Queer in Uganda
Uganda is a homophobic country. Victorian penal codes, deeply conservative politicians, and preachers preaching hatred, but also superstitious neighbors, prone to use violence, make a productive, peaceful and fulfilling life impossible for LGBT people. Their situation turned particularly bad when the Ugandan president Museveni and his parliament introduced a bill in 2014 which not ‘only’ mandated imprisonment, as had been law already before, but now also the death penalty for repeatedly offending homosexuals. This law prompted headlines all around the world. And under pressure of the international community, it was repealed a few months later, however, this news did not make the front pages. The damage had been done, and that in a most heinous and perpetual manner.
The introduction of the so-called ‘anti-homo bill’ – it was in local newspapers occasionally also referred to as the ‘kill-the-gays law’ – had been preceded by years of heated and often also aggressive political and social debate. And that, in turn, had been initiated by evangelical missionaries who fanned the flames of homophobia wherever they could. They showed, for example, gay pornography in their churches, as illustration to the content of their sermons, which were about gays and lesbians intending to ‘recruit’ children. (Whoever would like to gain a more detailed insight into this subject matter is recommended to watch ‘God Loves Uganda’, a documentary by Roger Ross Williams.) The on-going and loud argument about this draconian law in a country, in which 99% of the population is deeply religious, in which this religiosity is often mixed in with much ancient superstition, in which to this day people are prosecuted for witchcraft, in which many go to the shaman first and only if that doesn’t bring betterment they go to the hospital, in such a country that caused a downright hysterical reaction in the general population. Journalists outed private citizens with photos on the front page of their newspapers, home owners hastily got rid of homosexuals among their tenants, business owners among their employees – for fear of becoming subject to prosecution themselves for covering them up. LGBT Ugandans lost their apartments, their jobs, their seat at university. And once they were outed, most of them were also disowned by their families.
Many LGBT Ugandans must flee from their homeland, and some of them reach Switzerland and petition for asylum here. That’s how we learned first-hand about these terrible circumstances. Their stories prompted us to go research on location and form our own impression about the situation. Together with photographer Patrick Rohr, I travelled to Kampala, the capital of ‘kill-the-gays’ country – which, by the way, is a very beautiful land – to gain insight to the every-day life of the LGBT community. Through our contacts we had been put in touch with local activists, Sandra and Isaac, who received us at the airport, took us by the hand, so to speak, and lead us on a week-long journey through the astonishing LGBT sub-culture of Kampala.
For example, they showed us a clinic where free HIV-testing is offered and workshops about STD prevention are being held. Brant, one of the directors, explained: “The most important thing is building and maintaining good relations with physicians and nurses at local hospitals and doctor’s offices. LGBTs had always been stigmatized in our society. But with the introduction of the ‘anti-gay’ bill, suddenly, they were no longer treated by their doctors, they were ridiculed and cursed at by hospital staff.” One has to imagine this visually: An HIV-patient, for example, needs to have blood work done regularly. But instead of a caring nurse, who detracts the patient with a few kind words from the needle, he gets insulted and accused of sins he committed, while having to hold his arm still for the phlebotomy. And instead of a physician who discussed treatment progress, he gets taunted and humiliated by him. But Brant is confident: “Over the course of the past couple of years we have succeeded in building a small but strong and also growing network of physicians and nurses to whom we can refer LGBT patients. This required lots of dialogue; it involves a lot of reasoning. But when we send someone to these places, then we know they will be treated professionally and respectfully. This already is a huge progress.”
Soon we also realized , that this clinic serves as meeting point as well, a place where there’s much talk and laughter. There was a lot of coming and going, and the conversations among the attendees appeared no different than in any other location in the world where LGBTs gather. Here people can be themselves, unlike outside in public, where they always have to remain on guard. Especially those who cannot really hide their ‘otherness’ – particularly feminine men or masculine women – are running the gauntlet every day. They constantly get harassed, cannot defend themselves, because that would immediately cause escalation and more people getting involved. One cannot win. But here in this safe space, they can relax, meet up with friends, and get advice from the clinic directors.
