Alexis Okeowo
Alexis Okeowo

Fellowship Title:

Gay Ugandans Take the Law Into Their Hands

Alexis Okeowo
November 30, 2012

Fellowship Year

There are things many Ugandans know about Rachael Kungu: that she is a DJ who spins at clubs and house parties, that she is warm and approachable, that crowds adore her, and that, perplexingly, she is a lesbian. Kungu lives in a leafy, middle-class neighborhood in Uganda’s capital Kampala with her partner Michelle and their three-year old son. Kungu is a wiry, laid-back thirty-four years of age; when we met one bright afternoon, she was in a blue rock music t-shirt and plaid canvas shoes. A baseball cap sat on top of her skinny blonde-highlighted dreadlocks and oversized sunglasses covered her big dark eyes. “When I was a teenager, they used to not talk about homosexuality, ever,” she told me as we sat in her car, with the windows rolled down, in front of a supermarket waiting for Michelle to finish shopping. She came out to her aunt when she was a teenager, and the rest of her family has finally stopped asking when she will find a boyfriend.

“It’s changed. People talk about it more and you see a lot more people who are gay. Even in schools, you hear about it even more than before. When I was in school, I felt like I was the only one,” Kungu went on. She is friendly with Michelle’s mother, as Michelle is with Kungu’s aunt. Still, though, her relatives avoid talking about her love life, and one of her sisters is occasionally, and hurtfully, hostile about Kungu’s sexuality.

A tide of anti-gay hate has swept over Africa, where homosexuality is already criminalized in most countries and places like Uganda and Nigeria are proposing harsher measures against gays. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, commonly known as the “Kill the Gays” bill, was introduced in Uganda’s parliament in late 2009, and is the result of collaboration between The Family, a group of conservative American politicians, corporate executives, and non-profit heads who believe government should rule with religious principles, and Ugandan political and religious leaders like parliament member David Bahati, the bill’s architect. Other American evangelicals like Scott Lively, who has had anti-gay talks in Uganda since he first visited the country a decade ago, also influenced the drafting of the bill. In recent years, ties have strengthened between Uganda and the American religious right, who see the east African country as a ripe indoctrination ground.

If signed by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni into law, the bill would end all health and sexuality programs geared towards gays; the government could punish activists allegedly “promoting” homosexuality and, in Bahati’s words, gays “recruiting” minors; and homosexuals could be imprisoned with life sentences or, most alarmingly, sentenced to death. The Ugandan parliament revived the proposed legislation for debate in February. But gay activists refuse to back down from their struggle to kill the bill, and to gain acceptance in their conservative country.

In the car, Kungu waved her arm, on which there was a smiling skull and bones tattoo, as she described friends being thrown out of their family homes or a lesbian she knows who was beat up by men who lived in her neighborhood. Michelle, a baby-faced twenty-eight year old with a nose ring, returned with their son and slid into the back seat. The curly-haired toddler crawled toward Kungu. The women laughed as they told me the story of how they met eleven years ago at a club where Kungu was performing. As a general rule, they said, unless you do something provocative, you can avoid being attacked. That means no kissing in public, no hitting on men’s girlfriends at clubs, and no flamboyant behavior. People’s minds are being changed a little bit, they believed, slowly, and Ugandans will eventually get used to gays. It’s true that many call them beasts and sick in the head, but others don’t treat it like it is a big deal. “Somehow,” Kungu said, “we get along.”

To activists, the court is one of the best ways to fight discrimination against gays. If their cases are presented rationally, their thinking goes, they can’t lose. Last year, activists sued a tabloid after it outed and defamed scores of gay Ugandans, and a court ordered it shut down. A few years earlier, a transgender man won a judgment against policemen who had raided his home and sexually abused his friend. In March, the gay activist group Sexual Minorities Uganda filed a lawsuit against Lively, the American pastor, in a Massachusetts federal court for his participation in the effort to oppress gay Ugandans. The suit is based on a statue that allows foreigners to sue Americans for breaking international human rights laws.

