Killing and dying in God’s name
Being gay in Uganda is like being sentenced to death, writes Lerato Mogoatlhe
DAVID Bahati does not punch the air when he compares homosexuals to terrorists and drug traffickers. His body language and peaceful tone disguises the warmonger in him. It is impossible to believe that this member of parliament is working “every day, all day”, to end homosexuality in Uganda. The deadline he has set for himself is May 12 next year.
“The Bible says those caught in sin should suffer death. The Qur’an says hang them and throw them over a cliff,” he says. “These are the words of God, by God.”
Bahati says he was “chosen” by God to table the anti-homosexuality bill in parliament.
“God chooses people he uses to deliver humanity from calamity. He used Nelson Mandela to deliver people from oppression in South Africa. He used Martin Luther King jun to speak about the evil in America and he used Mother Theresa to help the poor.”
There is a picture of Bahati with a group of pastors with their hands spread over his head as they pray for him during a church service. It is among those taken by a French photographer who has been documenting homophobia in Uganda since January. Other pictures show a community supporting the anti-homosexuality bill. Placards read: “God created Adam and Eve; not Adam and Steve”. Others: “Protect our children from sodomy”. Children look as passionate as adults raising their fits against the “evil”.
In one picture, taken during a church sermon, pastor Martin Ssempa, a soldier in the war against homosexuality, holds a laptop as his flock falls into hysterics. He was showing a clip of sexual fetish saying it was gay pornography and typical homosexual immorality. Women raised their hands up to God as rivers of tears poured down their faces: “God help us deliver Uganda from evil.”
The homosexual people in Benedicte Desrus’s pictures look pensive and fearful. They are lonely cast-outs, disowned by families and attacked by their neighbours. In one poignant picture, a group of lesbians whose faces are not shown gather around burning twigs and leaves in a ritual asking “God and the gods” to stop the one-year-old bill from being passed into law.
The crusade to preserve culture and God’s alleged will was renewed on October 2 this year by 22-year-old Giles Muhame.
His three-month-old weekly tabloid, Rolling Stone, carried an “expose” of “Kampala’s top 100 homosexuals”. “Hang them”, declared the headline. At least 29 pictures of the “men of shame” and “heartless lesbians” were in some cases accompanied by information on where they live. It was part of a series aimed at “strengthening the war against the rampage that threatens our society”.
Gay rights organisations took to the supreme court to sue for violation of privacy. The case is ongoing.
“Homosexuality,” laments Muhame, “is a creeping evil and an affliction spreading in Uganda like wild fire.”
Like Bahati, and the “95 percent” of the population, Muhame wants the anti-homosexuality bill passed as soon as possible.
The bill will not stop at legalised murder. The public will be expected to guard against homosexuality: if you see two men or women holding hands or kissing you will be obliged to report them to the authorities.
Employ a person suspected for being gay and you will be breaking the law. Medical health professionals who treat gay people without reporting them to the police within 24 hours will be abetting a crime. Teachers, parents, relatives, taxi drivers, waiters and absolutely everyone in Uganda’s population of over 30 million will be breaking the law if they do not act against homosexuals by reporting them within 24 hours of a meeting. They will face up to seven years in jail.
Bahati says, if enacted, this clause will “encourage citizens to be responsible”.
The “responsible citizens” followed Rolling Stone’s call by attacking openly gay people before and after Rolling Stone’s “public service”, in continuing with the terror on homosexual citizens.
Uganda is hostile to homosexuals, says 35-year-old “out and proud” activist Bob. Like some gay people I speak to, Bob never uses his surname in media interviews. Openly gay people and activists walk around paranoid.
They have been driven underground. They are in exile in their own country. They hide their organisations in offices free from any identification. They socialise in gay bars whose names can never be revealed, bars known only by people who have been invited there.
And even then, you never know who is watching or when a news snippet alleging drug-fuelled orgies will appear in a tabloid. It is a life lived in hiding. “We live in fear,” I keep being told by people I meet at two gay bars I went to. “It is the only time I can be in public and smile from ear to ear,” says Julian Pepe Onziema, an activist and programme director at Sexual Minorities Uganda. The advocacy organisation is not registered. “For obvious reasons,” notes Onziema, sounding resigned to life.
Onziema, who has been arrested and attacked more times than she cares to count, says the fate of homosexuals is the only thing that unites the disparate local religions.
Mufti Sheikh Ramadhan Mubajje, a Muslim leader, last month expressed concern that presidential candidates in the forthcoming elections have not taken a position on the “evil” of homosexuality.
