courts will rule it unconstitutional or toss it out on a technicality. It has happened before. In 2014, a bill nicknamed “Kill the Gays” was nullified by the courts on the narrow ground that it passed without a required quorum.
A spokesman for the president did not respond to messages.
Uganda’s Constitutional Court held a hearing about the Anti-Homosexuality Act on Monday, and some observers believe a decision could come before the end of the year or early in January.
“This is the best law that Parliament could have passed,” Mr. Mwenda said. “You know why? Because it’s so bad that no court could uphold it.”
More than half of Africa’s 54 countries have antigay laws. Proponents of the laws regard them as a way to toss off a vestige of colonial rule and combat what they see as the decadent mores of the West. On the day of the Anti-Homosexuality Act vote, the Parliament speaker, Anita Annet Among, proclaimed, “The Western world will not come to rule Uganda.”
Uganda has had an antisodomy law since 1950, passed during the era of British rule, that punishes homosexuality with life in prison. Britain liberalized its sodomy statutes in 1967, but in Uganda, starting in the early 2000s, right-wing Christians coalesced into a political force that regarded homosexuality as a baleful influence on culture.
The anti-L.G.B.T.Q. movement went quiet in Uganda after the demise of the “Kill the Gays” law, smarting from the loss and fumbling for a strategy to regain momentum. Three years ago, the issue began to once again inch into the national conversation.
Gay activists lay much of the blame on two groups, Family Life Network in Uganda and Family Watch International, an evangelical organization in Gilbert, Ariz. Family Watch is led by Sharon Slater, who has pushed for conversion therapy for gay people and has been involved with what the group calls “family-centered” policy in Africa since 2002.
“Ugandans are very homophobic, but they won’t act on it unless someone reawakens it,” said Frank Mugisha, who leads Sexual Minorities Uganda, a gay rights group that was shut down in August of last year. “Family Life Network and Family Watch rejuvenated the movement.”
Family Life Network did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Family Watch, Lynn Allred, said in an email that the group’s opponents “make up stuff and hope it’s perpetuated by disreputable reporters.” The group posted a lengthy “get the facts” page on its website, stating that it never lobbied for the Anti-Homosexuality Act and is, in fact, opposed to it.
Mr. Mugisha says the rejuvenation began at the National Prayer Breakfast held in Parliament in 2020, when a lawmaker suggested that an antigay law should be resurrected. Soon afterward, highly inflammatory stories about L.G.B.T.Q. people began to bubble up and multiply on social media. One unfounded rumor was hammered at over and over: Gay teachers were assaulting and “recruiting” students.
Homosexuality quickly became synonymous with pedophilia. Uganda receives billions of dollars in annual aid and tax breaks from a variety of sources, and some announced retaliatory action after the Anti-Homosexuality Act became law. The World Bank said it would not start any new projects in the country, stating in a press release that it wanted to “protect sexual and gender minorities from discrimination and exclusion in the projects we finance.”
In late October, the U.S. State Department warned about the reputational risks of doing business in the country. More recently, it expanded a list of Ugandan officials who are restricted from visiting the United States. Direct aid from the United States was curtailed, and on Jan. 1 Uganda is scheduled to be removed from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which provides tariff-free access to U.S. markets for sub-Saharan countries.
These measures are intended as punishment, but some Ugandan politicians think they have an upside. This includes James Nsaba Buturo, a soft-spoken, 73-year-old former minister of ethics, who sat in his office in Parliament one recent afternoon with a Bible and a copy of the rules of procedure on his desk.
“The good books,” he said.
He thinks that cutting back foreign aid might cure Uganda of its perennial corruption problem. The logic goes like this: If there is less money coming into the country, those who steal from the public coffers will think twice because the consequences of that theft will be more dire.
“When the World Bank threatened us I was very happy,” he said. “What we steal from ourselves is worth three times more than what we get from other countries. This is a chance for us to get our house in order.”
Blowback from the Anti-Homosexual Act is already squeezing the Ugandan economy, though the extent of the pain will become clearer in the coming months. The country has been growing steadily in recent years, said Corti Paul Lakuma, a senior research fellow at the Economic Policy Research Center in Uganda. There was double-digit growth in gross domestic product in the 2000s and 6 percent growth from 2010 to 2019. He believes the success stems from improvements in infrastructure and steps to privatize the banking industry. The country is also safer.
“In the ’80s, you needed to be indoors by 7 p.m. Otherwise you might get killed,” Mr. Lakuma said. “This is a 24-hour country now.”
Long term, he is optimistic about Uganda, in part because he thinks that the Anti-Homosexuality Law will be struck down by the courts. Others believe that the threat of sanctions and penalties has made it difficult for judges to overturn the law without seeming to have caved to foreign pressure.
Regardless, the country may already be serving as a warning to other African countries that are considering antigay laws. A lawmaker in Kenya has proposed a draconian one, but political observers say it’s unlikely that Parliament will pass it or that it could get through the country’s relatively independent judiciary. And the broader trends in Africa are heading in the direction of tolerance. Six countries in Africa have legalized same-sex relationships in the last decade.
Uganda risks becoming an outlier. This pains Mr. Azarwagye, the owner of the safari company that lost business when the antigay law passed. In early December, he moved his office out of the city, in part for cheaper rent.
“No one has been in touch,” he said of the 60 or so customers who stopped communicating with him this summer. “Most people who ghost you, they go on holidays to neighboring countries, like Kenya.”