Gay Pride Uganda

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Walking around Kampala for the first time is confusing and disorienting. Lean-to shacks line every inch of road, motorbike taxis buzz non-stop through the tiniest gaps in traffic and for every yard of decent footpath there is a pothole twice the size. It is the end of July and I am here to cover Uganda’s first ever Gay Pride. Despite making contact with the organisers back in May, I’ve still only had a few brief responses from them about the event. On my second day in the East African city I try hard to make some kind of visual sense of the place, but I struggle to find anything to photograph.

The next few days I spend trying to get in touch with people and reading up. Only one response – an academic friend of my host who agrees to meet me for a chat about her research. It is an awkward first meeting, not helped I’m sure by my sense of urgency at wanting to pull first-hand information together. After establishing that I want to write about and more importantly, photograph the event, she suddenly bursts out ‘I mean, what happens if you lose your camera, or it gets stolen, or those pictures get into the wrong hands? Please tell me you’ve thought about that!’ I am taken aback – I haven’t. This is Pride! I know about Ugandan tabloids hounding out LGBTI people and the murder of prominent gay activist David Kato last year, but I am also keen to carry on documenting gayness as I have been doing since 2005. I wonder how to move forward.

The next day I get a response from someone on the Beach Pride Uganda Facebook page. Joseph Kawesi says he’d like to meet up, and will bring two friends. I like Joseph even before meeting him – he has studio shots of himself on Facebook and their apparent innocence beguiles me. Gently posing, playing a guitar and doffing his cap to the camera this man has put pictures of himself on an open access page, knowing that in doing so he could be identified and attacked by members of the public or the police. We set a time for later that day and when they arrive we chat.

Their organisation – Youth on Rock Foundation – is one of around 40 NGOs in Uganda working on LGBTI issues. Their aim is to support the most disadvantaged minorities in the slums of Kampala and they are based in Bwaise, near to where I am staying. Sensing that they want me to see the conditions they are trying to improve I suggest we go directly there. Again, I am shocked. The network of concrete shacks they live in is interwoven with open drains and rotting piles of rubbish. When we get to the one room shack they all share they tell me about their lives – Morgan lost his job as a teacher after coming out, Bad Black, a trans woman, was kicked out of school and has contracted HIV from one of her sex work clients. Later that evening they take me to their local bar, owned by a professional boxer. They feel safe there and say it’s one of only a handful of places in the city they can use, and just as importantly, afford. Their friend Jay joins us after his basketball match, and tells me he lost his scholarship from university after they found out he was gay. Now unable to finish his education, he says he feels hopeless and lost. His looks are not challenging to me, but dressing as he does, he says he is unemployable.

The following week I talk to people at the hospital’s LGBTI-friendly STD clinic, I do some more pictures with Black, Joseph and Morgan and I go to the Freedom to Roam Uganda office (a well-established lesbian organisation running the Pride event) to get my Pride ticket. Hidden behind metal gates on the outskirts of Kampala, it is a safe place for people like Stosh, who was not only correctively raped as a teenager, but also hounded out of her community and forced to live in hiding because she is gay. The anthropologist is there, and tells me about her friends in the community who are being harassed. I find it difficult to navigate the conversation, sensing that she is indirectly warning me off covering the event. Two women, Didi and Bigi, come out, and I ask them about photos. ‘What exactly are you going to do with them?’ they say. ‘I’ll be sending them out to the international newspapers, and maybe using them for a longer documentary project’ I reply. Bigi raises her voice: ‘You’ve got to understand that these people will say yes, take my photo, but they don’t realise what will happen afterwards, the pictures will be all over the web and they’re not even out to their families. We’ve had problems before with journalists coming over, saying they’re going to write a story and then they just publish what they want. You have to get people’s permission, and you have to understand that these people’s lives are in danger.’ I’m just about to say ‘OK,’ when a woman walks into the office and says ‘Hi, my name is Sophia, I’m a photographer from Tunisia…’ Bigi sighs in exasperation.

