The country may be homophobic and the politicians and clerics may be close-minded but that does not stop Uganda’s LGBT activists from charging on with hope and integrity.
On February 26, 2011 one of Uganda’s finest and most outspoken LGBT rights activist, David Kato, was murdered in cold blood in his home. Friends and activists called him the “grandfather of the kuchus”, a self-applied label by Ugandan LGBTs. GlobalGayz was privileged to interview him for this story in 2008. He was a brave and highly committed activist who pushed the struggle for gay rights since the 1990’s. Over the years he was jailed for his advocacy work and he was not afraid to go to public court to stop a Kampala tabloid from falsely outing suspected gays. He won. This story is dedicated to the memory of that braveheart, David Kato.
See the new documentary ‘Call Me Kuchi’ about David and LGBT Uganda.
By Richard Ammon
In contrast to Tanzania’s secreted activists, it was easy to meet Uganda’s (and other) major LGBT activists, almost at one time and in one place: at lunch on the veranda of a hotel in central Kampala, the capital of Uganda.
I was surrounded by gay Uganda’s best who are forging a gay place in the ethnic diversity of Ugandan culture (there are 50+ tribes) despite strong religious and legal proscriptions and despite personal traumas.
Representing different organizations were Kasha and Val from FARUG (Freedom and Roam Uganda), David from Integrity (gay Anglicans), and activist Victor Mukasa. These organizations, and others, form the coalition known as SMUG (Sexual Minorities of Uganda) co-chaired by Pepe Onziema and Frank Mugisha whom I met the next day in the same place. Also present were LGBT friends Daniel and Alban as well as other activists Pouline (GALCK Kenya) and Ruzindana (HOCA Rwanda). It ws a privileged meeting for me.
The efforts of these men and women are deeply inspiring as they work phoenix-like from the ashes of Uganda’s violent past and current homophobia as well as from their own personal dilemmas. Victor is fighting in court against the government’s breaking into her home for being a trans-lesbian; Pouline’s mother has cut off her law school funds because she is an activist; Ruzindana retreats as often as she can to Uganda to avoid being arrested in her home Rwanda; Kasha faces heightened threats and discrimination because of her public appearances and interviews; Alban’s family has thrown him out and cut off communication since he came out to them.
Yet, the work is being done. There has been a recent small shift in the government’s knee-jerk negative attitude to LGBT people despite 20-year-serving President Musaveni’s homophobia.
The change is due to the insistent work of Sexual Minorities of Uganda (SMUG) a coalition of several member organizations who coordinate the activities and communication among Uganda’s LGBT groups. (more below)
Each group operates in their own spheres of interest such as government lobbying, women’s rights, trans rights, gay men, lesbians, youth, HIV—about 350 people in all that SMUG helps to focus toward the higher mission of social and legal change in the country.
Awareness is slowly improving as SMUG presents itself on TV, radio, seminars and in person distributing leaflets on the streets as well as coordinating with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to increase their visibility and voice to the national government.
The informal ‘headquarters’ for SMUG and its member groups is a hotel veranda (not specifically named here to protect their use of the space) where they often meet to conduct business, share personal stories, and plan strategy. (One of the managers is gay, which helps explain the welcoming attitude.)
A few other venues in Kampala are also welcoming to gays on certain nights but cannot be named here for security reasons.
SMUG’s Uphill Struggle
SMUG leaders are publicly known and regularly harassed by the police whose discriminatory behavior is sustained by laws that criminalize homosexuality, fortified by the majority Christian view that same-sex life is an abomination and un-African. SMUG is not allowed to register as an official group because of the law and as a result cannot receive direct funding from various foundations around the world. To get around this block SMUG members have arrangements with other human rights organizations that channel donations to them. This despite Uganda being a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights since the Museveni administration came to power in 1987. The task of changing the anti-gay laws will not come soon but the members of SMUG keep chipping away.
An Irish foundation called has shown itself to be an aggressive defender of rights and has issued certificates and badges to certain activists in developing countries where violations are rampant. Several SMUG members proudly display their ‘Human Rights Defender’ cards on lanyards around their necks. This card is begrudgingly recognized by the police when David, Victor, Kasha or another Defender shows up at a jail after a person has been arrested or detained for insubstantial reasons. He/she will argue, often successfully, for the person’s release or arrange for legal counsel.
Frank, Pepe and SMUG
Frank Mukushu and Pepe are the new co-chairs of SMUG, elected in October 2007 to replace Victor who is going to work for IGLHRC in South Africa.