In the course of the week, Patrick and I heard many more stories which lead us to understand, how important such places are for the LGBT community in Uganda. Life stories of individuals as well as conversations with activists clarified for us the important role of local grassroots organizations. They don’t have a locale with a rainbow flag waving over the entrance. These are discreet places, which one has to know about in order to find them. Often, they consist of no more than a small group of committed individuals who keep in touch continuously via email, facebook and whatsapp, thereby keeping organized even if some don’t have an official office.
“Also important are events which we organize”, explained Brant. “True to our mission as a clinic, we drive out to the country side to small towns and villages where we hold educational events about STD prevention and condom use. And wherever you go, you always get to know another gay or lesbian at these events. People who only introduce themselves to us openly after having watched us for a while and feel they can trust us. With those we keep in touch and encourage them to get organized also in their own environment. Ultimately, the goal is that LGBT Ugandans everywhere in the country realize that they are not alone. That there are others in the same situation, who can stand by them and who can give them advice.” But often it is not only good advice which is needed, added Sandra, the activist who drove us around Kampala: “If somebody is in danger, being attacked or raped, one has to intervene immediately. We drive there, fix a meeting point, and bring these people to safety. We act quickly. But it all depends on whether the person in that situation had ever before heard that there are organizations like ours and, more importantly, how to reach us.”
In the capital Kampala, however, there seems to exist a veritable LGBT sub-culture, which also appears confident and omni-present. It just isn’t recognizable so easily to our untrained European eyes. Gays and lesbians know where they can encounter others; which bar owners are tolerant and happy to have any clients spending money. There are also circles of friends who put funds together and rent a space somewhere to throw a party behind closed doors or put on a drag show. There even are opportunities to have parties on a larger scale, to dance and celebrate, if someone has the right connections. An abandoned commercial building, for example, and a good understanding with the chief of the nearest police station, and suddenly there’s a discotheque. But still, you never know how the night will end. If there might not be a police raid after all, if the police officers will drag you by the hair to their lorry, if your friend doesn’t turn foe out of malice and blackmails you, threatening to destroy your family and/or career unless you pay hush money.
This tension and fearful uncertainty as a never-ending mental state-of-being, this everlasting need to hide, all that is devastating. But apparently still more tolerable then the fatal consequences of being outed. Nevertheless, the activists are hopeful. “If we manage to become independent from those who make our lives miserable, then we will have gained a lot”, said Isaac, one of the initiators of ‘Pride Uganda’, a confident and well educated young man. “Prostitution must not remain the only option for all those who were chased away by their families and ended up on the streets. We must focus on skill-building and facilitate professional knowledge in our community. We must find out, what an individual’s talent is, and foster that.” He realizes, this isn’t as simple as it sounds. But still: If an LGBT person manages not to need a boss, but instead finds a way to secure a small income through self-employment, then this already is a piece of independence which can contribute to his or her survival. Similarly, if someone owns his own hut and therefore doesn’t need a landlord. Isaac dreams of an LGBT commune which would be self-sufficient through agriculture and which could also serve as a place of refuge for runaways.
It would be presumptuous to claim I fully comprehend how life works for LGBT Ugandans after spending only that one week in Kampala. But I have understood that it is far more complicated than I had imagined to even master every-day life. And that as a gay man or a lesbian, let alone as a trans person, you are always defenseless and subject to purely arbitrary treatment by the authorities and to vigilante justice by your fellow citizens. Even though we felt safe as European tourists, it was an uneasy feeling to conduct our research in some of those densely populated slums. There I began to realize something we take for granted naturally here in Switzerland, and that is privacy. Something that simple does not exist at all in such places. Everyone knows everything about everybody – when they come, when they go, what they do and what they have. This is true for everyone, not just for LGBTs. When you live in such close quarters, it is almost impossible to keep a secret even something completely common – a new pair of sneakers, a new acquaintance, an illness. Everything gets noted, everything gets commented on. Now we have to imagine – or rather, we could try to imagine – what it must mean in such an environment to keep your own identity a secret. It means constant tension, deep suffering, and powerless despair.
Rainbow Support Network
President of the Board
Photos (c) Patrick Rohr, Jakob Keel