In the face of prejudice and persecution, the Ugandan gay rights movement has
crafted a surprising victory
When I met John Abdallah Wambere, known by his gay activist nom de guerre
Longjones, my first thought was: 'Will that shirt get him killed someday?' We
had arranged lunch at Fang Fang, an upscale Chinese joint in Kampala, Uganda,
and I'd wondered whether I would recognise him. Then he walked in and even my
(often unreliable) gaydar pinged immediately. He had a certain out-and-proud
swagger, and his rainbow bracelets and pride jewellery rustled and clicked as
he walked. He was indeed long, topping out at nearly two metres, not counting
the unpruned stalks of dreadlock growing out of his head. And the shirt. Bright
purple, hanging like a bright gay sail on the dark mast of his frame, it seemed
to propel him forward with the breeze.
He cut quite a different figure from the one you might expect to find in 'the
world's worst place to be gay', as a BBC documentary described Uganda in 2011.
During the past several years, a broad societal revulsion toward homosexuality
has erupted into frank attempts to identify, persecute, and ultimately execute
gays. David Bahati, a parliamentarian who is now the ruling party's chief whip,
proposed a bill in 2009 calling for imprisonment not only of gays but also of
those who fail to report them. Repeat offenders could be executed, although
Bahati assured the documentary's reporter Scott Mills, a gay BBC Radio 1 disc
jockey, that he strongly preferred rehabilitation to hanging.
I came to Kampala to meet Longjones and other gay activists, as well as those
who wished to oppress, jail, and 'cure' them. The anti-homosexuality bill never
passed, but Bahati has reintroduced it in every legislative session since. When
I arrived, parliament had moved its deliberation behind closed doors, so no one
knew whether it would pass this year or, for that matter, this afternoon. The
bill's fate remained a mystery and, at any moment during our meal of fried rice
and tofu, we could get news that the knock of a gavel had put Longjones on a
path to the gallows.
But anti-gay plots in Uganda had something special about them — the intense,
abiding attention of the Western media. Since they learned about the
persecution of gay people in Uganda, a cavalcade of filmmakers, journalists,
and human rights activists has descended on Kampala over the past few years to
bring back story after story about the worsening conditions for gays, and the
fraught lives they lead, pinched between the threat of lynching by the common
man and prosecution by the government.
Why was Uganda, a country of sickening anti-gay hatred but no executions,
whippings, or anti-gay pogroms, singled out as the worst of the bunch?
These reports exposed — as they should have — the religious roots of some
Ugandans' recent obsession with the sexual lives of their countrymen, and
showcased the bravery of gay activists. And they raised interesting issues
about the unintended effects, positive and negative, of foreign outrage on what
was, just a few years ago, a quiet domestic struggle for social justice. Since
this planet is blighted with societies where gay people are jailed (Egypt,
among many others), flogged (Saudi Arabia), or stoned to death (Iran), the
question might reasonably be asked: why was Uganda, a country of sickening anti-
gay hatred but no executions, whippings, or anti-gay pogroms, singled out as
the worst of the bunch? After all, the anti-homosexuality bill never passed,
and it doesn't take much to imagine how Saudi Arabia would react to the rainbow
accessories of Longjones.
For a while, it might well have seemed to outsiders as if anti-gay pogroms
were imminent. But with the deft sidestep of a martial artist, the gay rights
movement in Uganda has used that moment of ghastly bigotry to raise its public
profile, and some of the more extreme elements of the anti-homosexuality
brigade have retreated into strategic silence. The situation is still volatile,
but the roles have switched in an unpredictable way. I came to Uganda to find
I arrived in Kampala with the recommendations and introductions of Malika
Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright, who made Call Me Kuchu, the
latest and best of the documentaries about gay life in Uganda. Their film has
debuted in festivals and cinemas across Europe and the United States, and the
gay activists whom it features have often been present to introduce it to the
audience in person. 'Kuchu' is slang for 'gay', and a term that gay Ugandans
have appropriated for themselves — something like the word 'queer'. On 19 June
2012, it premiered at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco — the centre of gay
cinematic culture in the US — and the Ugandan guest at the event was Longjones.