SMUG originally started with eight groups and with high hopes for an efficient and coordinated spearhead to combat homophobia in Uganda. But, not surprising for a country steeped in corruption and deception, here too duplicity appeared within SMUG groups. Some proved to be fraudulent, phony or non-productive, posing as gay/human rights fronts to elicit funds from unsuspecting international donors–some even headed by known gay people and assumed trustworthy.
As a result the SMUG Board ejected four of the original groups. Today SMUG members are: FARUG (Freedom and Roam Uganda), Integrity Uganda, Spectrum Uganda and Icebreakers Uganda. Another group, Queer Youth Uganda, will possibly join the coalition. SMUG is supported by charity organizationa and concerned individuals inside and outside Uganda.
Frank is an university graduate in Information Technology. Pepe (photo right) is a transgender lesbian with a certificate in counseling
and a Diploma in Procument–she majored in Clearing & Forwarding. More than a few times have her counseling skills been in demand especially as word gets out about SMUG and its support for gays just coming out.
Frank said there is currently no LGBT group at Uganda’s most prestigious University, Mekerere University, (with a student population of 38,000) and that any effort is strongly opposed by religious groups there. Indeed, on my visit to the campus I saw mosque and church buildings in prominent locations very near the library and science buildings. The major anti-gay influence is a Pentecostal pastor who has influence beyond the school. As if this opposition were not enough, Frank and Pepe reported the devious campus activity of a sham ‘gay group’ headed by an off-campus individual (“one man and a computer, said Frank) whose real purpose is to cure gays by prayer.
In 2008 SMUG’s projects include dialoguing with police to establish a non-confrontation alliance in an effort raise their awareness of LGBT issues and nature. A major intention is to have MSM included in the National Strategic Plan for health care and AIDS prevention activity. Unlike Kenya, MSM are not currently a targeted group for educational materials even though they are a high-risk category. Some government ministers still believe homos don’t exist and that it’s a white man’s import–except in the prisons where genocide-era prisoners still harbor rape and sodomy impulses, according to the health minister.
Further, SMUG work involves ongoing educational events to raise public awareness about ‘healthy homosexuality’ by holding conferences, workshops and seminars at colleges, training schools for social workers and health professionals.
As well, SMUG works to lean on the media to increase tolerant attitudes and fair press coverage. The major newspaper, state-owned New Vision, has not been virulently anti-gay in the past year, suggesting SMUG has had some effect there. More scurrilous is the homophobic Red Pepper paper that is more sensationalistic and self-serving; this is the rag that publicly outed gay people last year in their pages with screaming headlines about homos in Uganda. Shocking as it was for the moment—and for increased sales–within a few days their tactic had dissolved into shrug for many people (they had more serious things to worry about such as earning a minimum wage, about US$50/month.). But even as this negative hateful coverage was intended to hurt gays it also served a contradictory purpose—to let people know in bold headlines that gays very much exist in Uganda.
Always a cat-and-mouse game, raising awareness can also lead to some trouble. Independent radios stations have been fined or threatened with closure for broadcasting live interviews with LGBT leaders such as Victor and Kasha and, more recently, with two gay men which really fired up the moralists’ indignation. Perhaps women can be allowed a certain ‘weakness’ but not Ugandan men! Callers to the station declaimed against the “obscene language” of the interview even though sex was not mentioned.
It doesn’t help that the Minister of Information is fundamentally homophobic, which also brings up the whole issue of the freedom and rights of the media toward a government known to be fraught with deception and corruption. History–thick with violence and repression and power wars–is a heavy mantel worn by Ugandans and any effort to change the fraudulent imbalance of power or change sexual attitudes is met with official resistance.
But leaders like Frank and Pepe are committed to the attitude shift. In 2007 SMUG held three public talk events, including a notorious ‘press conference’ in Kampala at which they described the bigotry LGBT people face in the country, “drawing attention to the state-sponsored homophobia and trans-phobia they face every day,” the media reported. “They called themselves the ‘homosexual children of God’ and demanded that attacks on LGBT people stop. Some of the activists wore masks for fear of being identified, while others shocked journalists by outlining the brutality they had faced at the hands of police. Trans people are also targeted by police and regularly subject to abuse and harassment.” For quote source, see http://www.globalgayz.com/uganda-news07-01.html, #22
“Our struggle is advancing, with ups and downs, and our task is to encourage our community to follow us and then slowly to bring round the public—a lot of work over a lot of time,” said Pepe.
