KAMPALA, Uganda—An angry crowd was growing outside the home where Shamim Namutebi was staying. Word about the 19-year-old biological male “dressing as a woman” had spread. Mob justice was waiting.
The trans woman saw a chance to escape. She ran from the house in the Ugandan capital Kampala, but then tumbled to the dirt outside, fettered by fear.
Before she could rise, the mob closed in.
They kicked, punched, and beat her with long sharp sticks. Her slight body could only cower beneath their amassed hate. Then a man hurled a brick into her stomach and the pain overcame her. Her tormentors faded into black.
Shamim woke to rain tapping on her battered body, abandoned in the dirt where she fell. She was thought dead. “I had blood all over my body,” Shamim recounts from a place of refuge. “I felt so bad while being mistreated.”
The attack in August last year wasn’t the beginning of Shamim’s torment, nor will it likely be the end. Uganda is one of the most dangerous countries on earth for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. The greatest casualties of LGBT persecution are trans women as they are more visible in society, according to activists.
“People think trans people are gay… and they think it is ungodly… and un-African,” says trans woman Beyoncé Karungi, founder and executive director of Transgender Equality Uganda. “Many are rejected by their families… they can’t access education, they are on the streets, beaten up, they are raped,” she says.
Beyoncé was recently attacked by five men after returning home from work. “They said, ‘You homosexual, you are spoiling our place,’” she says. They beat her to the ground and started to strangle her. “Then someone said, ‘That’s Beyoncé,’ and they ran away. That person saved me,” she says. “They wanted to kill me.”
The perpetrators of these crimes more often than not enjoy legal impunity. Indeed, among the perpetrators are those entrusted with upholding the law.
Shamim Namutebi says she was arrested last year by police who stripped and beat her to the ground with batons. “I screamed for help, but no one could help,” she says. She had been banished from her home and village. “The police were calling me a gay man who is not worth living in this country, who deserves to be killed and beaten,” she says. She also alleges that while in custody on a separate occasion she was “corrective raped” by male inmates. The Uganda Police Force did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
LGBT people in Africa have faced waves of persecution in recent years, fueled by African governments’ anti-gay policies and divisive religious leaders. The dangers have been made worse by the meddling of characters like Scott Lively, an American evangelical preacher who is being sued in U.S. courts by the organization Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG).
As one activist told The Daily Beast last August, the aim of the suit, which alleges Lively’s actions are a “crime against humanity,” and which has been in the American courts now for five years, is to stop “evangelicals coming here and importing homophobia. You can’t promote hate in other countries. You can’t export hate.”
As things stand now, it is illegal to be gay in more than half of Africa’s countries, with punishments including prison sentences, floggings, and even the death penalty. African states at the United Nations recently attempted to stop the work of a UN independent expert investigating LGBT abuses worldwide, but the General Assembly rejected their bid.
The United States government has been an active defender of LGBT people in Africa. The Obama administration spent millions of dollars on promoting and protecting LGBT rights worldwide.
“U.S. embassies around the world have played a significant role in advancing the rights of LGBT people,” says Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Providing safe meeting spaces, facilitating informal meetings between government officials and LGBT leaders, direct engagement with leaders around discriminatory legislation, and monitoring court cases,” Reid says.
The Obama administration criticized and penalized African countries for their anti-gay laws. Among them was Uganda, where the U.S. reduced aid, imposed visa restrictions, and canceled a military exercise with the country after President Yoweri Museveni signed a harsh anti-gay law. It was later annulled by the Constitutional Court.
It is not yet clear where U.S. President Donald Trump will stand on supporting LGBT rights in Africa, but advocates aren’t hopeful. His reversal of protections for transgender students in the U.S., divisive rhetoric about minorities, the “America first” vow, and the anti-LGBT records of some in his cabinet are at odds with progressing LGBT rights in Africa, advocates say.
“I’ve spoken to activists in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Senegal… and most of them are scared,” says Pepe Julian Onziema, an LGBT rights advocate and program director for Sexual Minorities Uganda. “We saw some gains across the world for LGBT people and what we are seeing is that is going to fall back,” Onziema says.
LGBT people fear they are now at greater risk of persecution with Trump, with foes emboldened since his victory.
In Nigeria, the LGBT movement gained its “voice and determination” under the Obama administration, according to Bisi Alimi, a Nigerian LGBT activist and director of the Bisi Alimi Foundation. “The great strides we made under Obama on the continent of Africa is about to be drained in Trump’s swamps,” Alimi says. “If the funds dry up, then we have to think of what next to do.
“Just after Trump’s win, some Nigerians took to the street to celebrate his victory as an end to gay propaganda,” says Alimi. “I wish this madness will just stay at that and nothing serious will follow.”
In Uganda, anti-gay rhetoric in churches and harassment on the street and social media has increased since Trump’s win, according to SMUG’s Onziema. “People say, ‘Let’s see how Obama will protect you, now we have the power’… things like that,” Onziema says. “People felt held back by the previous administration… on their hateful opinion towards LGBT people.”
President Trump has given a glimmer of hope for LGBT rights globally after recently choosing to keep Obama’s top gay rights advocate at the State Department. But it’s unlikely the Trump administration will take the same “proactively supportive stance” as Obama’s did, according to HRW’s Graeme Reid. He says despite this, rights groups in sub-Saharan Africa will continue to work effectively. “The level of homophobic rhetoric from some leaders is an indication of the success of an African LGBT movement that is visible and vocal,” he says.
That movement has been critical in supporting the downtrodden like trans woman Shamim Namutebi, rejected by family, employers and society. The LGBT hate she has long suffered is etched in her skin. From the scar near her hairline where she says she was struck with a police baton, to the marks stretching across her thighs where the mob pummelled her with sharp sticks.
And yet there remains no trace of her own hate.
“I forgive those people,” she says. “I want nothing [bad] to happen to them. I just want them to understand who we are.”