On May 16, while walking from the high-end Serena Hotel to a flea market in downtown Kampala, Uganda, Chhitup Lama, a blind Nepalese man, was holding on the elbow of Bau Bautista who was guiding him as they traversed the city.
Out of nowhere, policemen appeared to tell the two “not to hold hands” since doing so was “not allowed”. Apparently, these policemen assumed that the two are in a gay relationship and the “touching” was a PDA (public display of affection), which was a no-no for them.
When told that Chhitup is blind, they backed out. “Oh,” one of them said. “Good job, good job.”
This – in a way – encapsulates what it’s like to live as an LGBTQI person in Uganda…
WHAT YOU HEAR IN THE NEWS
“The news you hear (about LGBTQI people in Uganda while) overseas, those are true,” said Jay Mulucha of Fem-Alliance Uganda to Outrage Magazine. This is because it’s still a crime (to be LGBTQI) in Uganda; and there is a lot of crimes (directed against) LGBTQI people in Uganda,” including “attacks, being taken to jail… So the situation is (still) not that good).”
Jay, a transgender man, experienced how dire the situation can be in Uganda. He was actually expelled from school after his teammates (while a varsity) found out he’s part of the LGBTQI community. “They didn’t know me as a trans person; they knew me as a lesbian,” he recalled. This news “went around the university and they had to expel me because of who I am.”
But Jay said that this gave him “the courage to come out to everyone”
Because of who he is, “my family is not comfortable with me,” Jay said. Fortunately for him, his only sister sides with him. “She says she will never walk away from me because I’m still a part of the family and no matter what they do, (we’re of the same blood) and she can’t do anything about that so she will still support me. The rest of the family is not okay with me.”
All the same: “This is me and I don’t care about anything else.”
USING THE LAW AGAINST THE PEOPLE
The laws of the land have repeatedly been used against LGBTQI people in Uganda.
On September 29, 2005, for instance, Pres. Yoweri Museveni signed a constitutional amendment prohibiting marriage equality.
Then on December 17, 2013, the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 was passed, mandating life imprisonment for aggravated homosexuality. While it was eventually annulled by the Uganda Constitutional Court, it was NOT because the law was illegal; instead, it was on a technicality, and that because “not enough lawmakers were present to vote” on the law. Meaning, a similar law can still be passed… with the needed number of politicians advocating anti-LGBTQI sentiments.
Most recently, in April, Pres. Museveni went on a media blitz to denounce LGBTQI people again, using the erroneous line of reasoning that being LGBTQI is a “foreign” introduction, that it is “wrong” and that “the mouth is for eating, not for sex”.
But according to Isaac Mugisha of Spectrum Uganda, “were still there; we’re still not giving up.” He added that “we believe that it’s the right of every Ugandan to walk everywhere and to get service.”
Isaac is, by the way, helming the organizing of Pride in Uganda, which the government often cancels.
CHALLENGING LIFE, CHALLENGING WORK
Working with the LGBTQI community is – obviously – challenging.
For instance, “you don’t want any LGBTQI people to be affiliated with you” as it could put them in danger, Isaac said.
But this is also because not many LGBTQI Ugandans come out and are willing to say “I am LGBTQI”.
For Ruth Muganzi of Kuchu Times, “You risk a lot by (coming out and) sharing your story. But it is also very important for us to be very visible.”
Isaac said that “every time mainstream media (released) stories about the LGBTQI community, these were negative stories that (made) other Ugandans react violently against LGBTQI people. When you put out a story that says that gay men are raping children, or that we’re recruiting children, of course it invokes a sense of anger from community members that are (to start) already (not supportive of us because) of the assumed cultural and religious perspectives (that oppose us).”
Ruth is first to say that working for – not just living as part of – the LGBTQI community is “difficult, but it is something that we anticipated.”
Jay, of course, said that even the local LGBT community still needs to be educated – e.g. it is still not very familiar with trans issues, leaving many issues of the Ugandan trans community unattended. Not to different from a country like the Philippines, in Uganda, “many people think that a trans person is (just) a gay person,” Jay said. While – yes – a trans person can also be gay, the very idea of being trans is still completely foreign to so many people.
FINDING ONESELF… IN CHALLENGING TIMES
Spectrum Uganda’s Sultan Muyomba said that there was a time when he tried to “convince myself that I am not this or this,” he said. Until one day, “I said, I can’t fight myself; it’s like fighting nature.”
It remains hard, Sultan said. One time, for instance, he and a friend had to bribe another “friend” who – upon knowing that they are gay, could have put their lives in danger by blackmailing them.
“The Ugandan system is broken,” Ruth said, noting that – at times – LGBTQI people are used as scapegoats so people forget how bad the country’s situation is due to government actions/inactions.
Incidentally, Uganda still has numerous “traditional” practices many may find “antiquated” – e.g. during pamamanhikan (that is, when the groom-to-be visits his would-be in-laws), he is not even supposed to see (much more touch) his mother-in-law. The reason? Because he may end up eloping with her, not her daughter.
“But we volunteer, we sacrifice because we’re fighting to survive,” Ruth said.
“Are we hopeful? First of all, the Ugandan LGBTQI movement has done a lot. In 12 years, we (now) have our own clinic, we have our own outspoken advocates, we are providing our own legal services… We’ve done a lot of advocacies that has allowed us to get this far. We’re not the same movement that we were 12 years ago,” Ruth said. “There is hope. We just need to keep pushing. Every day is about pushing.”
Jay seconded Ruth, saying that in 12 years, a lot of change has happened. “The LGBTQI community members stood up to raise their voices.” In fact, “a lot of LGBTQI community has come out and learned to fight for their freedom.”
And to continue this fight, Jay said that the help of other LGBTQI communities (perhaps in other countries) can give them a boost. Having said this, Jay isn’t a big fan of so-called keyboard activists (i.e. those who just “sit back”), but those who come and give them support (even if it’s only to share notes on activism, and how to move forward) are always welcome,” he said. “This strengthens our work and keeps us moving.”
For those interested to visit Uganda, you may apply for a visa HERE. The visa is also available on-arrival at Entebbe airport. Rates start from $50. Note that only those with yellow fever vaccine are allowed into the country (the yellow fever card will be checked upon arrival).
There is always a threat of civil unrest (particularly 50 km of Uganda’s border with the DRC and to the Karamoja region, and within 50 km of Uganda’s border with South Sudan). Similarly, there are health notices on the Zika virus and Ebola.
Though of course, there, too, is the issue of the treatment of the LGBTQI people, particularly those whose gender expression is not aligned with their assigned sex at birth, just as there are issues with PDAs…