As Pride weekend approaches, I hear conflicting information from everyone – that police know about the event, that they don’t, that it will be safe, that it won’t… On the opening night, at a gay-friendly hotel still under construction brochures are handed out with a verbal proviso, ‘Don’t drop these programmes or lose them.’ I stow mine away carefully. The night is the first of the ‘Kuchu Film Festival’ and after watching some international shorts and the documentary about Kato, there are some rousing speeches and a rendition of the group’s anthem. Kasha, the founder of FARUG and the brains behind Pride, reads from her brochure, ‘We are not going to wait for the ‘traditional’ street pride march. Instead, we are gonna have BEACH PRIDE in Uganda… If you can be proud of who you are alone why not join others and celebrate your pride together?’ She tells me that the event is for her and her friends, and the march is being held in a public park in Entebbe, 35km from Kampala, on Saturday, not Sunday, when the park will be less busy. They have permission to erect a stage on the shores of Lake Victoria, but had to say it was for Kasha’s birthday. I am told they asked for police protection but it was refused.

Later that night Morgan introduces me to an activist called Clare who works for the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law. She has just come from a four hour meeting with the Inspector General of Police, a ‘brilliant man’ she says, who ‘listens to people’s grievances.’ I am surprised. ‘That’s incredible!’ I say, delighted that this ‘ear to the President’ is listening. He told Clare that the community ‘should carry out research about how people become gay and educate the public. He also said he is willing to learn more about these issues.’ I speak to Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, the Ugandan LGBTI community’s pastor who went into exile in the US after receiving death threats and who was ousted from the Ugandan Anglican Church after 24 years for his support of the LGBTI community. Bearing in mind the importance of religion to Ugandan society, and the Ugandan government’s accusation that homosexuality is a western concept and un-African, I want to know whether secular activism can work here. ‘You cannot forget religion here but what you need is sensitisation. Some religious people understand. That is what I’m trying to do – have dialogue. Talk about human sexuality. Along with other rights. Secular activism is needed, and a lot of education. People need education whether they are religious or not. Teaching, education, advocacy is very important.’ Is it difficult for you to work now that the church has ex-communicated you? I ask. ‘I go to the church, people don’t want to know me but I talk to them. My church doesn’t like me to preach here but I have continued to because faith seeks understanding. God has given us our reasoning to use. These people are real, how can they be denied their reality?’ In the last year since Kato was killed have you sensed any kind of change? ‘I think people have come to understand that homosexuality is real, that you don’t choose it like you choose smoking. It is part of our work to educate. With education things will change.’

It is comforting to meet someone religiously pro-gay, but the following day I ask a member of the group if she has Simon Lokodo’s number – Uganda’s Minister for Ethics and Integrity. ‘You want to speak to that crazy man?’ she texts. After deliberating about what to ask the man responsible for banning 38 NGOs on the basis that they promote homosexuality, I phone him. He would rather conduct the interview in person, so he tells me where to go and I get on a boda-boda. It’s a strange sensation, waiting to meet the person who has the power to deport you for being morally unsound. We talk for about 40 minutes. He gives his justification for June’s raid on an NGO meeting, ‘A month and half ago we did an investigation on NGOs who were mixing positive things with things which we call in Uganda bad. We realised that a number of them were actually raising funds from abroad in the guise of promoting humanitarian concerns. They were also going around implanting in the minds of small children and persons below 18 attitudes of perverted, disoriented feelings in their sexual expressions. In other words they were supportive of homosexuality and lesbianism which is not permitted in Uganda.The constitution is clear about this, that marriage between persons of the same sex, relations between persons of the same sex is prohibited and punishable in aggravated cases with life imprisonment. So we found that these NGOs were out of order and we have requested the Ministry of Internal Affairs to reduce them so they don’t go around giving a bad attitude, a bad spirit, a bad culture which will destroy this country’s morale. Just imagine if tomorrow every Ugandan accepted homosexuality.’ There is a pause. I ask, ‘What would happen?’ Another pause. ‘We would cease to be. Sex is for procreation. In time there will be a build-up of homosexuals. A lot of young people will opt for that because it will put in [sic] sex as pleasure, not child bearing. Some people spend hours doing nothing but disturbing themselves. Its meaningless. Sexual pleasure for what?’ I notice that Lokodo isn’t wearing a wedding ring and ask him if he is married. He hands me his business card which reads Hon. Rev. Fr. Simon Lokodo and he tells me that before he went into politics he was ordained as a priest and took vows of celibacy. I’m curious as to who his advisors are on LGBTI rights. He doesn’t seem to understand the question so I ask him where he gets his information on homosexuality from. He tells me that people come to his office because they are afraid of going to the public hospitals. Four or five people come a day to tell them about the ‘abuse’ they have suffered. I ask if he thinks people are born gay or if they become homosexual, and he says ‘What I know [is] that born or become [sic] it is a perversion. I know it is an ailment. It is a sickness. It is not a status to be applauded. I am told that if a child is in a mother’s womb and there are situations that are negative that person will come out with a negative attitude towards that gender.’