Gay Uganda’s First Book
An important achievement was the publication of a book—the first in Uganda—titled ‘Homosexuality-Perspectives from Uganda’ published by SMUG and edited by law professor Sylvia Tamale from Makerere University (mentioned below). The book is easily available in bookstores.)
It was issued prior to ‘the British Commonwealth conference (CHOGM—Commonwealth Heads of Government in Africa Meeting—former British colonies) in November 2007 in Kampala.
This conference also included a populist People’s Forum hosting hundreds of NGO charity and educational organizations, including SMUG who were please to show off the new book at their stall.
At that same Forum FARUG (Freedom and Roam in Uganda, a lesbian activist group) presented its newsletter entitled ‘Break the Chains’ that lobbied for increased gay recognition. Also, as part of their campaign ‘Understanding Sexuality: A tool to Self Realisation” they published a major report: ‘Domestic Violence and HIV/AIDS among LBTI Women’.
As a result of SMUG and FARUG efforts, assisted by the book’s presence, the Forum proposed—among its 119 recommendations–that the rights of minorities, including gays and lesbians, be recognized in its substantial memorandum issued at the end of the five-day event.
Needless to say, Ugandan ethics minister James Nsaba Buturo dismissed the recommendations of the Forum on gay and lesbian rights, insisting that “homosexuality has no room in this country.” But his comments sounded hollow against the success of SMUG’S determined effort to be heard and seen. See http://www.globalgayz.com/uganda-news07-01.html, #28
SMUG’s intention was to display the book as part of a bold statement that ‘we are queer and we are here’ despite virtue-less church voices raised against the ‘anathema’ of homosexuality. These voices were lost in the crowds at the meetings, however, and quieted down as SMUG insisted on their right to present themselves. (For more on the struggle for presence at CHOGM see: http://www.globalgayz.com/uganda-news07-01.html)
Victor the Bold
Prominent activist Victor Juliet Mukasa is one of the most articulate and well-known activist in Uganda who speaks with a clear firm grasp of the state of affairs for LGBT people in the country. His life so far has been one of achievement and change. In October 2007 he was hired by IGLHRC to represent Africa, along with Carey Johnson, in IGLHRC’s world-wide monitoring and intervention on behalf of LGBT rights.
Talking over lunch, Victor offered a succinct overview of the gay situation here.
“There have been big changes here in the past year or two. Prior to 2006 gays and lesbians were isolated and scattered. But some important changes, symbolic and real, have shifted the scene from deep in the closet to beyond the door. There is a new wave of LGBT activism among us and we are ready now to be more out and active,” claimed Victor.
What are these changes and what has caused them?
An important event, both real and symbolic, is the court case Victor brought against the police for their invasion of his privacy when they invaded his home in 2005. “What began as a personal grievance has expanded to become a cause celebre for SMUG to raise awareness of gay issues and in so doing it has helped mobilize our community,” Victor said.
“It was the first time that we as a homosexual community had banded together to fight back against repression and discrimination by the government. A number of SMUG members actually sat in the courtroom during the proceedings to demonstrate their visibility and solidarity.”
(David Kisule’s successful suit against his illegal job dismissal, described below, in 2004 was a personal victory and did not expand into the gay community at large. His courage and integrity, nevertheless, served as an inspiration for Victor and SMUG.)
Another source of change has been an increased infusion of funding from international gay-supportive organizations in Ireland, Holland and USA.
An unfortunate problem has arisen in recent times in Uganda as more HIV and gay-friendly money has begun to flow in: scam gay-friendly organizations that have popped up pretending to advocate for health and rights. Some donations have proved fruitless for the intended recipients and wound up enhancing the pockets of fraudulent individuals, including one clergyman who built himself a fine mansion with the money while producing no visible LGBT rights or health benefits.
David Kato Kisule and Integrity
David Kato was a Board member of SMUG and leader of the Anglican gay group Integrity which counts about 35 members in its regular membership. As usual here in homophobic Uganda David’s and Integrity’s and SMUG’s stories are infused with troubles and travails.
The Uganda branch of the worldwide Integrity was inspired to form by a Ugandan Anglican bishop, Christopher Senyonjo, (photo below) who is sympathetic to LGBT rights. But this support cost him his position in the church as he was ex-communicated by the archbishop in Kampala in the 90s. Still committed to his calling and compassion, Bishop Senyonjo continues to live in Kampala and his pro-gay stance remains strong: Integrity holds Sunday services in his office.