When I met him later, back in Uganda, I heard a voice familiar from the film
(and, I later realised, from a gay-bar scene in the BBC documentary, too). It
was a soft tenor with a Fozzie Bear tone, very hard to mistake. The Castro
Theatre audience moved him profoundly, he told me. 'They gave me standing
applause, and I cried and cried.' To that audience, he was a warrior back from
the front. In Uganda, he was fighting battles that San Franciscans had long
since won or nearly won — for the rights to marry, to be safe from workplace
discrimination, to enjoy medical care from doctors who wouldn't blame them for
their diseases. And the film showed that those battles are, in Uganda, ongoing
and at times bloody.
Among the film's villains is Martin Ssempa, a Pentecostal pastor who is
probably the most flamboyantly anti-gay person in Ugandan public life. Ssempa
is a former breakdancing champion of East Africa, and now a born-again preacher
with a homosexuality obsession that borders on the pathological. He takes
particular interest in anal intercourse and coprophilia. A YouTube search for
Ssempa's name will load up your browser with clips of the pastor before his
congregation, describing outré gay sex practices and exhibiting extreme gay
porn to emphasise its degeneracy. (Stories have it that some of his congregants
began to have doubts about him at around the time of such demonstrations.)
The hero of Call Me Kuchu is David Kato, often described as Uganda's first
openly gay man. More accurately, he was the first Ugandan gay activist, in the
modern sense of aggressively and openly fighting for the freedom to live his
sexual identity in public, and demand the same acceptance that heterosexuals
enjoy. He introduced Zouhali-Worrall and Wright to other gay Ugandans, and
gradually the subculture crept into daylight for their camera.
Going public took guts. Ugandan society is squeamish even about straight sex.
It wasn't always like this, however. 'In some traditional religions,' one
Ugandan gay activist told me, 'spirits would tell people to engage in same-sex
activity, and they would say: "My spirit says to do it with a same-sex
partner!" That would be accepted by the community. And people who had sexual
differences were looked at as different and were assigned different roles in
the community. They were not outcasts.' But that was before Christianity.
Missionaries from colonial times followed by new mission efforts from the
Pentecostal churches have been highly successful in converting Ugandans, so
'now, people began saying the practice is an "abomination". That word is
imported by Christianity.'
Uganda is quite possibly the most religiose majority-Christian country I have
ever visited. On the road into Kampala from nearby Entebbe airport, I counted
churches until I ran out of fingers, toes, and teeth — and we had just barely
reached the city limits. When I woke up on a Sunday morning, ready to go in
search of a Pentecostal service where I might meet God-fearing Ugandans with
strong feelings about homosexuality, I was told by my hotel's manager that I
could simply join the Pentecostal revival that would convene for its weekly
service within the hotel itself — and sure enough, within minutes I was
surrounded by well-dressed Ugandans speaking in tongues, then listening to a
sermon about moral degradation.
So Kato and other gay Ugandans suffered for their sexuality more than they
probably would have in the pre-Christian era. (Ironically, the Christians
accused homosexuals of being 'un-African'.) And when Kato went public to assert
his rights, his activism provided a pretext for anti-gay forces to whip up a
frenzy of hate. Tabloid newspapers discovered a new favourite noun for their
banner headlines: sodomy. They began featuring names and photographs of private
individuals whom they accused of 'criminal deviance'. Nearly all faced severe
consequences, including loss of jobs, family, and personal safety.
It was the funeral, not the murder itself, that confirmed his transformation
from a beloved friend to a hero of gay liberation
Chief among the papers was Red Pepper, still the most prominent and salacious
Ugandan tabloid. It makes The Daily Mail look like The Proceedings of the
Aristotelian Society, and it is certainly the most degrading and outrageous
newspaper I have ever wanted to subscribe to. Its editors shamelessly delight
in the shame of others. It functions as a daily print edition of the Ugandan
id, with semi-nude women on every front page and a penchant for sex stories,
including constant sodomy 'exposes': 'MAAMA FIINA IS A TIGRESS IN BED'; 'Wicked
Hot: This Model Will Set Loins Ablaze'; 'Kanyeihamba in Sodomy Attack'.
Red Pepper began outing gay people in August 2006, as the gay issue became
hotter and surer to entice readers. Copycats followed, and in April 2009 , the
weekly tabloid newspaper Rolling Stone (no relation to the gay-owned American
music magazine) promised '100 PICTURES OF UGANDA'S TOP HOMOS', adding in the
banner headline 'Hang Them', in case anyone mistook their photo essay for an
act of appreciation; Kato was on the cover. A few months later, in October
2009, Bahati submitted his bill.
