Standing Up

At Women in the World, the Reality of Uganda’s Brutal Gay Ban

Clare Byarugaba endures the fear and violence that have followed her nation’s cruel crackdown. In Los Angeles, she and other female activists reported on their struggles for equality.

03.15.14 9:45 AM ET

Ugandan gay-rights activist Clare Byarugaba spoke out against her nation’s oppressive new ban on homosexuality  Friday afternoon at Los Angeles’s first Women in the World luncheon, delivering an harrowing first-person account of how her life and the lives of other gay Ugandans have changed since President Yoweri Museveni signed the legislation into law last month. 

Clare Byarugaba/Facebook

“As a lesbian living in Uganda, it has been very difficult,” Byarugaba told hundreds of attendees who gathered at the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills. “My mom said, ‘I’m going to hand you into police.’ What that means is corrective rape. That I can’t see my family anymore. I have received so many death threats. And now I’m facing seven years to life imprisonment simply because of the work I’m doing—and because of my sexual orientation.”

Byarugaba was one of five women from around the globe who joined Women in the World founder Tina Brown and her co-hosts Melanie Cook, Rashida Jones, Nancy Josephson, Misimbi Kanyoro, Marta Kauffman, Kelly Meyer, and Katherine Ross to tell their stories and, in so doing, help fulfill the organization’s mission to “see the world through women’s eyes” and bring attention to “a hidden army of women with the talent and will to reinvent their futures,” according to Brown.

After Byarugaba was involuntarily outed by a Ugandan tabloid “witch hunt” earlier this year, she had to take a week off from work to cope with the personal fallout. “Coming out was supposed to be my journey,” she said. “Unfortunately the media did it for me when I was not ready.” She has seen friends lose their jobs and get assaulted by the police. “A transgender friend, a mob attacked her and undressed her in public,” Byarugaba said. “I know people who have tried to commit suicide. People call me on a daily basis and say, ‘Give me five reasons why I shouldn’t kill myself.’”

The ban is politics, plain and simple—the result of “U.S. anti-gay extremists” such as Evangelical pastor Scott Lively “coming to Uganda and saying ‘the gays are after your children,’” which inspired the president to seize on the issue, Byarugaba said.  

“This is a dictator using the LGBT community as a scapegoat,” added Roger Ross Williams, director of the acclaimed documentary God Loves Uganda, who joined Byarugaba onstage. The goal is “to distract the public from the real issues, corruption and survival,” and turn them against “a vulnerable population on which they can take out their frustration.”

Asked how she would continue to fight injustice, Byarugaba argued that visibility was a weapon of its own. 

“It’s very important for us to be visible,” she said. “A parliamentarian who voted for this—the president even—should know that Clare is a lesbian and that he is voting against her. And so we will continue to fight.”

Fighting back was the theme of the afternoon. Khalida Brohi, the 25-year-old founder and executive director of Sughar Empowerment Society, a nonprofit social enterprise that offers rural Pakistani women the resources to launch their own embroidery businesses, took the stage as a video of a recent meeting with male village leaders played on screens overhead. 

“If a girl goes to school, she becomes independent,” one of the men told Brohi. “Our answer to this is the bullet.”

Now those men are “working for me,” Brohi said (to much applause) when the video ended. “We’re developing the first-ever village industry in Pakistan and we’re doing it right there with all those men.”

In May 2011, columnist, blogger, and women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif filmed herself driving a car in Saudi Arabia, where women are prohibited from driving. The authorities arrested and imprisoned al-Sharif for nine days. But her rebellion sparked a movement.

“I had no clue when I posted that video online,” she said Friday. “But people were really shocked and really mad that the government would take a mother from her child.  If we keep quiet nothing will change. The regime is very comfortable—unless you shake the ground under them.”

During the luncheon, Women in the World and Toyota honored Tricia Compas-Markman of DayOne Response, the co-inventor of an innovative all-in-one device designed to collect, transport, treat, and store water in the wake of a natural disaster. More than 70,000 people died from water-borne diseases after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, Compas-Markman explained. Her goal is to reduce that number by making sure potable water is available and accessible to all.

The afternoon was capped off with an interview with author Anchee Min, who recounted her experience growing up in a labor collective in Maoist China and her difficult journey to the United States in 1984.

“I cried when I found out I was having a daughter,” she said. “In China, you’re second-class if you’re born as a woman. But then I thought, ‘You have to beat it. You’re going to be a fighter.’”