The “hostility and criminalisation of sexuality”, Onziema says, “denies homosexuals space on the public agenda.” Onziema’s organisation is one in several that have decided to fight for the rights of sexual minorities in Uganda. Others include Freedom and Roam, Queer Youth, Spectrum, and Youth Reproductive Health Link.
They may be denied public space, but they are determined to fight for their rights.
Bob says the country’s religious obsession fuels homophobia.
Uganda is deeply religious. Mosques are next to Christian churches. In the dusty streets of downtown Kampala, congested with human traffic, hawkers, cars, scooters, wheel barrows and bicycles, you can hear sounds of evangelists shouting, “Yesu.” You are also struck by the ubiquity of hawkers selling posters inscribed with Bible verses and those portraying Jesus Christ.
Cars are emblazoned with statements like “have absolute faith in the almighty. It is a universal currency”.
Public taxis, lorries and buses often have religious declarations and Bible verses.
Craft shops sell wood carvings of Jesus on the cross. “Uganda is tied to religion,” says middle-aged Florence Mwesigiye. “The problem with homosexuality is that it is taboo to the religious and cultural values we’re bound to. But killing people is taking it far.”
Grace Nsiro of Kisengi is also against homosexuality. “They (homosexuals) need to seek God’s forgiveness and moral rehabilitation.” Like Mustafa Adbulahi, he is opposed to the death penalty.
Despite being barred from convening in public, some of the groups who fight for universal human rights did, as they often do, on World Aids Day to advocate universal access and human rights for all, as their black T-shirts read. The sizeable sea of black T-shirts stood out in a crowd of people representing various organisations at an event held in Kampala.
There were educational banners about safe sex. None of them included homosexual groups. “It is almost as if we don’t exist,” Bob notes. In another suburb at a hotel’s conference room, sexual minorities gathered to have their moment on World Aids Day.
GAYS SOCIALISE IN SECRET BARS KNOWN ONLY BY PEOPLE WHO ARE INVITED
The day-long workshop featured speakers from various organisations. They talked about human rights, advocacy and networking.
Health and sex education took on a central role.
Activist Frank took the podium to speak about the reality of being gay in Uganda. Homosexuals are denied medical treatment. A gay man of 20, Sulah, died two weeks ago of Aids complications. He had long being denied treatment by the hospitals he turned to. Even if he had the medicine, he’d still be too poor to afford eating at every meal time: employers are not falling over themselves to hire gays.
This prejudice was acknowledged by a representative from the association of Uganda’s nurses and midwives, who said it was about time health-care professionals stopped treating gay people with contempt by refusing them treatment or other services.
Two medical doctors were also on site. Dr Geoffrey Mujisha, the executive director of the Most at Risk Populations (MARPs) Network and Dr Thomas Muyunga Aquinas, who put life above prejudice, are rare in Uganda.
MARPs conducts workshops around the country to open dialogue in an attempt to change policy. Dr Aquina, whose nickname is the “Good Samaritan”, is famous – and appreciated among the gay community – for delivering compassionate and judgment-free medical help. They arrived at the hotel armed with medical kits. They also offered medical consultations and treatment.
The risk of infection was widely spoken about at the workshop: like all sexually active people today, Uganda’s sexual minorities are concerned about the spread of HIV. They are also worried that the government’s prejudice is increasing the risk: one of the myths about HIV and Aids is that you cannot get infected if you have anal sex. It has led to the rise of a phenomenon known as being on the down low. It is an African-American slang named after heterosexual men who have sex with men.
Criminalising sexuality also promotes homophobic violence. Lesbians get raped for coming out. How many broken women do we need in this battered continent that’s still ravaged by disease and poverty?
Yet, the champions of the anti-homosexuality bill remain adamant in their crusade. “The world has been captured by homosexuals,” notes Bahati, “Uganda is going to lead the war against it.”
And while anti-gay sentiment is not new in Africa, it seems to be gaining momentum.
Malawi earlier this year sentenced a gay couple to life imprisonment after they wed. They were released after international outcry. When he is not lambasting the West for Zimbabwe’s woes, President Robert Mugabe is decrying the evil of homosexuality. Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga last week called for the arrest of Kenya’s homosexual community. Meanwhile, anti-gay bills like Bahati’s are in motion in Sudan, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But homosexual minorities are not prepared to give in.
“We are tired of hiding” Onziema says, “and we will fight even if we get killed or thrown in prison.”
HOMOPHOBIC: A woman takes part in a recent anti-gay protest in Kampala, Uganda, where homosexuals live in exile in their own country. The two inserts above, show a new Ugandan newspaper that unashamadely published the names and addresses of gay people.