We are Here, We are Gay, and We are Ugandans
On December 20, 2013 the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was passed in the Ugandan parliament. The Bill was first introduced in the parliament on October 2009. Under the guise of protecting family values, it proposed life imprisonment for anyone engaged in homosexual activities and the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”. The Bill exposed anti-gay feelings in an openly homophobic society that sees itself as showing to the rest of the world how homosexuals should be dealt with.
I started the series in early 2010 when vast majority of people in the gay community I spoke to didn't want to be identified and their stories were untold. After discussions with activists, I chose back portraits.
For a while it seemed that the Bill will never pass. Then, it was reintroduced in the parliament in late 2012. In the new version, homosexual acts are punishable with 14 years in prison, while aggravated homosexuality will bring life sentence. The Bill was signed by the president to become the law on February 24th 2014 and the future of Ugandan LGBTI movement is uncertain.
In 2013, I revisited the same people, all of them now LGBTI activists, to see if or how their lives and views have changed. In three years, as a reaction to the draconian Bill and to continued outings, and as a result of their activism, the people I met became more empowered, assertive and confident. Despite the risks most are willing to face the world.
"This guy asked me whether I was married. I said no, I love men, I don't love women. He was interested, we exchanged numbers. We met the next day and he took me on his boda (motorcycle). Then he said he had run out of fuel, so I got off. There were policemen waiting. One slapped me. The one from my tribe said I was shaming them. He said he would call the media and put my picture in the newspaper. I got very scared. They took me to the police station. I had to write that I wanted to sodomize the guy. I refused. They were humiliating me, pushing me with their guns. They told me the guy wanted 1.5 million shillings. I had 15,000 in my wallet. They took it. I said I could raise only 300,000. It was money to pay my brother's school fees. I hired a taxi and went to my place with two policemen. The driver and one policeman stood outside. I went inside with the other policeman and gave him the money. I was released at 3:00 am."
“If people ask me [about my sexuality], I say, 'yes, I am (gay). Do you have problem with that? What can I help you with?' Some really want to know about it, get more information. Then we talk about heterosexuals who sleep with their daughters, infect young girls with HIV. I say, 'I'm gay and that's it. I don't do these things. We should talk about those people, that they go to jail. We should talk about malaria, corruption... why are we looking at gay issue and not at serious issues?' When you have that conversation, they start doubting what they were told about you. I've won over so many people like that.“
"The problem is the way I dress. Everyone is asking, 'is that a boy or a girl?' In clubs, when ladies can get in for free, they push us, tell us we are not ladies and that we have to pay. They scream: 'Is she boy or a girl? Is that man or a woman?' As tom-boy, everyone looks at you."
“I used to stay with my parents. Now I'm independent, sustain myself with food, clothes, house. I have a lot of freedom. Before I couldn't stay out long, couldn't be free with my friends. I now live with my girlfriend. Neighbors think we are sisters. No problem. Maybe only when we move around, I don't know what is in people's minds. But it's the most wonderful life I've had since I was born. I'm happy.”
"I was blackmailed. This guy stole my phone. He was seducing boys in my neighborhood. At that time he was staying at my place and I told him to leave. In the morning he stole my phone. Clients were calling and he told them: He is homosexual and he's gonna be arrested. My boss came and asked me about it. I told him 'I'm here, let the police come and arrest me.'"
“I try to talk to people one-on-one, even to boda (motorcycle taxi) drivers and some are positive. They tell me, 'why should people be bothered, be outed in papers? If two people have [sexual] act, no one was raped... why write about it, media houses are disgusting.' As time goes by, they are your boda, you are harmless to them, not insulting, do business with them. Sometimes they say, 'John, you really must be courageous.'”
"In bars, people insult me. We play pool and they say, 'are you man or girl?' They want to fight me, threaten to rape me. A few years ago my stepmother saw me on TV when we had a workshop. When I came back home she was insulting me, making fun of me. She even went to my landlord, told her to send away 'this evil'. I had to hide for some days, until the [lesbian] organization found me another place. I wasn't ready for that."
“If Bill is passed will I run? Kill myself? I'll maybe go to the police to arrest me to protect me from mob justice. And then for how long? I will not change. Will I be in jail for hundred years? They say arrest them... but how many? They don't have enough resources to arrest everyone. We are here, we are gay and we are Ugandans, no matter if Bill passes or not. They will not kill everyone if it passes. The Bill is not the end of gay movement. People will still advocate for gay rights underground.”