Call Me Kuchu shows Kato in 2011 asserting his rights to privacy, equality and
humanity before Ugandan courts and against the religiously driven campaigns to
destroy and criminalise him. It shows him living alone in a simple house in
Mukono, just east of Kampala, with a rainbow flag on his window sill. And it
closes with Kato's defiant words: 'They kept on saying we are not here. But of
late, we are here.'
On 26 January 2011, shortly after filming, he was found in that home murdered,
his skull bashed in with a hammer.
Longjones knew Kato well and, as our fried rice cooled, he told me how news of
the murder percolated through Uganda's gay community. 'We knew that people
wanted us to be killed,' Longjones says, 'but we did not expect it to happen in
such a manner. At a demonstration, you expect violence. But we did not expect a
homicide.' What they got was a brutal, premeditated, daylight assassination.
Longjones went to Kato's home the next day. 'What I saw — the blood, the brains
— it was really terrible,' he says. 'They cleaned away the blood in the living
room because they didn't want his mum to see it. But in the bedroom, all the
blood had soaked in the mattress. It couldn't be removed.'
But it was the funeral, not the murder itself, that confirmed Kato's
transformation from a beloved friend to a hero of gay liberation, Longjones
says. Uganda's gay community converged in Kato's home village for the ceremony
— only to find that the local pastor Thomas Musoke wanted to use his death as
an opportunity to berate his survivors. 'After everyone had given speeches,
this guy comes up and says, "I knew David and talked with David. And he cannot
repent anymore. But you people can, and you must. And we pray that his whole
clique perishes." That is where problems started, and we could not tolerate
this man anymore.'
'Do you know what it means when you lose someone you love so much, someone you
see as a mentor?' Longjones asked. 'You just… get tired. You get fed up. And
you don't care what consequences come your way. What happened at the funeral
just made everyone get sick and tired.'
Kato's death made international news, and served as confirmation of Uganda's
reputation for gay-hatred. Much of the Western diplomatic corps attended the
funeral and watched appalled when the pastor called for the death of Kato's
mourning friends. And by turning the mentor into a martyr, it moved the Ugandan
gay rights struggle into its next phase.
There was only one problem. No one really knew who killed David Kato, or why.
He was a man with many enemies. The legions of gay-haters looked like prime
suspects. They were, after all, loudly calling for his execution from their
pulpits, parliamentary rostra and editorial pages. But other suspects included
the newspapers he had successfully fought for their violations of privacy and
decency. Each of these had financial interests and powerful backers.
Even in death, Kato has been dogged by rumour and innuendo. Many of his
detractors have reason to cast shadows over his legacy, and some have claimed
his assassin was a jilted lover. A human-rights activist in Kampala told me the
police even knew Kato's new boyfriend (were they vetting his romantic
partners?) and saw trouble coming. 'The guy you are relating with is a common
criminal,' they allegedly said. 'We warned him, and he wouldn't listen.' If
these rumours are false — there is no clear evidence for them, though they are
widely believed — then Kato would certainly not be the first gay activist whose
death has been blamed by his (self-satisfied) opponents on his sex-life.
Eventually, a man called Sidney Nsubuga Enoch (some would say a scapegoat) was
prosecuted for murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison, but no anti-gay
motive was acknowledged or discovered, and Kato's friends remain unsatisfied by
The organisation where Kato worked, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), soldiers
on, and its employees (all friends of Kato's) preserve his memory through
advocacy work. It serves as an umbrella group for non-governmental
organisations (NGOs) and coordinates their political and social work on
lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) issues. Their advocacy
has, if anything, grown more aggressive since his death — and has quite
possibly become more effective because of it. When Kato began, Uganda had no
LGBTI groups. Now, there are so many that, on the outskirts of the city, far
from the bedlam of downtown, they need SMUG just to keep them in line.
