05:31 - Source: CNN
Anti-LGBTQ laws are on the rise in Africa. This US group denies it is linked to their spread
Nairobi, Kenya CNN  — 

On a dark night six months ago, Adrian mustered the courage to flee.

Already on the run for days, with freshly stitched wounds on his thigh, he struggled over the border by foot.

“I crossed a swamp at the border. When I reached a railway protected by Kenyan police, I had to bribe them to get through,” he says.

Adrian’s journey from a promising young professional with a marketing job in Uganda, to an asylum seeker on the run began with his father, a prominent Muslim businessman in the capital Kampala.

Adrian says his father told him he wanted to restore dignity to their family.

“He grabbed a knife that was near him. He felt that he could cut me into pieces,” Adrian says, showing the jagged scars streaking his leg.

“In Uganda when they kill someone in the LGBT community – it is not a big deal.”

Hiding from hate

Adrian spoke to CNN in a safehouse in Nairobi, where he was sheltering with four other Ugandan asylum seekers. Like many people interviewed for this investigation, CNN agreed to use a pseudonym to protect his identity, due to the risks to his safety.

Even in the daytime, the curtains in the safehouse are drawn.

“With the hate that we are living in today, if you go out there and they notice that I am LGBTQ, sooner or later I will be dead,” he says.

It’s unclear how many Ugandans have fled to Kenya, but rights groups in both countries say the numbers have risen substantially since Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed one of the world’s harshest anti-LGBTQ laws, which includes the death penalty, in May.

US President Joe Biden has called the law “a tragic violation of universal human rights,” and demanded its repeal. “No one should have to live in constant fear for their life or being subjected to violence and discrimination. It is wrong,” he said.

But, despite condemnation from the White House, one prominent US lobbying group has faced persistent accusations of spreading anti-LGBTQ sentiment in several African countries. For months, CNN has investigated whether the Arizona-based organization Family Watch International, and its founder Sharon Slater, have helped promote a raft of homophobic bills in Uganda, Kenya and Ghana. The group has repeatedly denied these allegations.

‘Family values’

Family Watch International says that its mission is to “protect and promote the family as the fundamental unit of society.” It campaigns against teaching young people about LGBTQ issues, sexual health, other areas it regards as a threat to the “natural family,” lobbying at the United Nations, across the US and in other countries.

The organization has hosted key politicians pushing anti-LGBTQ laws. Slater has addressed or convened multiple “family values” conferences across the African continent – both in person and remotely.

Policy advocacy by American conservative groups in Africa is not uncommon. CNN has previously reported that the World Congress of Families, a far-right US group with global influence, may have played a role in a crackdown on Ghana’s LGBTQ community, including by influencing some of the harshest bills on the continent. At the time, their leader said they had no input into the Ghanaian bill.

As well as being influenced by US evangelical groups, several African nations’ anti-LGBTQ laws have their roots in the colonial era, including in Britain’s anti-sodomy provisions. When the UK decriminalized same-sex acts in 1967, many former colonies had already won independence and the laws on their books stayed in place.

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But there has been a contemporary push to clarify and, in some cases, strengthen these laws.

In 2013, Nigeria passed a bill criminalizing same-sex relationships, which contained penalties of up to 14 years in prison. A year later, Uganda’s president signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which was subsequently struck down by a Ugandan court on procedural grounds after Western governments suspended some aid.

But in recent years, African politicians have begun proposing a new generation of anti-LGBTQ legislation. The bills in Ghana, Uganda, and Kenya are cloaked in “family values” but anchored in severe punishments for the queer community and their supporters.

Ghana could soon pass one of the harshest pieces of legislation, known as the Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values bill, after its Supreme Court dismissed a legal challenge in July.

In Uganda, being gay can now get you life in prison or the death penalty for certain homosexual acts. The new law, which is blamed for a rise in violence against members of the LGBTQ community, received robust support from Ugandan members of parliament. Ugandan activists and civil society groups are currently challenging the law in court.

“The laws are very organized in their planning and the political mobilization of the population to support the cause. The passing of the law is just the tail end of that very meticulous process,” says Nicholas Opiyo, a leading Ugandan human rights advocate.

Friends in high places

Perhaps the most symbolic illustration of Family Watch International’s clout came from a conference in Entebbe, Uganda, this past April.

In one photo from the conference, Family Watch International staff and co-founder Slater stands in a small group photo with the Ugandan president.

From National Reistance Movement
Family Watch International founder Sharon Slater (in purple) is pictured with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (wearing a face mask) outside Uganda's State House in April during a conference on so-called "family values."

The conference on sex education happened just weeks before Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act in May. Museveni and the First Lady praised the work of Slater and her organization in public gatherings.

Family Watch International says those meetings were impromptu and that it was not in charge of the conference in Entebbe.

But a source directly involved in the event said that Slater and Family Watch International were, in fact, vital in the planning of the Entebbe conference – even suggesting a name change to avoid “significant backlash.”

And while Family Watch International says it is not involved in any way in the law, the same source said the group has assisted members of parliament in pushing the legislation and helped shape its wording.

“Family Watch International staff made repeated changes to the draft,” the source said, even suggesting clauses that should be added to the text.

CNN tracked Slater to a conference at the UN headquarters in New York in November. The Family Watch International co-founder said that the allegations are “absurd.”

From Janet K Museveni, First Lady of the Republic of Uganda
Sharon Slater, founder of Family Watch International, speaks to Uganda's first lady in Entebbe in April.

“I have documents I can show you later that I have not been involved in any of those laws, period, it’s just absurd,” she said.

Pressed on the documents, a Family Watch International representative later shared a deeply homophobic text with CNN from President Yoweri Museveni’s office.

