OUT IN AFRICA: GAY LIFE IN UGANDA
Martin* runs breathlessly through the stifling heat, wanting to call for help, but knowing it won’t come. Exhausted, he collapses and the mob that’s been chasing him, accusing him of ‘promoting homosexuality’, pound him, each hit fuelled by the hatred against LGBTI people endemic in his country, Uganda.
The East African nation made international headlines with its Anti-Homosexuality Bill proposed by MP David Bahati in 2009. Dubbed the ‘Kill the Gays’ bill because of its harsh punishments, it demanded death for those caught in a third homosexual encounter.
Newspapers have been known to print stories calling for their readers to hang gay men, while publishing their names and addresses. Despite the risks, activists and members of the LGBTI population have banded together under the name ‘kuchus’. The word stems from the Swahili language and roughly translates as ‘queer’.
In 2011, David Kato, considered to be ‘the father of the Kuchu movement’ was tortured to death in his home. Such is the price to pay for activism in Uganda.
However, even in the darkest circumstances, people fight back. The kuchus are hoping to hold another Pride event this year. With zero chance of government support, the activist group All Out started a fundraiser for it.
Having pride in being LGBTI doesn’t come naturally in Uganda. Sylvia is the editor of a newspaper, Kuchu Times, that provides information to LGBTI folk.
“Since the year started, we have had ten documented cases of violent homophobic attacks with one case so violent a lesbian was left partially blind from a physical beating,” she says.
“The impact of religious fundamentalists spreading the anti-gay gospel in a country so enshrined in religious beliefs can only take on hate. That’s the message their religious leaders are telling them to preach and it’s [a case of] ‘Once my Reverend says it, it’s true’. As an activist, there is no predetermining what sort of danger you might face and it’s frightening and interesting at the same time.”
Katharine Gelber, professor of political science at the University of Queensland, said it was not unusual for African countries to have negative attitudes towards gay people. “Homophobia is very deeply entrenched in the institutions such as the government, the police and how the justice system works,” she said. “It takes a lot of effort to turn that around.
“International solidarity is very important. The people who are trying to speak up who live there need our support. It’s harder to get information about what’s happening in some countries about gay rights, so it’s important people find out what’s going on.”
Martin is now living in a safe house after the Easter attack, existing on sparse donations. His mother died in 2013, leaving him with a sister and few friends to trust. A teacher and pastor, Martin lives with the constant fear of violence and discrimination simply because he is an out gay man.
“I grew up with a feeling for fellow boys which was contrary to what society expected,” he says. “As I developed this has failed to leave me, despite the hate and troubling life I lead since I came out.”
Running an orphanage, Martin provides a much-needed service as the country buckles under a government that seems more interested in whipping up hatred against gay people than it does about the World Bank’s estimate of an average life expectancy of just 59.
Sylvia isn’t fooled by easy distractions from the real issues facing Uganda. “The Speaker of Parliament is looking to push for the anti-gay law as the main issue to tackle, while scores of Ugandans die from the breakdown of the only free cancer treatment centre in the country. How is the ‘gay issue’ more important than improving health services?”
For those in the west, it is easy to label Uganda as a failed country with regressive beliefs. Yet, the uncomfortable truth is that westerners have a major role to play in the homophobia that is destroying Uganda’s LGBTI population.
The gripping documentary God Loves Uganda offers viewers a glimpse inside the country. The film includes shocking footage of western activists like American Scott Lively spreading the message that LGBTI people are demonic and bent on ‘recruiting youths’ – a message lapped up by uneducated Ugandans with devastating consequences.
Richard works at an NGO based out of the capital, Kampala. A 23 year old who grew up in a refugee camp after his parents were killed in the war waged by the Lord’s Resistance Army, this is a man who has survived hardships and won. Now a firm ally for the LGBTI community, he doesn’t want pity: he wants books.
“Without intellectually capable men, there can be no democracy,” he says. “But if we read, we shall come to know that our rights exist.”
Richard is seeking international donations of books to help LGBTI people in the country have access to information about themselves in a country where positive affirmations are hard to find.
Martin, Sylvia and Richard are brave individuals, all doing their part to live their lives to their fullest in the face of overwhelming hatred that can – and does – destroy people on a daily basis across the globe.
“There is no overnight solution to counter the threats LGBTI Ugandans face,” says Sylvia. “But I believe [that with] initiatives like Kuchu Times, where lived realities of LGBTI people are shared, we can counter misconceptions. By continuing to accept who we are as queer Ugandans, owning our own spaces and standing up to injustices, we shall counter homophobia.”
Check out Kuchu Times here.
*names have been changed to protect identities.