Isaac Mugisha, co-ordinator of Pride Uganda, is determined and optimistic that Ugandan LGBTs will hold a Pride event in Kampala later this year, without it being shut down by the authorities.
If the event does go ahead, it will be the first Pride held successfully in the East African country since 2015.
In 2016, as reported by The Daily Beast, Uganda Pride events were the subject of a brutal crackdown by police. Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), his colleagues, and others were arrested and detained. In the chaos, one gay man fell four stories and suffered horrendous injuries.
The 2017 event was also “crushed,” as Mugisha wrote in The Guardian, with Simon Lokodo, the minister of state for Ethics and Integrity, threatening Pride-goers with “arrest, even violence.”
Lokodo has made the repression and persecution of the country’s LGBT population a personal crusade.
Late last week, Lokodo was reported to have been in a coma after suffering a stroke. Other reports said the stroke was minor and doctors had worked “around the clock” to prevent it from becoming a major stroke. Lokodo, later reports indicated, had been discharged from the Uganda Heart Institute.
Speaking to The Daily Beast in New York, where he was attending the first of two fundraising events for All Out, the internationally focused LGBT equality organization, Isaac Mugisha said that in recent months in Uganda “cases of people being arrested, put in police cells, and tortured have been greatly reduced.”
The man seriously injured in the 2016 Pride police raid had, after many surgeries, recovered, come out, and was now an activist, said Mugisha. “His story has become an inspirational one, and it’s so great to see him so confident.”
The objectives of the next few months, Mugisha said, were to build bridges with “straight allies,” to continue discussions with police so the Pride events can go ahead un-raided, and to seek public statements from both government and police that they support the Uganda Pride events.
For Mugisha, who is also advocacy and communications director of Spectrum Uganda, the chief stumbling block and enemy is Lokodo, but his is an increasingly isolated anti-LGBT voice and influence, said Mugisha.
Straight-friendly venues in Kampala support LGBTs, and Mugisha said he wanted to encourage more to welcome LGBTs and defend their right to gather there.
“The momentum is now so different to 2015. Then just a handful of LGBTs gathered. Now we are looking at hundreds of people wanting to gather for a Pride event.”
Frank Mugisha (no relation) echoed Isaac’s positive view. “Things are not looking so bad so far, and learning from last year our idea is to start planning early for Pride 2018,” he said in an email to The Daily Beast.
Activists had been providing training around understanding LGBT human rights to institutions like the police, as well as judges and state lawyers, in Kampala, Eastern Uganda, and Northern Uganda, Frank Mugisha added.
“Our visibility is still very important to us, and we are hoping to have Pride this year, and a much bigger event.”
However, he added: “There is still fear that Pride 2018 may be stopped, raided by police or [Lokodo]. Even with the efforts to sensitize states’ institutions and lawmakers there is still so much discrimination and violations of LGBT persons going on here.”
Other campaigners strike a similar note of caution. Adrian Jjuuko, executive director of Human Rights and Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), told The Daily Beast in an email: “From my perspective, I do not think any progress has been made, particularly in LGBT organizing. To the contrary, the situation seems to be worsening since 2016.”
In a space of less than two years, Jjuuko said, six LGBT events had been raided by the state with four of them being prematurely closed as a result: as well as two Pride events in 2016 and the 2017 Pride event, the 2017 Queer Kampala International Film Festival, a 2017 gala, and most recently (on Feb. 28) an HIV outreach event had all been shut down, Jjuuko said.
“All these show a retrogression in the respect of LGBT persons’ civic space,” said Jjuuko. “Meetings have been had with members of the police and the Minister of Ethics and Integrity [Lokodo] on the matter, and they [particularly the minister] seem more determined than ever to fight what they term as the ‘promotion’ and ‘exhibition’ of homosexuality. I am therefore not very optimistic that the 2018 Pride celebrations will happen without incident.”
The key positive turning point for LGBT Ugandans, said Isaac Mugisha, was ironically the passing, and later abolition, of the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act.
