This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
It’s already illegal to have sex with someone of the same gender in Uganda. For three years, religious activists have prodded the African nation to impose more severe punishments.
Ugandan lawmakers are again debating a bill that would impose lengthy sentences on people for homosexuality, less than a year after shelving a similar proposal that originally called for the death penalty. Gay activists say the country has grown increasingly hostile: Activist David Kato was slain last year after a Ugandan newspaper published his name and photo under the headline "Hang them!"
What is it like to be gay in a country where it's essentially illegal? The Times talked to Jay Abang, 28, a program manager with Freedom and Roam Uganda, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex human rights organization trying to combat the law. Abang is an openly lesbian activist in Kampala.
How have attitudes toward gay people changed in Uganda?
I think it’s getting worse by the day. The community is so ignorant and misinformed. People straightaway think it’s about sex. They don’t think about the person as a human being. It makes it very difficult to change someone’s perception. And they think it’s a choice.
Some people say "they can be counseled, they can get out of that.' They say it’s not our culture, it’s against the Bible. And for the lesbians, they call us haters. They think we just hate men.
The general public is quite hostile but you try to behave. For me, behavior is very important. I try to behave myself, [so] that if anyone wants to attack me in any way, they don’t have an excuse.
Just this Tuesday we organized a workshop on leadership, advocacy and planning, which was invaded and disbanded by the minister of ethics. We don’t know how the word got out. A gentleman came and said he was from the president’s office. We said, “You are not invited, can you step out?”
He asked for the training material, which was given to him. A few minutes later the minister comes in with his aide and accuses us of telling people how to recruit people to be gay. They made us leave.
He also said we were having sex in the room. (laughs) But this has caused a lot of insecurity for LGBT persons, especially because this happened just after the bill returned. You cannot tell how safe you are.
Do you think that if Uganda passed this law, they would actually enforce it? Or is it just symbolic?
I’m very sure they would enforce it. They’re determined. I think there’s a lot of pressure on the government side. The government is being blamed for a lot of things, corruption, problems with health care, civil servants being lowly paid. They want to show they’re doing something. I think they’re trying to please a particular section of Ugandans by hurting the fundamental rights of LGBT Ugandans.
What are you doing to fight the proposed law?
Right now we are looking at, can the international community organize? Could we meet with the parliament legal committee? We’re trying to see if we can talk to the president or ask the international community to put pressure on him.
What was it like coming out as gay in Uganda?
It’s not easy. It’s not. Especially for people who dress the way we do, not the typical lipstick, you can be easily identified. And the community is not that receptive, starting with family to begin with. Most times when you’re an LGBT person in Uganda you realize the only option is to run away from home because they will be the first people to disown you. So you disown yourself.
I left home because my family really did not agree with my sexuality. I knew it wasn’t safe for me anymore. My clan was planning a meeting asking my father to disown me.
I fear going back there. Last year we were running a campaign, trying to create awareness about the plight of LGBT persons. I was part of a team that went to my hometown, Lira, in northern Uganda.
The whole town knows I’m a lesbian. And they accused me of recruiting because we were putting up posters that said “Hate no more,” and “Stop sexual violence against LGBT persons.” They said I was giving money to recruit people. People called into our office hotline and said, “If you come back we’ll kill you.”
I rarely go back home. The accusation was around March. I didn’t go back until December for Christmas, and then I just snuck back. I was there for about two weeks but kept a very low profile.
My father, I’m worried about him because his name was all over the radio. They accused him of not teaching me to be a proper woman. It worries me. I imagine they can do anything to him. He doesn’t really talk directly about my sexuality, but I think inside his mind he’s like, “This is my daughter, I cannot throw her away.”
What other problems do gay people face in Uganda?
One of our major problems is eviction. Most of us rent houses. Once the landlord knows you’re an LGBT person they evict you from the house. It’s become a very big problem for most of us.
There’s also extortion. Someone will say, “I’m going to report you to the police.” You meet someone and they go to the police and say, “So-and-so tried to recruit me.”
There’s harassment in bars, any open spaces really. Especially for lesbians. The boda-bodas [bicycle taxis], normally when we pass them, they say, “We shall kill all of you, make you proper women.”
