Rainbow flags are flying around Seattle; we’re currently deep into our first Pride month in this city with an openly gay mayor in office.
Looking around, it’s easy to assume that today’s world is a far more tolerant place toward the LGBT community than ever before.
But in Uganda, it’s the exact opposite. These days, being gay in Uganda can cost you your freedom, your property, your right to vote — even your life.
I was in Uganda back in March, just days after that nation’s president, Yoweri Museveni, signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA) into law.
For those unfamiliar with the law, the AHA punishes first-time offenders caught engaging in acts of homosexuality with 14 years in jail. It also sets life imprisonment as the penalty for acts of “aggravated homosexuality,” including sex with a minor or while HIV-positive.
It calls for life imprisonment for living in a same-sex marriage, outlaws the “promotion of homosexuality” and requires citizens to denounce to the police anyone suspected of being gay.
The bill originally proposed the death penalty for some homosexual acts, but that was later removed amid vast international criticism.
But while people around the world were outraged that such a draconian law could be signed in these modern times, citizens in conservative Uganda didn’t find it nearly as newsworthy. It was a story that only those sympathetic to believing Western media could get behind.
During the two weeks I spent in Uganda (where UW Communications Leadship Associate Director Scott Macklin and I facilitated a digital media lab for young people in the hip-hop community) I carefully spoke with everyday Ugandans to get a sense of how people were really feeling about the new law.
It’s no secret many Africans look down on homosexuality and see it as an abomination. But it’s impossible that everyone would feel that way, right?
The dominant story before we set foot on the plane is that gays are not welcome in Uganda. Having watched the powerful story, Call Me Kuchu, about the life and murder of Ugandan LGBT activist David Kato a few weeks before traveling, it was clear there were a number of people in Uganda fighting quite hard on behalf of LGBT rights and if I could come in contact with some of these activists, a truer picture of the situation would emerge.
When Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the bill into law a little over four months ago, his rhetoric was partly directed at the United States and Western countries to back off. There’s a dominant train of thought that Western ideals promoting gay rights as, dare we say, human rights, have no place in Uganda at all.
Of course, the situation is much more complex than that and a variety of people on the ground were quite forthcoming on how they feel about the new law, and also the security concerns that are arising from this legislation.
People who identify in the LGBT community are certainly afraid. Several people who had previously agreed to speak with me on the record changed their mind once the law passed. People are now going underground for fear of being arrested and some have fled to neighboring countries like Kenya and Rwanda where being gay doesn’t equate to a legally handed out death sentence.
Nkoyooyo Brian isn’t one of them. He’s the cofounder and current director of Icebreakers Uganda, an LGBT rights organization in Kampala that provides resources and does advocacy work for the community at large. Brian has continued his work openly since the law passed.
“I worry about the person who has no contact with organizations like ours, the people in rural areas who don’t know of organizations like us,” he says as we sit down for tea in an upscale mall in Kampala. If they’re arrested, people don’t know what resources exist.
He was especially concerned about the personal safety of members of the LGBT community.
“I’m not worried as much about the law enactors themselves but the public, the hooligans in the street or the villages who take matters in their own hands,” he says. “Given the fact that the majority of the public is homophobic, I fear that mob justice — or rather mob injustice —would occur.”
Indeed, since I left Uganda, it seems that Brian’s worst fears have come true many times over.
Sexual Minorities Uganda, another LGBT rights group, recorded a more than tenfold increase in attacks on gay and lesbian people in the first two months after the law passed.
It’s important to note that there’s an overwhelming amount of support for the law overall, and I heard that echoed in casual conversation.
Religion plays a big part in people’s reaction to the law. While in Uganda, the church presence is felt pretty much everywhere you go and it’s common to see people standing on the street corners proselytizing to passers-by, bible in hand.
It’s also commonly perceived that evangelical churches there and in the United States — like the one headed by radical Massachusetts pastor Scott Lively — were the ones initially fanning the flames for anti-gay rhetoric in Uganda in the mid 2000s.
Homophobia has always existed in some form but the current anti-gay rage is relatively new.
Edna Mbabazi, a youth photographer in Kampala, speaks to the complexities of AHA. I asked her if she thinks the new law is a good thing or a bad thing.
“It’s both,” she says, smiling. “Of course we know that homosexuality has been happening in people’s homes all along… We don’t hate people who do such stuff, but we don’t want them to do it in public. I don’t support homosexuality but on the other side, I wouldn’t support a person being mistreated, beaten up or killed for being gay.”
When you talk to everyday Ugandans it’s apparent that there are two core aspects of the public perception of gays that are now inappropriately fused. Consensual sex between adults who identify as LGBT is lumped together with pedophilia, and the perception is that gay people are molesting children and encouraging young people to become homosexual.
