Aug 152012
Gay Pride in Uganda Photo by Gerald Musa Sentongo

Imagine being unjustly deemed a paedophile by your country. Imagine being arrested because of your very existence. Now imagine facing death for loving the ‘wrong’ person.

This has been an everyday reality for the LGBT community of Uganda past and present. The international media inundate those of us outside Uganda with news of appalling discrimination befalling the gay community, but rarely do they show us the vitality and fortitude characterising these fearless individuals. From the official printing of the names and addresses of homosexuals in newspapers in October 2010, to the murder of gay activist David Kato in January 2011, the media takes a largely myopic view of what is a far more complex issue.

Ntare Mwine, a Ugandan-American actor and playwright felt it his duty to dispel some of these misconceptions and turn all eyes of the world to Uganda.

Ntare’s honesty was striking from the beginning. He described with openness the misconceptions he too had had about the way Uganda’s gay citizens lived. “I was surprised when I got there because of the vibrancy of the LGBT community and fearlessness of the people I met. There were all these different organisations; there were also a couple of gay bars that were operating. There were people living open and out lifestyles. From the outside, we just hear all the fear and hatred – that’s what’s so shocking, to get there on the ground and to see that actually, communities have mobilised.”

“We are here!

We are Ugandans!

We are African!”

Ntare is softly spoken, not the hot-headed activist you often expect. He has written a play, titled A Missionary Position, which has already been performed in LA: “I felt like by sitting silent I was somehow complicit or contributing to the problem. I wasn’t lending my voice so to speak, to furthering the dialogue. It was uncomfortable to be silent.”

Written this time last year, A Missionary Position was the product of five months in Uganda, living amongst the gay community and hearing their stories and experiences.

The voices that Ntare Mwine came into contact with during his time in Uganda came to be articulated through the play’s four characters: Brigadier Bigamanus, a transgender woman, a lesbian activist and a gay priest – all read by Ntare himself. Whilst the subject matter of A Missionary Position is harrowing, he didn’t underestimate the importance of forging a connection with the audience: for this Ntare used, to my initial disbelief, comedy.

This was embodied particularly in the character of the transgender woman, as she described sexual encounters with graphic frankness, much to the amusement of the audience. This was a reaction Ntare was pleased to see, as he explained: “humour is such a good way to deal with pain and suffering sometimes… There was a communal recognition that goes on when that laughter happened.”

It’s clear that Ntare enjoyed creating the piece, especially the creative license it gave him with characters like Brigadier Bigamanus, a government official who is zealously homophobic. “There’s a certain double-speak to Brigadier Bigamanus, when he says one thing, if you listen to it with a different ear, it can be completely something else…” It is possible to sense a tone of mischievousness in Ntare’s voice as he continued: “The language is almost sexualised, that sort of lent itself to an opening up of different possibilities, so really although it is not said openly in the play, I think of Brigadier Bigamanus as a closeted bisexual or a closeted homosexual.”

A Missionary Position received abundant praise and support in LA, and Ntare plans to perform it in as many places as possible, including Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Not everyone shares his commitment to LGBT rights, however, as there seems to be a general absence in other artistic movements aimed at raising awareness about the issue. Ntare puts this into a harsher perspective when he explains that the reluctance of people willing to speak up extends far beyond the Arts, to “doctors, lawyers, religious leaders, business people.” He elaborates, “In all professions there’s not enough people standing up for equal rights. That’s not just something isolated in Uganda, that’s going on in many countries of the world.”

As Ntare rightly points out, “when it comes to social aura, it takes time”. This is sadly the case in Africa: 38 of its 53 nations continue to criminalise homosexuality. All of this serves to signpost the international responsibility to resolve the situation. And yet reports indicate that American Evangelicals have been central to the promotion of the 2009 anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda.

“It can’t just be the LGBT community speaking up for themselves that’s going to make a difference. They need allies. When you look at the civil rights movements in any country it’s not just been the minority that have been able to affect the change themselves, they have had to have a coalition of sorts…”

Ntare Mwine’s voice will continue to be an influential one in both Uganda and the USA in his calling for the liberation of the gay community. But as I gradually learn, it is not the only one – it is just one of the loudest at present; as I go on to discover an Atlantis of initiatives spearheaded by Ugandans aimed at thwarting the machinations of the government.

Another major victory for Uganda’s gay community came in the health sector. An incredible amount of stigma and ignorance surround the issue of LGBT health, which encouraged the prominent organisation, ‘Icebreakers Uganda’ to open the first LGBT clinic in the country’s capital at the beginning of June.

