The Brave Activists Fighting for LGBT Rights in Uganda
Pride was canceled in Uganda after a brutal police raid on a party, but activists say they hope it will go on later this year—and the fight for equality and justice continues.
Part-way through my Skype interview with Adrian Jjuuko, executive director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), in Kampala, Uganda, a dog’s loud, insistent barking began. Startled, Jjuuko looked away from the camera.
He was not, however, at home and it was not a family pet. Jjuuko was at work, and what my camera could not see were, he told me, the three rows of barbed wire atop the high fences outside his office, the two security guards, the CCTV cameras, the alarm system, the reinforced metal bars on all the windows and doors… and the dog. “Every day you get used to your prison: we know this is what it is,” said Jjuuko.
Campaigning for LGBT equality in Uganda is a brave, dangerous profession, and one done dedicatedly by Jjuuko, his HRAPF colleagues, and figures like Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), and organizations like Pride Uganda and Chapter Four.
“Our guard was killed right here in May,” said Jjuuko, explaining the security procedures. ”They [the attackers] left a huge iron bar behind. They spread my documents everywhere and took nothing else. That was very chilling. We saw them [the attackers]. There were four of them. The police are doing absolutely nothing to investigate that case. They have fingerprints, blood samples, pictures, CCTV footage. I have to be strong for my staff. I have been working on LGBT rights for more than eight years now. We have to speak out and engage, because we believe it is right thing to do.”
Uganda is one of 33 African countries with anti-homosexuality laws. Jjuuko insists that positive change will come in time, and said that before the recent raid on a Uganda Pride-related party, which Frank Mugisha wrote powerfully about in The Guardian, he was optimistic that the fight for LGBTI rights in Uganda was on an upward curve since the successful quashing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA) of 2014.
Isaac Mugisha of Pride Uganda told The Daily Beast that the group still planned to hold a Pride event later this year, having had to cancel its planned rally after the police brutally raided a party earlier this summer.
“We are in negotiations with police and ministers about when it will be. It might be very soon, in October. That is what we are thinking for now. We are very hopeful,” he said. The event, he told The Daily Beast, would be a parade incorporating a march, a holy communion service, and festival as well.
The party targeted by the authorities took place on Aug. 4, three days into Uganda Pride week, a Mr/Ms/Mx Pride beauty pageant event at Venom nightclub in the Kampala suburb of Kabalagala. Sixteen people were arrested after police, “armed to the teeth” as Mugisha put it, walked into the event.
Campaigning group Chapter 4 said the police “claimed that they had been told a ‘gay wedding’ was taking place and that the celebration was ‘unlawful’ because police had not been informed (police had been duly informed, and the prior two Pride events were conducted without incident on Tuesday and Wednesday nights).”
There had been around 200 people there, who were locked inside, and detained for an hour. Some had photographs taken of themselves by officers without their consent, according to a statement by the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law (CSCHRCL), with officers taunting them their identities could be revealed.
In Frank Mugisha’s account, he writes about seeing transgender people being beaten and “touched inappropriately” by police officers to establish their “real gender.” He was insulted, abused, and with other arrestees taken to a police station where they were humiliated and intimidated.
One man, trying to escape the beatings by police at the venue, hurled himself from the fourth floor, breaking two vertebrae; his treatment will cost $5,000.
At the police station, according to CSCHRCL, two transgender men and one transgender woman “were subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment when they were groped and strip-searched by policemen. They were also beaten by the police and other inmates.”
Another attendee of the party, who requested anonymity, related to The Daily Beast that they, too, had been beaten by police until “blood was coming from all parts of my body.”
In the aftermath of the raid has come an understandable nervousness, as well as a determination on the part of activists to continue their work.
“The situation is calm,” Isaac Mugisha said of the LGBT community’s response to the raid. “Of course, the police raid left a lot of problems for people and a lot of community members scared. People are vigilant, looking around, and some are still in hiding. It was quite a scary moment for them.
“For a long time, the police had not done anything like this to the LGBT community, so it was shock for us when they actually appeared. We have achieved a lot for the movement, so whatever happened was a wake-up call to us, about dealing with police and political leaders are still very homophobic.”
The international outcry over the police’s actions had had a positive effect, he added.
“Before the party raid, LGBTI life had been more settled,” said Jjuuko. After the abolition of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, there was a rest period where police were not harassing people. The harassment was from private individuals mostly. It was more relaxed. Now there is tension, members of organizations are in hiding.”
The Anti-Homosexuality Act had sought to enshrine in law a number of homophobic measures around what it bizarrely termed “aggravated homosexuality,” “aiding and abetting homosexuality,” “attempt to commit homosexuality,” and “conspiracy to engage in homosexuality,” and “promotion of homosexuality.”