In conversation after conversation, there’s a dominant thought that LGBT rights activists, foreign NGOs and even some priests are supporting the gay-rights issues in Uganda and also giving money to young men to “switch over” to the gay lifestyle.
It’s unclear where this notion of gay proselytizing stems from — and of course there’s little hard evidence to support it. But still, people believe it exists. Even detractors of the recent Anti-Homosexuality Act law find fault in anyone encouraging gay lifestyles amongst young people.
“To me it’s very wrong to push someone into the practice,” says local business owner and gay rights activist Henry Mutebi, who runs a girls education advocacy group in Uganda and also runs a tourism and travel company. “If the [new] law was for whoever pushed someone into the practice of homosexuality can be arrested, I could understand that. But to generalize everything for anyone who is gay to be arrested, that doesn’t work well.”
Mutebi went on to voice a very pragmatic concern about the law:
“This is really going to effect our economy as well. The Western countries are going to withhold their money. Uganda is not a backwards country or a Muslim country. Uganda is one of the few countries in Africa where people are enjoying their time and partying. People come from other countries in East Africa here to have a good time. All of that in terms of tourism is going to go away.”
In fairness, Uganda wasn’t exactly topping the list of gay-friendly travel destinations to start with.
But Mutebi says his tourism and travel company, which creates Safari packages, trekking, and gorilla sightseeing trips, has already taken a hit.
“Norway, Sweden and U.S.,” he says, listing off nationalities that are abandoning travel to Uganda. “I’ve lost about $6,000 US for people who booked their trips way back and have canceled because of the new law… Their government has blacklisted Uganda, so they don’t want to come.”
Earlier this year, the World Bank postponed a payment of $90 million scheduled to go to Uganda in reaction new law. The United States, which gives roughly $485 million in bilateral assistance to Uganda for the 2014 fiscal year, is now formally reviewing this assistance allotment going forward to make sure funds aren’t going toward promoting discrimination.
It’s an especially tricky call because the bulk of the U.S.’s aid allotment goes to health and HIV initiatives in Uganda, thus freezing this funding will have negative effects beyond the political arena.
“At first, I said let them pull that money. I was glad to see the global community react so strongly,” Brian said. “But now I don’t think it’s a good idea to pull that funding considering the positive programs it assists.”
The day after the bill was signed, a major tabloid in Uganda, The Red Pepper, ran a story titled “Uganda’s 200 Top Homos Exposed.” Entertainers, sports figures, city workers, really anyone with a public profile who’d been suspected or accused of being gay were among those mentioned. That newspapers predecessor, Rolling Stone, was notorious for outing homosexual Ugandans, something that eventually lead to the death of David Kato in 2011.
So far it’s unclear what type of legal consequences those outed by Red Pepper will face.
But last month, two Ugandans (Kim Mukisa and Jackson Mukasa) became the first couple ordered to stand trial for engaging in “acts against the order of nature.”
They were arrested in January after fleeing a lynch mob — but instead of being recognized as victims, they were detained and are now ordered to stand trail.
Beyond the punitive issues, there are several reported instances since the bill was signed by where gay couples in Uganda were attacked or beaten, and evictions of gay tenants are on the rise as well.
It’s quite possible that advocacy groups like Sexual Minorities Uganda could be shut down if they’re deemed to be “promoting” homosexuality, which Brian argues is actually a violation of the Ugandan constitution.
“If a person is being denied services or a person being kicked out of the house, a person out of job, and if I advocate for these individuals, that’s called promotion of homosexuality. That means my org is illegal, my work is illegal,” he said. “That’s incredibly upsetting.”
If Brian’s organization is shut down, it could have a huge impact on a youth like Paul (whose name I’ve changed to protect him).
He was courageous enough to come out to me personally and admit that he’s gay during our time in Uganda. As a hip-hop artist in Uganda, he’s doubly fucked if he’s expecting any support from his peers.
Organizations like Icebreakers and Sexual Minorities Uganda are a huge resource to young queer Ugandans who feel they have no place to go. Before leaving Uganda, I connected Paul and Brian —something Paul was asking for my entire time there.
“I often don’t know who to talk to about being gay,” Paul told me during one of our conversations. “It’s not safe to just tell anyone you’re gay.”
It’s the same way in the U.S. I told him, wanting to be honest.
He thought about it for awhile, clearly taking in the possibility of having more freedom.
“Can you really be gay out in the open in America, they don’t put you in prison?” he asked.
I said that yes, people are gay and loudly proud of it in America and they don’t get thrown in jail. Paul smiled.
“Here, we are not so lucky.”
This post was first published by The Seattle Globalist.
“ZIWA” – A Kenyan and Ugandan art show inspired by the author’s work with Ugandan youth kicks off Thursday, July 3rd at 2312 Gallery in Belltown. More here.