On Valentine’s Day, prominent lesbian activist Kasha Nabagesera was leading a gay advocacy workshop in the city of Entebbe. It was soon raided by the minister for ethics and integrity, a zealous man named Simon Lokodo, who claimed the activists were “promoting” homosexuality. (Lokodo would also shut down another workshop just outside of Kampala attended by gay activists from around east Africa, and temporally detain some participants, in June). Francis Onyango, a human rights lawyer who works often with gay activists, filed a complaint on behalf of Nabagesera and others against Lokodo for violating their civil rights at the workshops. “We are fighting against the narrowing down of space for activists,” he told me.

Despite the court victories, Kungu still has questions. What bad things happen to her because she is gay or because she is just unlucky? There are times when it is obvious: people harass her because of the way she is dressed and ask if she is a boy or a girl; another tabloid called The Red Pepper ran a story accusing her of training kids to become lesbians; and a club manager was too afraid of controversy to hire her. Other times, it is not as clear: she and Michelle were robbed at gunpoint while leaving a now-closed gay bar late one night; and she was fired from a club where she played for many years without much explanation, leaving her, as always, to wonder. The instances that sting her most are when she is at a cafe with her sisters or friends and she hears whispered insults. “It’s upsetting, though these days it doesn’t happen so often. People like my music so maybe they don’t heckle me as much as an ordinary person,” Kungu said.

For the LGBT community, navigating the blisses and pains of living in Uganda – friends, love, and a rollicking, close-knit social scene, along with hateful discrimination – is no less difficult than running an obstacle course every single day. In early August, LGBTs held the country’s first Gay Pride parade on the shores of Lake Victoria in the city Entebbe. Police arrested and detained some attendees at the end, but the event was exhilarating and confidence boosting for marchers.

Nabagesera, who leads the gay rights group Freedom and Roam Uganda; Frank Mugisha and Pepe Julian Onziema, who run Sexual Minorities Uganda; and other grassroots activists have enlisted allies like human rights lawyers to aid them in their struggle to protect their civil rights, and hopefully make strides in the battles of public opinion. Onyango met the late David Kato, once Uganda’s most well-known gay activist, at a human rights conference in 2010, and Kato soon asked him to help defend the gay community since so few lawyers would. Onyango was struck by his openness. Kato was murdered during a robbery the following year, and activists and lawyers say they feel spurred on by Kato’s legacy of bold activism.

I spent a morning with Kim Mukasa, a gentle-mannered transgender male activist and lawyer who started to realize his sexuality when he tried to shave his face as a little girl. He is afraid to come out to his family, but refuses to give up his activism work. “I’m not doing this for myself; I’m doing it for the community, for the people who are hiding,” he told me.

The lawyers at a legal aid clinic in Kampala that defends LGBT Ugandans are on call twenty-four hours of the day. The clinic is housed in a nondescript building downtown to conceal and protect the identities of its clients and lawyers, who are harassed by police and government authorities when they take on gays’ cases. They were called in to Nabagesera’s workshop and successfully prevented the activists from being arrested. When the “Kill the Gays” bill first emerged, “people knew there was a state project to get rid of homosexuality,” one young lawyer told me. Police and local councils would act as if the bill was already law, and throw gays in jail, often with no charge or on a trumped-up offense such as bouncing a check.

Now, because of activists’ public awareness campaigns, police are reluctant to arrest anyone unless they can get an acquaintance of the accused to turn the person in; the accused is then charged with “indecent conduct” for committing an act like sending flirty text messages. “Everyone knows, including the police officers, that the intention is not to secure any conviction, and no conviction has ever been secured. It’s just to disturb, and to intimidate, and harass, and – in some cases – get money,” the lawyer said. But the climate is now less tense and angry. “People are just getting used to the fact that homosexuals exist. Change is gradual in a conservative society. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Before we parted, Kungu pushed a disc into her car’s DVD player to show me her latest music videos. The videos were filled with bouncy music and boldly colored clothes and settings. Her singing career has yet to take off. “My music could maybe be at a different level right now if people didn’t know I was like this,” she observed. “But some people’s minds will never change.”

Alexis Okeowo
Alexis Okeowo