With all of the hostility out there, how do gay people meet in Uganda?
We used to have a place; it was kind of a bar where people would come hang out. Most of the other hangout places we’ve been beaten or chased out. So we decided to create our own safe space, which eventually was also closed down.
Freedom and Roam has a Friday afternoon meeting for our members; we share ideas, watch movies, talk about a lot of things. But when our offices were raided last year, we decided it’s not safe enough. We don’t really have a safe space. We do still have the Friday meetings, but members fear to come because of security issues. We call them and say “Please come,” but you can’t force anyone to come when they fear for their own lives. Right now you cannot trust in where you’re going.
You mentioned before about not dressing with “the typical lipstick.” How does the way you dress and look impact your life?
I’m easily identified. When people pass, they say, “Is that a man, is that a woman? Oh, it’s a lesbian.”
Did you ever try to blend in and avoid that, not be identifiable?
This is me. Take it or leave it. I’m not going to change it for anyone. If you don’t accept me, fine. I’m not going to change to please anyone. For me, for a long time, I was in the closet. It’s the worst place to be. By the time I came out I said, "To hell with this. I’m just going to be me."
How old were you when you came out?
I think I was about 17. I was still in secondary school. I think my teachers were the first to know I was lesbian. The first time I was expelled I was 14 years old -- for being a lesbian.
I was expelled from so many schools. By then already I knew I was a lesbian. I had this feeling. I even had partners in school. That’s how they found out.
What sorts of things do you see in Ugandan newspapers about gay people?
A lot of horrible things. There’s the whole accusation of recruitment. Even the headlines sometimes are so disgusting. I remember one was, maybe a month ago, something like, “Global Fund refuses to give Uganda money because of gay rights.”
[The Global Fund disburses resources to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. The independent newsletter Global Fund Observer at the time said the fund had canceled a round of grants "in light of the Global Fund's financial difficulties."]
[Updated 10:32 a.m. Feb. 20: The Global Fund said a panel of independent experts turned down the proposal mainly because significant funds from an earlier HIV grant were still unspent, raising doubts about Uganda’s ability to take on a much larger grant before it invested the resources it already had.]
If you look at that literally, you’re like, is it because of these guys that we’re not getting money? The point is they embezzled the money, it’s not because of gay rights!
[Another Ugandan newspaper, the Daily Monitor, reported this month that Uganda got less money than other African countries “because of corruption and earlier mismanagement of the fund.” The Global Fund has suspended funding to Uganda in the past because of concern about mismanagement.]
You should have seen the reaction. People said, “These people should be killed” and yet it wasn’t true.
But after the workshop was raided, a lot of people started making statements that the fundamental rights of Ugandans are being abused. A lot of people have come to write in our support.
What do you think it will take to change attitudes about homosexuality in Uganda?
This whole thing started from the church. When the fundamentalists came in 2009 and preached about gay issues, they started talking ill about LGBT persons. To me, we have to go back to the church and continue the advocacy and awareness. How do we do that is what I don’t know. Uganda presents itself as a very, very Christian nation.
You mentioned that attitudes toward gay people have worsened. Do you think the proposed law came out of attitudes that already existed or created them?
Before this proposed bill, not so many people really minded about gay people. Some would tell us that we’re confused.
But after the proposed law, a section of born-agains started coming out, printing pictures of torn anuses, saying, “This is the result of being gay.” There were a lot of nasty things, telling parents, “This is what your child will become, they’ll be sick, they’ll be HIV-positive.” They said we wanted to recruit children into homosexuality. That fueled the hatred.
You talked earlier about the international community. What part do other countries play?
Even when the bill was first introduced, it was the pressure from the international community that stopped it. Some countries came up and spoke and said, “This is not right.”
So please, continue with the fight. For those of you that can speak out, please do. Uganda being mostly dependent on aid, they could listen.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Ugandan gay activist David Kato is featured in a book during a memorial service for Kato in Kampala, the capital, on Jan. 26. He was slain a year earlier. Credit: Michele Sibiloni / AFP/Getty Images