I followed intricate directions to get to SMUG's offices, set in a suburb of
Kampala nearly an hour from the city centre during daytime traffic. That hour
could easily stretch into two if you take a car. Instead, I had clung to the
back of a boda-boda, or motorcycle taxi, and weaved through traffic perilously,
stopping at no fewer than five separate roundabouts so my driver could ask
directions to the quiet hilly neighbourhood to which Frank Mugisha, SMUG's
director, had told me to report. The last few kilometres I traversed by foot,
along a red dirt road next to a hot, green gully. During my 10 days in Kampala,
that empty road was the one place quiet enough for me to hear cicadas singing,
and the rustle of vegetation in the September wind.
Mugisha is Kato's heir as the most prominent gay activist in Uganda. The small
one-storey house across from the gully is mission control for SMUG and, by
extension, much of the Ugandan gay rights movement. He has been 'out' for more
than 10 years and, as Kato did before him, he faces frequent death threats.
Unlike Longjones, nothing about Mugisha appears stereotypically gay — except
perhaps the bright yellow T-shirt he wore when I met him in his office, with
'SAY NO TO BAHATI'S BILL' stencilled across the front. An IT specialist by
training, Mugisha is as short as Longjones is tall, and impeccably mannered and
dressed. The T-shirt was anomalous: he told me he has more than 20 suits. Like
all the gay activists I met in Uganda, he is so attached to his smartphone that
some form of surgical implantation might be a reasonable consideration.
Mugisha's number is public, and the phone whistled and jingled constantly.
Usually, it is gay people and gay activists who want a word with him, either to
congratulate him or to ask advice. But there is an occasional menacing voice
threatening to do to Mugisha what was done to Kato nearly two years ago.
Harassment forced him to move out of his home a few years ago, and to another
about an hour from SMUG. 'I found my car tyres slashed many times,' he said.
'You shouldn't get surprised if you read in the news that I have been attacked
along the road, or this place has been set on fire.'
But international interest in the gay rights movement has altered the equation
of power and visibility significantly. Bahati's bill, first submitted in 2009,
took the anti-gay frenzy a step too far by seeking to enshrine bigotry in law.
The US State Department under Barack Obama began treating the anti-
homosexuality issue as one of the major sticking points in smooth relations
between the countries. And the international outrage, Mugisha said, made Uganda
irresistible for journalists wanting to write about social justice.
'Now we are talking about social identity. We are talking about family. We are
talking about what you can do to accept your child if he comes to you and says
'That's why all these stories have come out. That's why we are so famous!' he
told me, with admirable candour. 'If I was leaving my house and broke my leg or
got killed, it would be horrible for Uganda. The whole world would just say,
"They killed another one! These Ugandans are horrible!"' The New York Times and
the BBC were among the major news outlets that reported on Kato's death, and
even more would note the slightest attack against Mugisha. Once, being an out,
gay activist made one a magnet for attacks. Now it confers a measure of
Cynics have wondered whether the activists are in it for the fame.
'Organisations that support gay rights walk openly in this town,' one Ugandan
human rights worker told me, implying that foreign and Ugandan activists have
overblown the threat of persecution. 'If Bill Clinton comes here, he will meet
you [meaning gay Ugandans]. You get to hang out with bazungu [white people],
and they give you awards.' The international activist community has certainly
adopted Mugisha as a star; last year, the Robert F Kennedy Center for Justice
and Human Rights garlanded him with its Human Rights Award, and he now travels
frequently for appearances and overseas work.
Mugisha said he has, in fact, declined the most valuable offers. 'I have a
really high profile, and I could snap my fingers and get a job with an NGO or
get asylum in any country,' he told me. 'Ugandans think it's about money. But
when they see that you are doing hard work, and talking to them about
challenges and discrimination, they start to understand that this is a real
Most remarkably, the Bahati bill itself has turned into a catalyst for exactly
the conversations that Mugisha wanted Ugandans to have. There is a strong taboo
in Uganda against talk about sex of any type, he told me. And the mere mention
of homosexuality once forced unwanted images into their minds of two men having
anal sex. 'If you talked about homosexuality, they would ask, "Oh, so you want
to talk about anal sex right now? Sorry, we won't accept that,"' Mugisha said.
Now the ubiquitous talk of homosexuality has ground down the taboo, and allowed
the discussion to move to more relevant areas. 'Now we are talking about social
identity. We are talking about family. We are talking about what you can do to
accept your child if he comes to you and says he's gay.' When Mugisha shows
someone his business card, the words on it no longer trigger a mental film-reel
of gay porn, but an image of fully clothed legislators talking about the merits
of their bill.