David’s (photo right) personal life has not been free of homophobic problems. He was bashed in the head by an assailant three years ago for being gay. Instead of cowering in shame, David took the man to court and won his case that resulted in a four year prison term for the perpetrator. The case received the media attention he wanted on behalf of LGBT rights and justice in Uganda.
As well, David was embroiled in another situation in 2004 of blatant anti-gay discrimination when he was dismissed from his position as head teacher in the school where he taught. Refusing to be treated wrongfully he took the school to court to expose the discriminatory action that was based not on evidence but hearsay that he was gay.
Initially the school tried to claim he was dismissed for stealing school property and David was put in jail for three months. When released he decided he had to stand against such injustice so he hired a lawyer and sued. In court the school’s case unraveled and their underlying discrimination was exposed which result in a victory for David and his being reinstated as a deputy teacher (English and math), but not as head teacher as before; the school insisted his position had been filled.
As we spoke, David was accompanied by a friend John who sat quietly listening to David’s articulate and fervent testimony. I briefly turned to John to inquire about him and was again I heard another dose of Ugandan cultural injustice. John’s parents had separated when he was a teenager and his father remarried in recent years to a woman with a child. Fearful that the husband’s estate and funds would go to John she has persuaded John’s father to stop paying for his son’s college studies. John described the situation in a resigned tone without apparent bitterness or emotion, probably knowing this kind of disengagement between father and son is not uncommon here. I met other SMUG members whose parents had interrupted their university studies by withdrawing financial support.
As described at the beginning of this story, David Kato’s life was cut short when he was murdered in his home. The details remain sketchy; some say the assailant was a pick-up date that went bad, others say he killed David motivated by homophobia.
Kasha and FARUG
Another of SMUG’s leading ladies is Kasha whose gentle demeanor belies her tenacious in-your-face activism. She has made a name for herself by interviewing as an open lesbian on TV and radio as well as public speaking at such prominent meetings as the World Social Forum in 2007. Some organizers at the Forum tried to block her speech but she brushed past them and spoke to the assembled crowd about gay rights being human rights.
She is articulate, clear-minded and has a vision for gay Uganda’s future, particularly by means of FARUG that she help form in 2003. Now a well organized association it originally emerged from a discussion at a bar among students from their university that coalesced into a joint effort to offer a more assertive voice to many scattered lesbians in Kampala. Adding political activism to the social function of the group met with some early resistance but no one forced the issue, so the ‘socialites’ could continue their fun and the pols could push for gay rights and gender equality.
To attract more members and widen their appeal, FARUG included sports activities such as soccer, rugby, volleyball and billiards.
FARUG focuses on women’s issues, which are many, including domestic violence, rape and FGM (female circumcision). Last year they published a poster about domestic violence that was displayed in major cities. In this effort she was pleased to see gay men also helping to coordinate the project. Currently there are 74 members, some in the closet, some not, some residing abroad.
Also in 2007 FARUG published its first newslatter ‘Break the Chains’ published for their awareness campaign in both Luganda and English and included personal profiles, a discussion about domestic violence and HIV/AIDS among LBTI women. The awareness campaign was called
“Understanding Sexuality–A tool to Self Realisation.” ‘Break the Chains’ is also FARUG’s motto.
After 5 years as FARUG’s head, Kasha handed over control to a new leader, Val, this year.Kasha will then consult with FARUG on local and international matters, especially helping the LGBT community become better organized in Zambia, Uganda’s homophobic neighbor to the southeast.
She will also continue her membership in SMUG which always has a full plate of challenges, especially getting homosexuality decriminalized in Uganda. This crucial step would make HIV and AIDS education to MSM more viable and bring the laws closer to modern reality that gays are a crucial part of the HIV population (as helpers and victims).
Kasha’s life as an outspoken public lesbian has not been an easy one. She has been repeatedly threatened and once assaulted for her public pro-gay stance on TV and radio and at Kenya’s WSF and Uganda’s CHOGM 07. The threats are serious enough for a funder to grant Kasha public taxi fare whenever she travels around Kampala.
Undaunted by the challenges in her native country, Kasha is firm in her commitment: “Many people are laughing at us saying that we are wasting our time fighting for gay rights because we may never live to see that freedom. But I don’t care not to see freedom in my lifetime. The issue is, have I left a foundation for the future generation to carry on the struggle! I intend the answer will be yes!”
Where does she derive her courage and strength?