That this facility has opened in the centre of Uganda is a resounding message that the LGBT community won’t be put down. Many fear intimidation as a result of accessing mainstream healthcare. As award-winning activist Frank Mugisha explained, “there are people who go and, because people know that they are gay, talk about you and your look, and there is a fear to go there.”

Such discriminatory treatment forces many gay Ugandans to stop accessing vital healthcare, or causes them to lie to doctors about their medical records to avoid detection. The problem is exacerbated by constant speculation over the newly amended anti-homosexuality bill, which, despite the removal of the death penalty, still seeks to imprison those found guilty of homosexual acts for life. The bill still hasn’t been passed, but gay citizens fear doctors have already started disclosing their patient’s sexuality, and are thus deterred from accessing proper healthcare.

This new clinic should assuage such fears. Although in its infancy, it is a step in the right direction. It provides free, confidential advice and health services, with a particular focus on treating STDs, especially HIV/AIDS.

The Ugandan Minister for Health, Richard Nduhura disputed the necessity of such a facility, stating, “We don’t discriminate and marginalise when it comes to offering health services.” The duplicity of Nduhura’s statement is telling as to the ingrained homophobia within government. In the past he has openly lied about the extent of the persecution of gays within health facilities, as well as implying that discrimination and marginalisation do in fact exist, just separately from health services.

The LGBT movement is, however, gathering pace. The country’s very first Gay Pride event took place just over a week ago. Sadly coverage of ‘Beach Pride Uganda’ was minimal, being mostly confined to a secret Facebook group, and other cautious methods within the participating organisations themselves. It is, however, indicative of the movement’s pro-active approach to spreading awareness.

Intrigued to find out about what happened at the event, I spoke to Clare Byarugaba, who is an activist working with the Ugandan branch of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, as well as a key organiser of the event. As its name suggests, the aim was to foster and build upon a sense of pride, in the face of discrimination, as Clare triumphantly declared: “We are here! We are Ugandans and African!”

Celebrations at last week Beach Pride event; Photo Credit: Pepe Julian Onziema

Central to anti-gay rhetoric are the notions that homosexuals do not exist, and those that do are un-African – notions which this event undeniably disproved.

After months of organisation by leading LGBT activists, Beach Pride 2012 began. Taking place in the city of Entebbe, the event had a diverse programme, with themed parties, a fashion show in drag, an official pride march at the beach, as well as there being “lots to drink, share and eat,” as Clare elatedly told me.

Police raided the event early on, arresting activists including Kasha Nabagesera, executive director of Freedom and Roam Uganda. Clare admitted attendees felt a level of insecurity after the raids, as “people were shaken, especially those who are not activists.”

But this fear was short-lived. “Afterwards…we went straight to the venue of the after-party. Even on Sunday, the official closure of Pride, people still came and celebrated the last day, despite the fears and the occurrences of the earlier day, because we felt that we had achieved our objective!

“It was electrically charged, festive, happy, optimistic, and sombre at times… Even when police came, we stayed put, no one tried to run away, there were people on stage dancing while the police were watching…they had to threaten to confiscate the machines for the music to finally stop.”

Glitter and spray paint were everywhere, with Kasha sporting multi-coloured hair and homemade angel wings. Other attendees donned rainbow accessories and outfits, and transgender members came out in full drag. In addition to these fun and extravagant displays of pride, there was a film festival which showed docufilms surrounding gay issues.

A milestone such as Pride 2012 requires more than just a few words. Clare excitedly explained that on 3rd August, Uganda’s Civil Society on Human Rights and Constitutional Law received the 2011 Human Rights Defenders Award from Hillary Clinton, as part of her world tour. Clinton also spoke to President Museveni in person about gay rights in Uganda.

The message emanating from this in support of the LGBT community cannot be understated, as Clare indicated: “This has been very significant in Uganda and has brought a new face to the protection of human rights that this is not just an LGBT issue, but a human rights issue, and it is everyone’s mandate to protect these rights.”

Despite the ultimate success of the event, Clare recognised the great difficulties in repositioning the mentalities of the general public, who are virulently opposed to homosexuality: “Trying to change attitudes to curb homophobia and discrimination is a very uphill task.”

What can the international community do? Clare does not demand much. “Keep an eye on Uganda”, she says simply. She believes pressure from abroad has greatly hindered the passage of the anti-homosexuality bill.

Ending positively, Clare reminded me of the many lessons that have come from Beach Pride, most memorably that “you cannot wait until your situation is better before starting to make your lives better and meaningful.”

As one writer put it, in many African countries, there remains a “love that dare not speak its name”, but in Uganda, recent events and the tireless efforts of a few show this ‘love’ is being kindled into many voices. It is a chorus that looks set not to be silenced.