The act was originally introduced by politician David Bahati, now Uganda’s minister of state for Finance, in 2009. It became known as the “Kill The Gays” bill, as one of the proposed penalties for homosexuality was execution. The 2014 bill made criminal such acts as “aggravated homosexuality,” “aiding and abetting homosexuality,” “attempt to commit homosexuality,” “conspiracy to engage in homosexuality,” and “promotion of homosexuality.”
“I personally think 2014 when the law passed was a really great year,” said Isaac Mugisha. “It was a moment when the population of Uganda realized there were gay people. Until then they thought it was a Western thing, and now the government was passing a law about people they had claimed didn’t exist.
“It made a lot of people realize there was such a thing as homosexuality, and to open their minds to understand the topic. A lot of people came out. It was a moment when gay bars in Kampala were opening up. People were brave. It was kind of positive for us.”
The law, he said, had not—as might be assumed—opened the floodgates for the kind of homophobia that saw the brutal crackdowns on Pride events that followed.
“It wasn’t only a moment when people opened their minds, but also other people, like lawyers, came to defend us,” Isaac Mugisha said. “It was a house of conversations. LGBT refugees were trying to go to Kenya, when the government claimed these people didn’t exist. The Minister of Health put out a statement condemning discrimination in terms of health care, the international community was outraged. There was a cutting of aid.”
Isaac Mugisha was also heartened that since 2014 there had been a distinctive absence of anti-gay pastors from the U.S., like Scott Lively from Massachusetts, spreading their beliefs in the country.
Last year, the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts dismissed a case brought by SMUG against Lively for “crimes against humanity,” but in his ruling, as reported by The Daily Beast, Judge Michael Posner denounced Lively’s “crackpot bigotry,” his conspiracy to persecute LGBTI people in Uganda, and the “terrible harm” he had done.
Lively had violated international law, Judge Posner said, and “aided and abetted a vicious and frightening campaign of repression against LGBTI persons in Uganda.”
Lively and his ilk have not been seen in Uganda since the court case, Mugisha said. Bahati, he added, could not now table a private members’ bill given his government position. He doubted any other minister “could face tabling it” either.
“I don’t really think the Anti-Homosexuality Act has life, it can’t survive now,” Mugisha said. “I don’t think anyone wants to face the attacks that come with supporting it.” Mugisha claimed President Yoweri Museveni “is very progressive” on LGBT equality, despite signing the 2014 bill into being. “If it came back it would put him in a very compromising position.”
Frank Mugisha agreed. “I can’t be so sure [about the AHA coming back]. However at the moment there are no indications it will come back.”
Since 2014, there had been a lot of growth in the Ugandan LGBT movement, Isaac Mugisha said. “People realize what their rights are, what they need, and who they are as Ugandans. People want to come to Pride events. People have been in the closet so long they want to come out and look for spaces and be who they are.”
While there is not an LGBT-specific venue in Kampala, there are a lot of “friendly spaces,” said Mugisha. “That’s what we want. We don’t need special treatment, we are the same as everyone else. We just need to have friendly people around us, and services that are friendly towards us.” While Pride had not happened last year, Mugisha said there were a lot of LGBT people at the September Nyege Nyege music festival.
In terms of campaigning, Mugisha said, “I have come to the painful realization that I have to focus on the enemy and what the enemy is thinking, and to make allies.”
As well as the government and police, Ugandan LGBT activists must also face a hostile, homophobic media. Mugisha has been told by journalists that they are under instruction to cover issues around homosexuality and LGBT campaigning negatively.
Homosexuality itself remains against the law in Uganda; the “unnatural offense” is a hangover from British colonial rule, and is rarely enforced. “To prosecute someone you have to catch them in the act, and if you catch them in the act there is another law that protects people from having their privacy breaches,” said Mugisha.