In it, Museveni gives an extraordinary endorsement of Slater’s work and says she played no part in “originating, canvassing, or supporting” the law. Instead, it says she suggested a “safe haven” for “homosexuals.” The final Ugandan law allows for the “rehabilitation of offenders,” including widely discredited conversion therapy.

Family Watch International has repeatedly stated that it is against the death penalty and imprisonment of members of the LGBTQ community and does not support the law, but a youth leader with close links to the organization in Kenya had a different take.

Tobias Nauruki, a representative of the Empowered Youth Coalition, had just returned from the same meetings at the UN, where he posted photographs of the UN buildings and group pictures with leading anti-LGBTQ members of parliament.

Family Watch International said that Nauruki is “not authorized to speak” for them.

“I’m happy for the laws being pushed. One, they are going to protect me as a person, Tobias, and the generations I’m looking forward to have in the near future,” he said, referring to his future children. “The maintenance protection and promoting the family values is very important to maintain the traditions that have been there.”

Fabien Muhire/CNN
Tobias Nauruki during his interview with CNN.

Nauruki said that LGBTQ people should be imprisoned if they break the laws but be given the opportunity to convert. He added that the instances of harassment and abuse of LGBTQ people cited by human rights groups are “minor.”

A harsh new reality

But the emergence of a draft Kenyan Family Protection Bill, that would punish gay sex with prison, has pushed the queer community in Kenya further into the shadows.

The bill surfaced after a February Kenyan Supreme Court ruling that allowed the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) to officially register as an advocate for the LGBTQ community, garnering praise from LGBTQ campaigners as well as backlash.

“It was very surprising that there would be such a large and horrible reaction to something we had been working on for 10 years,” said Njeri Gateru, the executive director of NGLHRC. “This is quite clearly a deliberate push for the criminalization of queer bodies and queer lives.”

Gateru says that instances of harassment of members of the queer community have doubled in the last two years, with more than 1,000 instances recorded up to August this year alone.

Nairobi has long been a relative haven for LGBTQ Africans. There are several well-known gay bars and hang-out spots and transgender Kenyans were relatively safe in certain areas.

Patrick Meinhardt/AFP/Getty Images
A woman holds a pride flag during a protest organized by The Queer Republic in Nairobi in January 2022.

Crucially, if the bill becomes law, it will ban LGTBQ Africans from being able to seek asylum or being granted refugee status in Kenya – and expel those convicted under the legislation.

Among its draconian measures, the bill threatens a fine of 10 million Kenyan shillings ($65,000) or 10 years in jail for funding LGBTQ+ groups, and outlaws their existence. Landlords who knowingly rent homes to LGBTQ+ people can be fined and or jailed for up to seven years.

Already the feeling of safety has changed since the draft bill was publicized and politicians, including President William Ruto, started speaking out against gay rights.

Groups like Galck+, an LGBTQ+ umbrella organization in Kenya, are inundated with distress calls day and night.

“Since the bill started being discussed, landlords are evicting queer people, queer people aren’t able to access health services freely, people are being targeted,” said Kelly, who leads the intervention team, and asked that their real name not be used by CNN. The organization has identified “red zones” in the capital where it is unsafe to go.

Despite an international backlash to the proposed bill, especially from donor countries, Kenyan lawmakers are pressing on.

“When you engage in those acts of LGBT, that are prohibited in Kenya, you become a criminal,” opposition politician Peter Kaluma, the main sponsor of the bill, told CNN.

He had just returned from the same meetings that Nauruki, the youth representative, and Slater attended at the UN in New York. A book by Sharon Slater on family values sits on his shelf. He says he hasn’t read it.

Sarah Dean/CNN
Kenyan opposition politician Peter Kaluma, the main sponsor of Kenya's Family Protection Bill 2023, shows a copy of Sharon Slater's book, "Stand For The Family," in his office in Nairobi.

Kaluma denied that he has a close relationship with Slater, though he said he does admire her teachings on “traditional families.”

He said that Family Watch International played no part in the Kenyan law.

“No, no they can’t. That would be to say I don’t have my own brain. For the avoidance of doubt, this is not the first law I’ve proposed to parliament,” he said.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Kaluma said that Kenyans aren’t taking the law into their own hands, and that Ugandans fleeing into Kenya are pretending they are being persecuted.

“I can tell you all this is self-serving gimmicks,” he said, claiming they are just trying to get to the US or Canada.

Nowhere to go

There is nothing fictional about Sylvia’s escape from Uganda.

She told CNN that the police and a mob raided her apartment while she wasn’t there. Many of her friends were arrested and beaten, and she lost contact with her girlfriend.

Sylvia says she thought she found refuge in her grandmother’s house, only to be forced out.

“My mom came herself and she told me, ‘You are not welcome here; you are not part of our family. You either go, or I call the police.’ I cried because I love my mom,” she says.

In the safe house in Nairobi, the Ugandans feel that their space to live in safety is running out, that the proposed Kenyan law presents a direct threat to them.

They now face a complex process of registering for asylum and potentially moving to the Kakuma refugee camp in remote northwestern Kenya.

“When is it going to stop?” asks Ann, who only arrived a week ago. “If you come to Kenya what is going to happen, if you go to another country, what are they going to do to you there?”

Fabien Muhire/CNN
Ann, who fled Uganda, sits in the garden of the safe house in Kenya. She does not feel it's safe to venture further outside.

Ann and Sylvia take turns to gently stir a pot of boiling beans on a gas cylinder. Adrian is looking at remote job options on a laptop. Another resident of the safehouse is polishing his shoes on the porch outside.

For now, they are safe. And they have each other.

“Being here is the best feeling I have ever had in my life. I now live with the people who understand me, who love me genuinely for who I am. It gives me hope that maybe the world is not against me,” Ann says.

They have become a family.