"People try to call you and blackmail you. It happens a lot. You can't tell who the phone calls are from. I think if the bill is passed in the parliament, the hunt will begin, the witch hunt. Raids, blackmail will intensify. They will feel encouraged by the law."
“After the death of [LGBT activist] David Kato I got death threats from friends. But I closed them out – if you don't want to be with me, then I don't want to be with you; I don't pick up the phone. Mid last year I bumped into the guy who had said, 'if I see you, I will kill you.' Nothing happened. I met him again recently and he bought me a beer. My friends are coming back, they say it was ignorance, but I spent about two years without seeing them. We act like it never happened. There's lots of discussions about LGBT in Uganda, and I think my group understands it doesn't pay to hate because of sexuality. Even if they're reading about it in papers, their reaction is now different. But with some people it's worse, because they just listen [to what is said on radio, in papers] and take what they' hear as it is, they don't debate.”
"When I was working in an office, some butch friends were coming for lunch regularly. Then there was a story in Red Pepper [newspaper] that I am dating one of them. I found photocopies of the article on the notice board at my work. I had heavy paranoia because of the attitude of people I worked with. One month after the article came out, I took sick leave. When I came back they let me work one day, then they terminated me. Reason: 'company restructure'. But I was appraised all the time. Later, my boss kept calling me if I was ok. I met him and he asked me if I was a lesbian. He told me he had no problem, but that people at work were complaining about me."
“My mom is now OK, tolerates [my homosexuality], but not fully accepting. She says, 'just get a kid and give it to me.' But I don't have to give birth to be a woman. I am a woman. My brothers also came on board. They realized who I am and that it doesn't make sense to want me to change. Relationship improved, so now if anything happened I can call and they help. Before there was tension with my mom. She goes to church where Family Life Network talks about the impact of homosexuality. She was saying they should arrest me, they should put me in correction center. She didn't understand the content of the [Anti-Homosexuality] Bill, she went with the flow. We discussed LGBT rights, human rights, the Bill, I explained [what the Bill says] about authority, reporting of LGBT to police, death penalty, and then she understood. She now says that the government is confusing Ugandans.”
"I'd like to see a change in the way the community looks at gay people. We are human beings like anybody else."."My younger brother found out I was gay. One of my gay friends hit on him. He came and asked me about that friend of mine and I had to admit I was also. I didn't have to ask him to keep it secret, he's very aware of the situation."
“I almost came out to my family. I felt it was time. My younger brother is the only one who knows. He said, 'can you bear to lose their love?' I also put myself in their shoes – how may they feel? So I put it off. But I thought it is about time they know who I am. My dad passed on (died), what if my mom does also and she doesn't know? Time will come when I'll be ready... I would like her to know, irrespective of how our relationship will be. Like in a relationship, or love, there's pain, but sometimes we have to know. Even if it's lost at the end, like in love, we need to go through all emotions. Also for other siblings, they're my family, I owe it to them. Otherwise it's living a lie, like a person living behind another person.”
"In secondary school I realized I was a lesbian. I wanted to change, love men. I burned all the letters from women that I got. I fasted, prayed, wanted to get a boy. The person I was dating then, I told her we are sinners; we should take a break and get [male] partners. But it didn't work out. It got 'worse'."
“I feel there's now a lot of dialogue about homosexuality [in Uganda] and more risks, threats. I think we are more exposed. Because of dialogue, participation in events, people can more easily identify a gay or a lesbian. In the past we could go anywhere, now certain places you feel you'd be in danger. Before [they would say], 'that is sports person, that's why she's like that.' Now many people know who you are. Life is also more expensive. If I go somewhere I need money for safe transport back. In the past I could negotiate with any boda (motorcycle taxi). I have fear of bodas now. From some boda guys we use, they keep saying that (our office) is lesbian home, that they know where we stay. I have fear of mob justice, not fear that they know my sexuality.”
"The bill has a lot of bad issues for everyone. If you don't understand it and read it, you can support it. It doesn't end with gay people. My relatives should report me within 24 hours. My doctor should report me. Everyone you consult with will have to report you. The bill will allow blackmailing. If I want money from you, I can report that you are gay. This affects everyone. People should expect a lot of chaos, blackmailing, fighting, and killing. It will destroy families. We will be like in a prison, even if we are not taken there. I love my country, but how can I stay? My sexuality should not push me out of my country."
