High Alert: Homophobia in Uganda peaks

Published: June 26, 2014

You don’t forget the first time you watch a person beaten to death on camera. The cacophony of cracking bone, the wriggling body in its death throes and the enthusiastic camaraderie of the mob I’m watching aren’t part of a Faces Of Death resurgence. These are real people swarming Ssekasi John, a queer Ugandan businessman, just days after the African state’s controversial Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA) became law in December 2013.

Evidence of Uganda’s homophobic violence has proliferated online, where you can see bodies charred, brutalized and bloodied in real time.

Ugandan queer rights activist Richard Lusimbo works for Sexual Minorities Uganda  (SMUG), an LGBTQ rights organization that conducts surveys to document human rights violations empirically. After being outed twice by newspapers, he says he’s received death threats and fears doing even the most mundane tasks like shopping or socializing.

“It’s very difficult,” Lusimbo repeats over and over again in a soft, fatigued lilt. He rarely leaves his home, relying on friends and some family – the few who have come to accept his sexuality – to run errands for him.

In 2011 – well before hate crimes were officially legitimized by recent legislation that makes life imprisonment the punishment for homosexuality – his fellow Ugandan queer activist and SMUG leader David Kato was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in his home in Bukasa. In 2010, Ugandan tabloid Rolling Stone printed Kato’s name along with 99 others to out them as homosexuals, complete with home addresses and the instruction to “hang them.”

Rolling Stone editorial director Giles Muhame told Uganda’s Daily Monitor, “[Kato] brought death upon himself. He hasn’t lived carefully. Kato was a shame to this country.”

Don’t assume the homophobic onslaught is confined to Uganda.

Kenyan Justice Monica Mbaru tells me that in 2010, while Kenya underwent constitutional reform, members of the Christian evangelical right made sure there was a strong Christian element within the review process. This led to what she calls “a spirited campaign to ensure Article 45(2) was part of the passed constitution, which included the ominous provision that ‘Every adult has the right to marry a person of the opposite sex, based on the free consent of the parties.’”

Mbaru adds, “The Ugandan act on anti-homosexuality is a convenient template that Kenya can adopt without much work going into it, as we share a common law jurisprudence.” To the detriment of homosexuals in Kenya, “The evangelicals cut across [borders] to share their wealth of information.”

Indeed, many credit American evangelicals with Africa’s homophobic surge. Right-wing Christian activists have immersed themselves in African culture, taking positions of power: they’re lawyers, doctors and teachers, wielding their influence through monetary support of anti-gay lobbyists.

Wherever these laws go into effect, the impact will be shocking.

Lusimbo points me to a SMUG study released last May, From Torment To Tyranny, which shows that between December 20, 2013, and May 1, 2014, 162 cases of anti-gay discrimination in Uganda were reported, 24 of which involved physical threats. And that says nothing of the silent victims who fear they can’t speak out without persecution – and they can’t, by law.

One woman was attacked and arrested, her house burned to the ground. A 17-year-old boy was severely beaten by his parents, who threatened to inform the police of his sexuality before throwing him out. Being gay, gay “touching,” discussing homosexuality and broadcasting material that sways public opinion about the current state of homophobia are all offences punishable by sentences up to life in prison, leaving queers legally powerless and socially silenced.

It’s easy to feel self-righteous. Western queers and allies are privileged, and in North America many battles for queer rights have been won. But the reality is that LGBTQ freedoms even in Canada are new and not yet entrenched. (See sidebar, this page). We must condemn public lynching and are naturally angered by African homophobia, but we’ve had the time to create a countercultural movement, whereas Uganda has not.

I out my own privilege in a recent interview with Toronto minority activist and refugee lawyer El-Farouk Khaki. I wonder if Ugandan queers can become radicalized, given their fear and isolation. My idea of radicalization is admittedly modern, involving Pride marches, witty signs and ACT slogans.

Khaki quickly puts me in my place: “Just being there is radical,” he says when we sit down to discuss his role as supervisor of Pride Uganda Alliance International, a coalition that supports Ugandan refugees seeking to immigrate to Canada. Of course he’s right: Ugandan queers face loss of access to HIV/AIDS testing and life-saving drugs, an imported anti-gay ideology, incarceration, assault and death.

Not everyone on this side of the Atlantic is comfortable just watching the news. Trans Quaker activist Talcott Broadhead co-runs the New Underground Railroad out of Olympia, Washington. The mostly Quaker group organizes a complex network of revolutionaries in and around Uganda who help queers safely cross the border.

The impetus to start a donation-funded underground operation with a system of safe houses came from a note from a friend in Jinja. Broadhead shared this letter with me:

“The Ugandan police are so busy lately, in just 10 hours they have been able to arrest eight people for either being gay or involved in gay activities. If they are lucky they might be produced in court, or will just disappear and never be seen again. If you think that’s too sad, since Monday, three people have been killed for gay-related issues. If the world doesn’t do something more, more people will be killed every day.”

While Broadhead’s efforts have resulted in 70 LGBTQ people finding safe houses or asylum, she notes, “Sadly, one gay man we had in hiding committed suicide.” SMUG’s new report corroborates this: at least 17 cases of suicide have been reported to date, including one 17-year-old boy who swallowed rat poison and overdosed on pills. In February, just two months after AHA came into effect, eight suicides were reported in a two-week period.

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