Legally, nothing has changed in Uganda positively for LGBT people, Jjuuko emphasized. “The laws and policies remain in place, largely criminalizing and marginalizing LGBT persons. There has however been more engagement with state agencies like the police and ministries, and some of them are being receptive. Even the Minister of Ethics and Integrity [Lokodo], who has openly declared his hostility towards LGBT persons and their ‘agenda’ is seemingly becoming easier to engage.
“He [Lokodo] still disagrees with LGBT persons exercising their rights especially association and assembly, but he goes about it in a less hostile way.
“The brutality and violence that characterized the raid and subsequent closure of the 2016 Pride events for example have not been witnessed again. HRAPF is also currently engaged in countrywide police trainings on the rights of LGBTI persons and this could have softened their stance on the issues. There is less violence from them.”
Activists are hoping to challenge the Public Order Management Act of 2013, which has been used in the targeting of Pride gatherings, as well as political demonstrations. Campaigners are also legally challenging the practice of forced anal examinations used by the authorities to establish an accused’s homosexuality.
They are also looking to Kenya, which is deciding whether to decriminalize gay sex in a landmark court case. “Whatever positive happens in Kenya will likely happen in Uganda,” Mugisha said.
I asked if Mugisha could imagine the likes of marriage equality happening in Uganda. “Yeah, I really can,” he said, “but we still have a lot of work to do. It’s not about laws changing for me. In South Africa they have all these wonderful pro-LGBT laws, and a lot of hate crime.
“What we’re doing as activists in Uganda is trying to change perceptions. The laws will eventually change. They have no value. They will be struck down. But who wants to ban us, who wants to kill us: That’s my focus. I want to change the attitudes of people who vote for people who pass laws in parliament: It is a bottom-up approach.”
LGBT activists were heartened when, late last year, a Pride-related event was set to go ahead at a Kampala venue—but then Lokodo heard about it, and tried to have it shut down. First, Mugisha said, Lokodo approached the venue’s owner, who told him it was a private event and he could not close it; and then Lokodo approached the police, who also refused to intervene.
The event was being hosted by a pro-LGBT lawyer, who also made his feelings clear to the authorities when he heard what Lokodo was trying to do.
“Lokodo told us last year that the president had asked him to be tolerant,” Mugisha said. “He told us he was against ‘exhibition’ and that was what Pride was about, marching in the streets and waving flags. He compared it to Pride in London where someone had painted his picture with a weave and lipstick. He said that, although we were holding the event in a hotel, our intention would be to go out on to the streets.”
I asked if Mugisha thought that Ugandan LGBTs had really turned a corner; what if there was another crackdown, or outbreak of persecution? “People on the ground are very strong, I don’t think we are going back,” he said.
Religion remains a huge obstacle to equality, Isaac added. LGBT activists’ attempts to engage with religious leaders had been rebuffed, although the growth in new, LGBT-friendly Protestant churches had been heartening. “Young people are joining them, and they are preaching good LGBT things. Those young people are the new generation coming up, and they are receiving positive information.”
For those outside Uganda wanting to support LGBT people in the country, Isaac Mugisha asked that lobbying and support be done through countries’ embassies, “but be careful in terms of how much. Too much causes harm to people in the ground. Engaging diplomatically is the way to go. We are trying to show that the change is coming from Ugandans themselves.”
Next, Mugisha, who also sits on the board for the LGBT campaigning organization Pan Africa ILGA, wants the president, prime minister, and police to give their open support to this year’s Pride celebrations.
“We want the government to be accountable whatever happens. We don’t want Pride to be just a party. We want it to be a party that changes things in the long run, an event that makes things better for the LGBT community, so that in 10 years we can have the March that we dream to have.”
Up until now, the Pride events that have taken place have included a small parade, or just being somewhere where LGBT people can be together. That remains the objective for this year, and to have the media record it, Isaac Mugisha said. But in the future he wants “something bigger, and more open and public.”
“My dream is to have the long march,” Mugisha said, smiling. This would take place on the 5 kilometer-long Kampala Road, where the city’s carnival takes place. “That would be ideal, and afterwards I would go home and rest,” Mugisha added, laughing.