Having heard enough I switch off the dictaphone and he asks me what my opinion is. I say that I think that people should be allowed to live freely, to which he replies ‘So you think that if people want to go round killing each other they should be allowed to? You know if you are one of those people I would take you straight to the airport.’ I don’t tell him I’m gay because I don’t want to miss Pride the next day.

That night’s agenda includes some more films and a well-attended fashion show, the models confidently strutting their stuff down a specially made catwalk in t-shirts emblazoned with slogans: ‘The closet is for clothes – come out come out wherever you are,’ ‘My sexual preference is often’ and my favourite: ‘Straight – so is spaghetti ’til you heat it up.’ I go home fairly early to get ready for the next day.

At 10am outside the National Theatre in town a few people are waiting for the pre-booked coach to take them to Entebbe. No one is completely sure where we are going. Morgan, Black and Joseph greet me, and we get on the yellow bus. Black gets out her compact on the seat in front of me and deftly applies bubblegum pink eyeshadow and lip gloss to her dark skin. She has her favourite red bra and a sarong to change into. The bus gradually fills up, and on the way we stop at a garage. Clare and I chat outside the bus and I notice her pillar-box red t-shirt which says in capital letters, ‘Some people are gay – get over it.’ People look and stare, some smile, some look confused. We carry on.

On arrival I see barbecues have been set up. Men in sarongs and rainbow flags add charcoal and cut chips out of bins full of potatoes. There is a trestle table bar with free beer and pop, and the stage is set up on the shore of the lake. A VIP gazebo is festooned with rainbow ribbons and the DJs blast tunes from big speakers. A single table with Pride t-shirts for sale sits between the eating area and the stage. It feels festive, and fairly private. Peanut sellers wander around amiably, and when I ask them about the rainbow flags, they say they’re pretty. I assume they don’t recognise the significance. While we are waiting for the parade to start, I ask Clare what would happen if they ran it down Kampala Road in the city centre. ‘We would be stoned to death. And I say that with conviction’ she adds. I notice a line of people not with our group standing beyond the stage further along the beach and I watch them make their way in groups of two and three into the water. They are being baptised.

Maurice Tomlinson, a legal advisor with Aids-Free World, has been invited to act as the event’s Grand Marshal. He climbs onto the back of a pick-up truck with Ugandan LGBTI activist and spokesperson Frank Mugisha, a few others and myself. We drive along the path to a field where people have started to dress up. Rainbow flags, stickers, glitter and placards are gradually brought out until the group of around 50 people is decorated in unmistakable gayness. Four local men and women with babies watch silently.

