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Obama Leader fights for LGBTQ+ rights in Uganda

A Black man with short cut hair is facing the camera smiling with his teeth showing. He is wearing a gray suit and a white buttoned up shirt. The photo is black and white and the background features two circles, one which is green and the other blue.

Progress for LGBTQ+ people in Uganda has been hindered by the current cultural and political landscape. Earlier this year, Uganda lawmakers passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act (Opens in a new tab), which calls for the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality," which is defined as same-sex relations involving HIV-positive people, children or other vulnerable people. Anyone convicted of "attempted aggravated homosexuality" can be imprisoned for up to 14 years. Also, Ugandans who engages in gay sex can receive life in prison, while anyone who attempts to have same-sex relations can face 10 years in prison.

Although laws are strict, Tom Twongyeirwe Junior, a 2023 Africa Leader says his fight continues for a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive country.  

“In 2013, I was at university and couldn’t complete my course because I was outed to my family.  My family and church got rid of me,” he reflected. “I think the church is supposed to be a welcoming place for people who are trodden on and those who can't find refuge anywhere else in the world. That's why the church exists. But it was the total opposite for me.” 

Tom is one of four founding members and the national coordinator of the Universal Coalition of Affirming Africans Uganda (UCAA-UG), the first national coalition of Ugandan religious leaders dedicated to using a faith-based approach to advance the inclusion of oppressed groups, including LGBTQ+ people, women, and people living with disabilities.

The society that rejects its diversity is a society that is in conflict with itself.”

Tom Twongyeirwe Junior, 2023 Africa Leader

Under Tom’s leadership, the organization has grown in size to 67 members, including religious leaders, people of faith, and faith-based institutions like churches, hospitals, and schools.

“We are just trying to make change happen. And by change, I mean creating an inclusive society where we are just human by nature,” Tom explained. “In order to have a diverse society we must be inclusive of one another if we want to grow. And that starts with all sectors of the government. ” 

He says UCAA-UG is changing the landscape of LGBTQ+ relations by having one-on-one conversations around the topic with the community and religious leaders. 

“We are operating in the context of Africa where people are conservative and religious leaders are like Gods,” Tom said. “When having these dialogues, we come from a position of, "We are waiting to listen to you and we ask you to please listen to us. We're not trying to change you, we just want to have a conversation."

Homosexuality is criminalized in more than 30 of Africa's 54 countries, including the religiously conservative East African nation. 

In 2014, the country’s lawmakers passed an anti-homosexuality bill to replace the death penalty clause with a proposal for life in prison. That law was ultimately struck down. 

“98 percent of the population here subscribes to a certain religious affiliation,” Tom shared. “That means, religious leaders really have influence at the community and at the family level.”

Tom Twongyeirwe Junior stands in front of a board room full of Black people or a range of skin tones. He is wearing a blue button up and striped pants. A sign in the background reads, The Universal Coalition of Affirming Africans Uganda.

Prior to the founding of UCAA-UG in 2017, Tom says there were only two religious leaders who were outspoken about LGBTQ+ issues. He says progress for LGBTQ+ rights fluctuate in the country but he remains committed to the cause.

“I find fulfillment in knowing that somebody is living today because of my efforts,” Tom reflected.

He says being a part of the Obama Foundation Leaders Africa program is pivotal to his personal and professional growth.

“President Obama once said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” and I truly believe that. When I got to the program, I felt like, “You guys are the one who I’ve been waiting for,” Tom reflected with a smile. “In this program I was able to identify my strengths, weaknesses, and personal values. It has helped shape me into the leader I want to be; the kind of leader who lives with and for the people.”

Tom says his vision for a better Uganda remains the same.

“I want to create an inclusive society for all LGBTQ+ Africans,” he said.

Tom is one of hundreds of leaders who joined President Obama in Athens, Greece, for an Obama Foundation Leaders convening. Learn more about the event.

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Discover more about Obama Foundation Leaders Africa.

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