The proposed law became known as the “Kill the Gays” bill, as one of the proposed penalties for homosexuality was execution (as well as life imprisonment).
Quite beyond all those proposed new measures, homosexuality itself remains against the law in Uganda (a penal hangover from British colonial rule), and punishable by up to a seven-year prison sentence.
Jjuuko said LGBTI life is an “interesting mix” in Uganda: There have been four Pride parades (annually, since 2012), until this year’s was canceled after the party raid. Police will sometimes guard LGBTI parties, said Jjuuko, but they have also broken up meetings, citing the Public Order Management Act of 2013.
After breaking up the Aug. 4 party the police cited the same act—although parties do not come under the act’s strictures as it was a private event.
The fiercely homophobic Simon Lokodo, the Minister for Ethics and Integrity, in a condemnatory statement published on Aug. 8, decried the “promotion of homosexuality,” while claiming there was no violence against LGBTI people committed in Uganda, and that the Pride party had been disbanded without any injuries sustained.
Lokodo claimed that young people were being offered money to “promote” homosexuality in Uganda, that children and young people were vulnerable to “sexual abuse and deviation,” and the government was determined to stop “the criminal and illegal activities of the gay community.”
Lokodo made his anti-gay mission even more brutally clear in an interview last weekend with the Sunday edition of the Ugandan tabloid Red Pepper, under the headline: “Homos Want To Rape Me.” (Red Pepper had been previously notorious for publishing a list of 200 “top gays” in 2014, under the headline “Exposed.”)
Lokodo called the people at the club “shameless idiots… planning to sin.” He added, “My brother, we seem to wake up when the fire has almost burnt down the entire house. These homos are everywhere; in schools, churches, families, government institutions, villages… ooh they are everywhere. Now my commitment is to fight them; even if I remain alone, I will not give up this fight.”
Lokodo vowed to remove “homosexual materials” from schools, and said, “Every morning I say a prayer asking God to be my shield. The homos have been sending me messages threatening my life. Most of them even say they want to rape me but I don’t fear anything. This is a job and I will execute it to the maximum.”
Lokodo also claimed the son of “one of the richest Ugandans” had confessed to being gay, and described him in lurid terms, thus: “The boy is wearing three Pampers (diapers). His anus was shattered beyond repair. He cannot sit with ease. He is suffering and wallowing in pain. When the boy undressed before me pus was oozing from his rear.”
The minister concluded his feverish interview by claiming he wanted the Ugandan government to invest in a “censor gadget” made by “the South Koreans” which will “detect homos and porn actors…”
“Lokodo’s statements are misguided and lies, but unfortunately many Ugandans believe them and they are causing so much harm towards the LGBT community,” Frank Mugisha told The Daily Beast.
Isaac Mugisha added, “His [Lokodo’s] opinion is not the government’s opinion. He doesn’t represent the government of Uganda. We’ve known him as an enemy from way back. The government is bigger than him: There are a lot of people above him who are progressive and supportive.”
Is the Ugandan government supportive of LGBTI rights? I asked. “I would not say to a high extent,” said Isaac Mugisha. “But there has been progress, like in the health and justice sectors. The raid cannot make us forget about the successes we have had as a movement. We have to keep pushing and pushing. We have already achieved a lot, and we don’t want it to lose it now.”
Caroline Kouassiaman, senior program officer of Sexual Health and Rights at the American Jewish World Service, a supporter of LGBTI rights in nine countries of the developing world, said the latest wave of homophobia in Uganda, with Lokodo its figurehead, had come on the heels of periodic threats by politicians that the defunct Anti-Homosexuality Act could be revived.
“It’s being used as political leverage to gain votes, sometimes to gain votes or populist support, or to draw attention from other concerns or critiques of the government,” she said. In Uganda, she added, “there are challenges around stigma, discrimination, and violence. The LGBTI community has been strong, resistant, creative, and resourceful. There is less mob violence than there has been in the past, but people may be kicked out of their jobs, kicked out of their homes and communities, and have landlords evicting them, or be threatened, or be victims of extortion.
“There are a variety of ‘violences,’ and part of the work of organizations has been to provide an emergency and secure response to fight harassment.”
Kouassiaman also accentuated the positive: After the party raid LGBTI people were among those out on the streets of Kampala conducting safer-sex education, she said. She also pointed to LGBTI media operating in Uganda, including a magazine, Bombastic, and news website, the Kuchu Times.
“In the magazine the focus is on the violence people face, families, love and identities, rather than political issues,” said Kouassiaman. “They pushed it under all members of parliament’s doors, and I think will have really engaged people on a human level.”