'The bill has its pros and cons,' Mugisha admitted. 'It has created dialogue.
People can actually talk about homosexuality. And its extremeness has made
people question it. Even faithful Christians are asking why they are being told
to report their own sons and daughters.'
So Kato's death and the anti-homosexuality bill have, oddly, flipped the old
status quo. Once gay activists congregated in the shadows and feared the anti-
homosexuality bill, now they seek out sunlight and see unexpected advantages to
it, vile though it is. Gay people face most danger when they are closeted,
trying to stay invisible, and get unexpectedly outed.
Ironically, their tormentors are the ones who have been sent scurrying into
the shade. I approached David Bahati — the Young Turk legislator who has led
efforts to pass the anti-homosexuality bill — by email, phone, and in person in
his office. He dodged me at every pass, perhaps because nearly every interview
he has given to international media has made him appear fanatical and
intolerant, and has shamed Ugandans sensitive to international human rights
standards. More and more Ugandans have spent time abroad and been exposed to
more tolerant cultures — even neighbouring Kenya is considerably more LGBTI-
friendly — and few of them like seeing their home country associated in
international headlines with intolerance and social norms that have been
extinct in the West for decades.
And then there are people such as Martin Ssempa, the frothing-at-the-mouth
pastor who showed gay porn to his congregation to whip up their anti-gay
feelings. I wanted to meet him to find out about his current preoccupations,
and how his position on the gay issue had evolved. 'This may well be the most
painful interview of your life,' one human-rights worker advised me when I
asked for his contact details.
Ssempa first demanded to know my purpose, and then asked for a few hours to
decide whether to speak to me. Then he called me and invited me to come to the
Buganda Road courthouse on Monday to observe him 'stand up for the rights of
those who have been sodomised', and he drew out that last word into three
stressed syllables (what my Classics teacher would have called a 'molossus'),
savouring each one like a rich dessert melting on his tongue. It turned out
that he had been named as a defendant in a lawsuit by another pastor, Robert
Kayanja, brother of John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York. Ssempa had accused
Kayanja of 'sodomising his flock', a charge that the Buganda Road court
eventually ruled calumnious. Ssempa was ordered to pay a million Ugandan
shillings (£240) and perform 100 hours of community service.
There are many who would prefer that the professional gay activists shut up
while they get on with the complicated business of both hiding and expressing
I tracked down Ssempa between court sessions, before the verdict was
delivered. He wore academic regalia and surrounded himself with acolytes. When
I finally caught him, he shook my hand gregariously and almost immediately
excused himself. 'I have an urgent need to go to the toilet,' he said,
promising to meet afterwards. He then slipped out of the building and did not
The arc of social justice has contorted itself in unexpected ways. Ssempa and
Bahati surely consider this a sign of these benighted times. Even so, most
Ugandans still support their efforts to criminalise and persecute homosexuals.
Politicians fear the condemnation of the international community if they
support Bahati's bill, but they face domestic unpopularity if they don't —
probably the reason why the bill continues to be frozen in process. Both sides
of the struggle seem to agree that most Ugandans abhor homosexuality — and for
that reason there are many who would prefer that the professional gay activists
shut up while they get on with the complicated business of both hiding and
expressing their sexuality.
Pepe Julian Onziema, a transgender man working at SMUG, guessed that two in
five LGBTI Ugandans prefer life in the closet. Consider that figure: nearly
half the constituency that SMUG tries to represent would prefer not to be
represented. They have families, they have affairs, and they stay as far from
SMUG as possible. 'I get threats from gay people, too,' Mugisha says. When they
call SMUG to berate them for raising a ruckus and potentially disrupting their
closeted gay lives, Onziema, who received a Bill Clinton Global Citizen Award
for his work, says he's protecting the closeted gays of Uganda by personally
assuming the burden of dealing with public questioning and intolerance. 'They
think we are really crazy, and we are blowing their cover,' he says. 'We tell
them, "We are doing this for you". But they say, "We did not ask you to do
this."' Uganda has no radical gay group that outs closeted gays, like OutRage
in the UK. Red Pepperdoes that well enough without their help.