“It comes from the social adversity around my community and my personal frustration and indignation at the injustice of it. It is time to make a change; it is unacceptable that we are discriminated against for no inherent wrong within us. The ignorance and hypocrisy of our adversaries can be seen as a weapon of our defeat or an inspiration of courage against them. I’m doing this for the next generations as well as my community today.”
Alban and His Family
Alban is a 23 year old baker and party arranger and a friend of SMUG. We met by accident as he appeared at the SMUG ‘HQ’ one afternoon. He offered to show us around town and the mixed-gay hangouts.
There are three he identified, each hosting a gay night once a week. However, SMUG leaders requested these places not be disclosed in this story to protect the continued patronage of LGBT customers. The paranoia from homophobia is very real and visceral in this country.
Along the way Alban stopped to say hello to gay friends, some working in a hair salon in a gritty crowded shopping center (where the electricity had gone out, again, and all the hair dressing was being done outside); another friend was walking in the opposite direction in the car parts district dressed in a casual manner that made him invisible as a gay person.
Alban himself knows well the consequences of being out or outed. His staunchly Catholic family rejected him, indeed ejected him, from their house when he was found to be gay. Now he has no communication with any of his three siblings, parents or extended family. If he wants to visit a supportive friend in his home area, he goes at night.
To add to his personal chaos, he intends make the transition from male to female (M2F) some day. He said F2M surgery is available in South Africa but M2F is not; for that change many trans folks travel to Asia. Since trans people are few in number in Africa, he lamented there were no older role models in Uganda for him to turn to although he did say there was one older (37) F2M person in Kampala whom people affectionately call ‘Auntie’.
Alban was one of several people I met who did not have full time employment. I asked how they supported themselves and, not surprising, he said friends helped out with loans and favors which he repaid when work came his way.
(A few days later I read Uganda has a 40% unemployment rate, but this is hard to verify because farmers compose 80% of the workforce and it’s difficult to define ‘employed’ among agrarian peasants.)
Alban’s cell phone was recently stolen and he did not have the $25 to replace it so he borrowed it from a friend. Just as native tribes (Alban is from the Munyankole tribe—same as President Museveni’s) usually help each other out, so do the outcast LGBT ‘tribe’ members help one another as their needs arise.
The Un-named Bar
Like many social venues near the equator this place is an enclosed outdoor bar and restaurant just on the outskirts of Kampala, in the direction of Makerere University. On Saturday nights its music theme is “karaoke/campus night till dawn” followed by “hot Sunday with queen dancers (karaoke and invited artists)”.
The LGBT crowd piles in on Sunday nights to get down and dance close with anyone they like–but not grinding close or you might be asked to leave. Occasionally there are lip-sync drag shows that never fail to arouse the crowd. The queers know they are welcome here and respond with faithful patronage and respect for the rules. The manager is easy going and the handsome DJ sports dreadlocks and keeps the folks moving.
Courage and the Future
The effect of all this frisson is that SMUG is no longer just a talk show. Reorganized to be a more efficient and productive activist group, Victor, Val, Kasha, David and the new co-chairs of SMUG Frank and Pepe are determined to raise the level of integrity and conduct of gays folks to become a true community in solidarity, to formulate policy and strategies for the long struggle ahead.
Victor concluded, “we can’t afford any more to be merely a paper organization. There must be transparency on our ranks as well as accountability; we must clarify our goals, issues and actions. We won’t allow phony or corrupt LGBT front groups to be with us now that we’ve begun to pull in serious international funding.”
Speaking in her office at Makerere University Law Faculty, Professor Sylvia Tamale (photo right), editor of the ‘Perspectives’ book, said the High Court Justice Arach who heard Victor’s court case, is a woman of integrity and is very unlikely to sacrifice her honor and principles for political expediency—and will likely rule in Victor’s favor since the police action was so blatantly illegal. And of course the self-righteous politicians and clerics will declaim her decision as un-African and blasphemous.
I walked around the university observing students, faculty, the library, administration and other buildings (happening upon the convocation installing the new chancellor). As mentioned above, I noticed a church and mosque on the campus, thinking to myself how enmeshed are religion and culture and politics in this country and how far the quest for true equality has yet to go.
Professor Tamale’s last words as I left were, “the struggle goes on.” On the wall of her office I noticed a quotation: ‘the gates of history turn on small hinges–so do our lives. The choices we make determine our destiny.’ Gay destiny in Uganda is indeed a small hinge-a turning hinge.
Links to stories about David Kato’s life and death:
(photo right, David)