The parade starts. Music blasts from the speakers on the truck and Maurice leads with a placard that reads ‘Gay And African – Not A Choice.’ Gradually the parade gathers momentum and before long all I can see are faces ecstatic with what I can only assume is a feeling of freedom. Dancing becomes wilder and jubilant shrieks reach a crescendo. The scene is one of blissful childlike joy on a background of natural beauty, rainbow colours flitting around in gleeful high visibility. Finally I’ve found the beauty I’ve been wanting to photograph. As the parade makes its way round the gardens a few onlookers gather and soon a group of small children is following the parade, holding hands with some of the participants, unaware of the event’s historical significance. As we make our way back to the stage area, people carry on dancing and food is handed out, including to members of the public who have joined to watch. I wander around taking a few more snaps and ask Frank what he has just experienced. ‘My life right now is Pride itself because I’m very visible. The police officers know my name. I was worried about the media sneaking and taking photos and we are used to the police coming but we said we’ll be strong and we won’t let that stop us.’

Suddenly Morgan approaches me and takes me to the top of the hill. ‘The police are here,’ he whispers. I look around. There are a few men in combats and a white truck stationed near the path. I wander back towards Morgan, eating with one hand and holding my camera with the other. A man in a white t-shirt and baseball cap comes up to me. He asks what I’m doing there. I say ‘Nothing,’ and carry on eating. He asks me who I am, where I’m from. He keeps on questioning me, enough for me to ask him who he is. He gets out some ID from his pocket and flashes it in my face like a TV cop. I notice an official-looking symbol and the name Ivan. He asks to see my ID. I worry. I go to the bus and get my purse. It has a photocopy of my passport in it so I get it out and hand it over. He slaps it in irritation and asks what I’m doing here in Uganda. I say I’m on holiday. He asks when I arrived, and I say two weeks ago. He asks for my visa, I say it’s in my passport back at my accommodation. He is becoming increasingly aggressive. I say I can go and get my visa and bring it to the police station if he would like. He tells me he is arresting me so I ask why. No response. After a few minutes a few of the group start to gather round and ask what is going on. I say I am being arrested but I don’t know why. There is more aggression and various points of view, but mainly, people tell me not to worry, they will go with me to the station. Someone takes my camera and I give my spare memory cards to a man called Michael to hide. Dusk is falling. I start to get a little nervous as I see two trucks full of male officers. I say I’m not going to the station alone in one of those trucks. Someone says they will insist on a female officer (to bide time, they tell me) and there is more arguing, and my repeated question ‘Why are you arresting me?’ Ivan never gives a reason. I ask to see his ID again and he refuses to show it. We all ask several times, and he refuses. Despite arguing and trying to persuade this man for about half an hour, he won’t back down. At one point he pushes me in frustration. A female police officer arrives, and when the group tries to hold me back, she hits them with her baton. She bustles me off, and I ask her why I’m being arrested. ‘Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda,’ she whispers conspiratorially. When we get to the police motorbikes, I tell them I’m not getting on without a helmet. The driver gives me his. My last pathetic attempt to avoid being taken to the station has failed. Jay has insisted they let him get on the other bike and we are driven slowly to the station just beyond the entrance to the park. All I have on me is my purse and my dead phone.