Geoffrey Ogwaro, a lawyer who coordinates a coalition of organisations
opposing the Bahati bill, told me that there is a cohort of wealthy, well-
educated gay people who disdain the politics of the movement, despite being
potentially powerful allies for it. Often snobbish about their socialising,
though less picky when looking for anonymous sex, they 'want nothing to with
the politicisation', Ogwaro told me. 'They will say, "We've lived our private
lives, and we've had fun and had our parties and we have no issues with anyone.
Suddenly, you guys are politicising this whole thing and ruining a good thing
By staying closeted, of course, they enjoy none of the protections that high-
profile activism confers. If outed, they can be hounded by mobs: if they are
lucky, Mugisha will get their panicked phone calls at SMUG and send a rapid-
response team to whisk them to safety before the crowd gets violent.
It seems the anti-homosexuality bill has poked a hornet's nest of anti-gay
sentiment and those who have benefited most are the radical activists on either
side. Those caught in the middle are the closeted majority, trying to maintain
a quiet sex life and keep out of the line of fire, reluctant to upset the
I did meet gay Ugandans whose lives felt considerably more tense than those of
Frank Mugisha, Longjones, or Pepe Julian Onziema. Stosh Mugisha, who also
features in Call Me Kuchu, vetoed several lunch venues before I came up with
one where he felt comfortable. No relation to Frank, Stosh is, like Onziema, a
preoperative female-to-male transsexual, who at the time of filming self-
identified as a lesbian. And over lunch, Stosh rehearsed a gripping and awful
story of rape, attempted suicide, and contracting HIV, culminating in a
jittery, paranoid life forced into the public eye by Red Pepper. 'Do you know
stuff about STOSH MUGISHA and where she lives? Call the editor on 0782025368'
the paper invited. Another female-to-male transsexual, Nikki Mawanda, described
a narrowly circumscribed life. Only a few places in this large city were safe
havens: 'First, I go to Speke Hotel [for food or a drink], and then I go to the
movies, or to a play. And then I go home.'
Once inside their safe havens, even Stosh and Nikki lived in a way that was
somewhat open and unguarded: when we met at the Speke, Nikki was not merely
comfortable but loud, proud, and uninhibited. And Stosh, like Longjones, wore
gay pride jewellery and insignias that could, if he had wanted to, be left at
home. They both relished their roles as activists. Stosh seemed excited to be
flown to a Russian screening of Call Me Kuchu, and Nikki was happy to have
found a way to make a living advocating a cause he believed in. Plenty of
international donors wanted to throw money at this problem, he said. 'If you
make a proposal, you can get money for activist activity.'
Of course, they deserved to be proud of their bravery, and the knowledge that
their work would probably save the next generation of gay Ugandans from the
same tabloid treatment. But it did make me wonder about the role of victimhood
here. The gay rights cause in Uganda started with violent persecution, which
escalated with the Red Pepper and Rolling Stone outings, the ridiculous and
self-defeating anti-homosexuality bill, and the murder of David Kato, however
ambiguous the motive. That persecution was originally wholly terrible. Then it
became terrible, but also useful. Once the persecution had provoked a certain
level of outrage, especially internationally, the tide reversed dramatically.
Now status as a public victim is a protective talisman as well as an income-
generating activity, and there is a perverse incentive to revel in it for the
cameras, or, when meeting with journalists like me, to report it as a perpetual
'People ask me: "Do you even get out of your house?" They portray us as just
victims. I don't like to be portrayed as if we're not even here.'
Radicalism still works — and it works best when there are radicals on both
sides. Bahati and Ssempa pushed their agenda, and Kato and Mugisha pushed
theirs, until the conflict reached a climax so atrocious that the world couldn'
t ignore it. Now, NGOs such as SMUG could continue their work under
international protection. But activism has to be vigilant about rhetoric and
reality if it is to maintain credibility. Among Ugandans and foreigners
focussed on human rights in Uganda, the success of the loud and smartly-
executed gay-rights effort has drawn some exasperation, because Uganda has
multitudes of social justice issues, and the prominence of LGBTI issues comes
at the cost of crowding many others from the limelight. Indeed the only other
issue in African to attract comparable attention recently was the Kony2012 film
which contained its own striking, rhetorical excesses.