“In 2011 I became the chairman of the security team. When people reported a problem – after being published or shown on TV, they were expelled from houses, jobs – my security group sat down and if it was true, we gave people some small money to relocate. It was difficult work in a homophobic country. I also had to stand for cases, talk to the police. I was on TV many times, my pictures were published [in newspapers]. I used to get anonymous calls and they had information about my work, what I do, where I live. Few times I was followed on the way going home. Twice people stopped me and said, 'give us money, since you give LGBT money.' They knew how much I gave. I told them I don't have money and then they shouted at me saying, 'no, no, no you have money, we know you.' They told me to go, but that next time I have to give them money. I didn't know them, but they told me many things about my work and all that is happening in my life. They said they're following me in whatever I'm doing with my fellow activist. Someone also broke into my house when I was sleeping. They didn't take much, but stole all five photo albums. After one year I saw one picture from the albums published in a paper. Later I was in town with one colleague and people recognized me. They wanted to fight me – they were calling their friends to come and see me and we escaped. I had lot of issues. When I came for one of the meetings in US, fellow activists told me I shouldn't go back. People were threatening me. I applied for asylum.”*
*Robert was granted asylum in the USA in 2013, shortly after this interview
"I was in the papers so many times. They listed all the lesbians in Kampala, where they live. I get thrown out of many bars, so sometimes I don't go out. Sometimes men in bars say 'we will rape you, beat you, gang rape you until you become sensible.' It happens in bars when they want me, and I don't respond to them."
“My family knows [about my sexuality]. Their silence kills me. It affects me so much that they don't say anything. They just gossip among themselves. Maybe one day they will tell me. My straight, homophobic friends are still the same. They just tolerate me. You still see homophobia in them. Very few are OK. It's so hard to adjust, but some are trying. Three years back they would be ashamed to go out with me. Now some are OK, even ask me about my partner, tell me to call her to join us. That would not happen before.”
"I have a girlfriend who doesn't know, and a son. If she suspects, she is not showing it to me. She doesn't say anything even when I sleep out. I plan to eventually tell her. I am waiting for her to be financially independent. Then I will tell her and even if she will go away, she can survive. I started with her when I was at a stage when I was not very sure of myself. I knew I was gay, but thought it was because I was not exposing myself to women. But then I became bound to her and the more bound I was, the more I realized I am gay. There is discomfort at home. She asks me why am I not sexually active with her, what's wrong with me. I lie that I have low libido. I have a boyfriend now."
“I separated from my wife. I was dying of guilt. Why am I subjecting this woman to this? I felt I was living half of my life. When I was separating, my mom said, 'I didn't force you to marry.' But she pressured me to have a child. It was that pressure... We tried and the baby died at birth. I blamed God. Why would my son die, knowing I made him in a difficult way, had sex I didn't want to have. I felt I followed all the rules, was a virgin when married, married in church... maybe it was how it was meant to be. If I had burdened my wife with kids I would still have obligation or couldn't leave. We just had a boy we took care of (my sister-in-law's child). He calls me dad, but I didn't want the bond to grow too strong. We'd like to maintain the friendship, but I'm not going back to her. She realized the real reason. She told my mom, 'I know Jeff left because he's gay.'”
"When the [Anti-Homosexuality] bill proposal came out, my family was at first worried since they should report me according to it. I told them to relax. The bill stressed me so much and I just want to continue with my life. I will stay here. It is my home. I will fight it. A piece of paper will not take me abroad. I don't want to stay here to be a hero, but it's the only place [I know]. I love it so much."
“The [Anti-Homosexuality] Bill was proposed again [in the parliament] to silence us. We used to have a lot of national campaigns and the current law is only about [homosexual] act, not about organizing, mobilizing. We have more dialogue with government institutions and debates about homosexuality in Uganda. People know we exist. I'm happy to see movement is growing even with all the hostile environment. For me, that's big achievement, that are offices are still open, projects are still moving. My work has been recognized, also with international awards. That has given me more motivation, inspiration and has also helped my community to be motivated. Some people are afraid of being visible, but for me, awards are protection for my life. Bill or not, we will start decriminalization process. We can't always be worried about what can happen in the street, workshops being closed. We can only change attitudes if we can sensitize people. For HIV work, officials say that if they includes us in the programs, it will look like they're embracing us. But if we decriminalize, they can't say they won't include us. Then, people who are battling us, harassing us, we can hold them accountable.”