For Jjuuko, while the present time offers grave challenges, he believes that in his lifetime homosexuality will be legalized in Uganda. “There is no reason why it shouldn’t. Sooner or later Uganda is going to change. Every other country has had its journey. Uganda is having its journey and something will give. Yes, it will happen—it’s just a matter of time.”
Ignorance was the first and most fundamental block to equality, Jjuuko said, followed by evangelical Christianity. Economic development affects social development, he noted: People in poor areas live in such close quarters in Uganda—“there’s no privacy if your bedroom is my sitting room”—and communities are so tightly knit, there is no privacy for LGBTI people to pursue their lives.
After the Anti-Homosexuality Act was passed (and before it was quashed), the number of cases of violence against LGBTI people increased, Jjuuko said. “Trans people are at particular risk of violence: they are the most visible.”
Beatings had been becoming more infrequent, he said. HRAPF met with police on a local level and institutions, but then raids and crackdowns such as the Aug. 4 incident happen and Jjuuko realizes that, for example, “police officers will not speak against police officers,” and so the arduous task of forming effective alliances continues.
“Things are getting better,” he said. “What happened on Aug. 4 will bring visibility to the LGBTI movement, and to what it does. It may bring more of a backlash, but more things will happen. More people will come to the table. Uganda is one of the few countries in Africa where you can talk about homosexuality. We’re not doing badly at all. In future we shall change. It has to get worse before it gets better.
“LGBTI people here are both scared and optimistic. People are being called to police stations, others are hiding away, but we have to remain optimistic. Lose that and we lose our soul. Everything is lost.”
There are some parts of Kampala—“the leafy suburbs,” Jjuuko said—“where “you can live the life of a New Yorker, and just as there are some parts of New York where you may get beaten up, it’s the same here. The difference is, in New York the police will protect you.”
Jjuuko is heterosexual, married, with three children aged 6, 5, and 3 months. “In my view, it doesn’t matter what sexual orientation you are. I don’t believe there is a distinction between me and an LGBTI person. My wife, who helped start the organization, is always supportive. She is practically worried. She is afraid: ‘What is going to happen, are we going to be killed? Are we safe? What if something happens to you, to us? Is this worth it?’ But she understands why we need to do this work and why it is so important. That’s amazing.
“We are fighting for a much more inclusive future, for our children. If they turn out to be gay, what’s wrong with that? I want them to be gay in an environment which actually supports them to live meaningful lives.
“I’m not worried about them being gay. I’m worried about them growing up in a country that doesn’t respect the rights of people who are different. That’s the fear I have for the future. Gay or not, we should have a country which respects people’s rights, and values them as human beings regardless of what their sexual orientation is.”
To that end, Jjuuko is leading a number of test cases through the courts around the registration of groups, the organization of public meetings, violence specifically aimed at LGBTI people, and the arrest of LGBTI people without grounds. “We are winning some battles, losing some, but we are pushing legal boundaries and that makes me proud,” he said.
He is particularly proud of being part of bringing Sexual Minorities Uganda and the Center For Constitutional Rights’s case against the evangelical preacher Scott Lively, accusing him of violating international law by stirring up anti-gay hatred in Uganda, starting in 2002.
The case is being heard in Massachusetts District Court; a summary judgment hearing is scheduled for Oct. 5.
Should the LGBTI activists’ arguments prevail, it will put an end, said Jjuuko, to “evangelicals coming here and importing homophobia. You can’t promote hate in other countries. You can’t export hate.”
Jjuuko is most proud, and galvanized, by the successful quashing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. “We fought so hard against that bill: the strategizing, research, fundraising the fight in court, organizing people. It was amazing, I look back, and think ‘Yes, we did it.’”
And yet, Jjuuko said, in HRAPF’s office surrounded by fencing and barbed wire, “we are prisoners in our own space for fear of the people coming to attack us, and police invasions for all kinds of things. But I believe this is the right thing and we are making progress. We have to suffer the current challenges to be able to get something more or better.
“People have to stand up and fight, and fight on the frontline. That is the trajectory of human rights everywhere, so I’m just doing what everyone has done before. And we need optimism to fight on. They can fight us, but eventually we will win this. We may lose some of the battles, but we will win the war.”
I asked Isaac Mugisha that, if Pride goes ahead as he hopes in October, would that send a message to the wider world. “Yeah, sure. We are still resilient about what we want. We want Pride to happen. People must have freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and human rights. We must make sure as a minority group we achieve that, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t.”
He was optimistic about the future, then? “Very much,” he said, and repeated the phrase twice more.
Tim Teeman has been honored in the 2016 NLGJA (Association of LGBTQ Journalists) Excellence in Journalism awards, in both the Journalist of the Year category and Interviewer of the Year category for his Daily Beast interview with Jane Clementi.