Jacqueline Kasha, a lesbian who heads Freedom and Roam Uganda, one of dozens
of LGBTI NGOs, calls the anti-homosexuality bill 'Uganda's Nuremberg Law' — a
comparison that sits uneasily with many Ugandans, gay and straight, since
persecution of gays in Uganda hasn't reached (and isn't likely to) anything
like those in early Nazi Germany, gearing up towards the Holocaust. Frank
Mugisha cringed when I mentioned it. 'We lose legitimacy,' he said. 'Our
government says we're just being vocal.' If there is a lesson from Kony2012 and
the LGBTI struggle, it might be that the relationship between accuracy, honesty
and succesful activism is a fraught, but important one.
Even Call Me Kuchu, Mugisha told me, struggled to resist the narrative of
victimhood. 'It made me sad,' he said. 'Some journalists come here and they
ask, "Tell us about the threats!"' The threats, he said, don't 'really
represent the movement. People ask me: "Do you even get out of your house?"
They portray us as just victims. I don't like to be portrayed as if we're not
In fact, he said, the pro-LGBTI organisations have strategies and tactics, and
are proceeding successfully and by their own wits. Ugandan civil society and
government are complex entities, and neither is simply at the mercy of
unopposed reactionary forces: the trap of seeing things in binary terms has
been sprung often enough by Western activists. African social-justice movements
are just as byzantine in their webs of power and protest as Western ones, and
therefore no victory is permanent and no setback final.
Even the passage of an anti-homosexuality bill would not be a doomsday
scenario. Frank Mugisha, for one, seemed confident that even if Bahati's bill
was passed, 'it couldn't be implemented'. He pointed out that existing laws
already criminalise 'carnal knowledge against the order of nature' (a colonial
inheritance) yet this law is seldom enforced. 'Who has ever been arrested,
detained, and put to jail?' he asked. 'If the law is passed, are they going to
put cameras in people's bedrooms?' Mugisha said he expected the Constitutional
Court to strike it down, although human rights lawyers I spoke to were less
certain. 'Even the courts are part of society,' said Nicholas Opiyo, a
prominent human rights lawyer.
Before I left, I wanted to see the Ugandan gay community in a candid moment,
outside the stilted atmosphere of formal interviews. By chance, my visit
coincided with a 'rainbow' event — one of a series of queer-friendly
spectacles, this one at a bar called the Tilapia Cultural Centre.
The owner, David Cecil, a friendly British expatriate, found himself
unintentionally thrust into the activist crowd after he allowed a play to be
staged there in the summer. The play, The River and the Mountain, had a gay
character, and Cecil, who is straight, was accused of 'disobeying lawful
orders' for staging it without authorisation. He spent four days in prison and
was released on bail in September, but his passport was confiscated. When I met
him at the Tilapia centre's bar, it seemed that nearly all of Kampala's out
gays had convened there too, for a talent show and dance.
Openly gay Kampala isn't a huge community, and I recognised many from my
interviews. Longjones was MC. Stosh, looking very at ease, gave me a little hug
and introduced me to a few lesbians. Frank Mugisha, a young godfather to the
whole community, showed up around 11pm and was forced by an adoring crowd to
give a few seconds' worth of remarks.
That the talents failed to scandalise me was only because I had previously
seen much more provocative queer spectacle in places such as London and San
Francisco, not to mention Martin Ssempa's YouTube videos. A few male performers
donned skimpy, gold-trimmed drag outfits and pranced onstage, each trying to
outdo the other's arse-wiggling. Longjones called for the audience to scream
out for their preferred wiggler, and in his gentle Muppet voice he pronounced
the competition a tie.
The night ended early for me, which is to say not too far into the morning.
When I emerged from Tilapia, I was slightly surprised to see that the place had
no security at all, just an open-air staircase from the road, down which dozens
and dozens of flamboyantly dressed homosexuals had descended for hours, without
harassment. At the bottom of the steps, they were grinding with each other on
the dance floor without fear.
At the top of the steps, some boda-boda drivers lingered, perhaps to wait for
fares, to gawk at the flagrant sinning, or to indulge their bi-curiosity. I
couldn't tell which drivers came for which reason, but I knew none was there
for killing. The gay rights movement in Uganda is still young, I thought, but
that seemed like a good start.
Pubblicato da Lorenzo Bernini