On arrival at the station we are told to sit down on a bench facing a man with a big logbook. He writes someone’s details down and Jay whispers to me not to mention the camera at all. The South African writer who has been documenting the event sits down on the bench next to me and starts to write something. She is asked who brought her, she says she doesn’t know and then starts to get irate, eventually getting into a scuffle with the female officer who again resorts to using her baton. Ivan comes and sits down to give his statement. The man with the register then tells Ivan to go upstairs and he takes my photocopied passport. He asks why I’m here and when I’m leaving. I remember I have my return plane ticket in my purse, so I give him that too. I see one of the performers behind me and because I have heard that she has been beaten I ask her if she’s ok. She nods, just, and gets ready to leave. Kasha and Frank arrive at the desk and tell me not to say anything, that I haven’t done anything wrong, and that they can’t arrest me. After a while I ask if it’s ok to go and smoke a cigarette. Outside a couple of plain clothes police officers tell me to move to the side with my ‘unhealthy habit.’ I do. More of the LGBTI group have arrived as well as Maurice. A girl hugs me and I see a camera flash go off. ‘It’s funny when the journalist becomes the story’ Maurice grins, and he steps in front of me. Others in the group hug each other and wave their rainbow flags in front of the photographer provocatively while he snaps away. Kasha entertains the officers with some breakdancing. They know her by name. Then out of nowhere a buff man with a cockney accent taps me on the shoulder and says with authority ‘Rachel, I’m Simon. British military. Are you ok?’ I say I’m fine, and he says ‘I’ve come to get you out of here.’ My photocopy and my ticket are handed round to a few different people and amidst the confusion I ask him who he is. ‘Don’t worry, someone made a call and pulled in a few favours. British military, that’s all you need to know.’ It becomes apparent that Ivan is a soldier, not a police officer, and that someone from the military phoned Simon to get me out of there before the British Consul could be informed. They don’t know that Frank has already phoned them, and that Clare has called the Inspector General, who has told the station to let everyone go. Maurice – who was also detained with some others – exclaims that this is all ‘absolutely ridiculous’ and that the police are making fools of themselves. Then it’s over. Simon takes me and Jackie to his van, and asks if we need a lift. Jackie says thanks, but that we should all stick together. We are driven from the police station back to Kampala by Robert, head of the LGBTI group’s security team.

On Sunday evening there is the closing ‘hangover’ party. We spend the night chatting, drinking, dancing and celebrating the fact the Uganda has just had its first Gay Pride event.

On Monday I am keen to speak to Beyondy, the trans performer who was arrested and beaten. She should be at college but is too shaken to go. She tells me that on Saturday afternoon she was about to go on stage to perform when she and the group saw the police and drove off. The police chased them to the garden gates, which she thinks were locked in advance. She was dragged out of the car by her hair and held by three officers while one beat her. Her friends locked themselves inside the car. Park security guards and a small group of people watched. She shows me where they pulled her hair out, the mark on the inside of her lip and the scratches on her arm. She says she wants the police officers dealt with, but she can’t go public. She is not out to her family. She says she is scared, ‘If the police can do this to me, what will the public do?’

Later on I get the Inspector General’s number and call him, giving my name and saying that I was arrested on Saturday night. He says he spoke to the police station who told him that the public were concerned having seen ‘a group of girls fondling and kissing each other in public.’ I ask if that is illegal, and he says no, but that Uganda has laws agains indecent behaviour. He says the police were also told there was a gay wedding going on. (In fact, a gay wedding did take place in Kampala that night, but it went undisturbed by police.) He tells me he ordered everyone at the police station to be released. He gives me the number of the chief of police. Andrew Kawesi says that members of the public were concerned that people were behaving in a ‘scandalous’ way ‘in front of young children.’ He says he told his officers to go to the park and if it was true, then the offenders were to be ‘told our concerns, and let go.’ I tell him that one of the group was badly beaten. Kawesi apologises and says ‘We will make a public apology. If they used excessive force we are very sorry.’ He continues, ‘The beach is open to all people and some of these rights have not been fully institutionalised. The only mistake they could have made is using excessive force.’

Although the Ugandan government criminalises homosexuality, David Bahati’s ‘kill the gays’ bill is a proposed bill only. Simon Lokodo will be in court in September charged with unconstitutional closure of workshops and Hillary Clinton awarded Clare, Frank and other members of the Coalition an award for Human Rights work the day before Pride. The fact that four days of Pride events took place is a huge achievement and an admirable show of bravery for all those involved because widespread evangelical and institutionalised homophobia informs society to the point that many LGBTI people in Uganda live in constant fear of persecution. A few days after Pride, as I watch pictures being posted and gushing comments of ‘We did it!’ I feel a sense of relief that the aftermath of the event is on the whole positive. Kasha notes that she has been receiving ‘funny phone calls,’ but I’m thrilled to read that next year, the march will start from the police station. I hope I can go.

Uganda’s first Gay Pride, Entebbe, Uganda, August 4th 2012.