Under the Rainbow: U.S. group helps LGBT Ugandans travel from hatred to hope

By : Greg Stemm
Comments: 0

At a time when America and other Western countries have made tremendous strides toward LGBTQ equality – including the right to marry – one country in Africa, Uganda, has taken an entirely different path. It’s a path that has included almost unthinkable persecution, beatings, denial of health care, denial of basic living needs and even death as official, government-sanctioned actions. Shockingly, some of the blame may be laid at the feet of fundamentalist American Christian groups, although now it is people of faith from the United States who are rushing to the aid of beleaguered LGBTQ Ugandans, helping them to escape as refugees to other nations.

This is a story that will probably mortify most Americans. Uganda is a place where people are outted and then completely shunned by their families. Their names are read aloud in shame on the radio. They are fired from their jobs and evicted from their homes. Without access to living space, food or health care, many simply perish. Those that don’t can be subject to state-supported beatings, maiming or even death. The atmosphere of terror extends to the families of LGBTQ people, who can also face persecution. The stories remind one of the days of Jews in Nazi Germany.

But there is a beacon of hope in a small Quaker congregation that set out to make a difference. These dedicated individuals cautioned Watermark about what we say and how we say it; a misstep could endanger the lives of those they help and those still in Uganda who were their lifeline out. As such, some of the contacts we have quoted here asked us not to publish their real names. To do so might place them or others in danger and we have respected their wishes.

A Not So Straight Royal Past

In pre-British colony days, Uganda was ruled by a monarchy. Interestingly, the country was ruled by a gay king in the mid-1800s.

King Mwanga II was widely reported to have engaged in sexual relations with his male subjects, according to the report by NGO Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) Expanded Criminalization of Homosexuality in Uganda: A Flawed Narrative. Ugandan martyrs were reportedly burnt to death between 1885 and 1887 on the orders of Mwanga II, for denying him gay sex when they converted to Christianity.

The SMUG report is a response to the anti-gay bill proposal passed in Ugandan parliament in 2009. It is aimed at proving that same sex relationships existed throughout Africa, including the territories that now form Uganda, before the colonization.

According to the report, a commonly cited reason for maintaining or expanding criminalization of homosexuality nowadays, is that homosexuality is “un-African” or, in other words, a foreign phenomenon.

The research, however, shows that throughout Africa’s history, homosexuality has been a “consistent and logical feature of African societies and belief systems,” and that Uganda’s laws criminalizing homosexuality originate entirely from legislation introduced by the British colonial administration in 1902 and 1950.

“This was not only an attempt to modify what the colonialists saw as unacceptable behavior in the ‘native’ populations, but to stop ‘moral infection’ of colonialists themselves from the ‘native’ environment,” the report explains.

This historical evidence supports the theory that homosexuality existed before the colonization and it is not a foreign phenomenon.

It was homophobia, not homosexuality, that was introduced with the British invasion.

The report warns against the criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct as a consequence of increasing risks of HIV infection, not just among homosexuals, but in the wider society.

Raymond Byaruhanga, a doctor who runs the AIDS Information Centre in Kampala, said that a general climate of repression against homosexuals is among several reasons that HIV rates in Uganda are rising again for the first time in two decades.

How We Got Here

The Human Rights Campaign has published an extensive report detailing exactly what has transpired in Uganda in the past several years, what’s been done to help and where Ugandans are today. The report is entitled LGBT Uganda Today: Continuing Danger Despite Nullification of Anti-Homosexuality Act September 2015 By Saurav Jung Thapa, Associate Director of Research, HRC Global. Some extracts from that report can help clarify what contributed to the climate of fear and hate that exists in Uganda today:

“The repression of LGBT Ugandans has steadily intensified since the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA) bill was introduced in Parliament in October 2009. It peaked in February 2014 when President Yoweri Museveni signed the AHA into law, defying heavy international pressure not to do so. The law was infamously dubbed the ‘Kill the Gays’ bill and gained global notoriety as its original version called for the death penalty for homosexuality.

“The AHA went well above and beyond the previous criminalization of homosexuality. Consensual adult same-sex relations were already criminalized for male and female same-sex couples by Section 145 of the Penal Code Act of 1950, which was instituted during British colonial rule. The AHA criminalized and provided additional sentences of up to life in prison for consensual adult same-sex relationships, for ‘promoting’ homosexuality and for ‘aiding and abetting’ homosexual acts.

“The sponsor of the AHA was David Bahati, an ambitious young populist Member of Parliament who was eventually rewarded with an appointment to President Museveni’s cabinet in March 2015.

“Prominent African leaders, such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu of South Africa and an Ethiopian government minister, condemned the promulgation of the AHA. The World Bank suspended a planned $90 million loan to strengthen the Ugandan healthcare system. The United States, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden suspended aid programs, including a $4 million cooperative agreement between the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Ugandan Ministry of Health. Richard Lusimbo, a research and documentation manager at Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), praised African and Western leaders who spoke out against the law and credited that criticism with the increased global attention to the plight of LGBT Ugandans.

“The passage of AHA can partially be attributed to the actions of American Christian fundamentalists such as Scott Lively. These religious extremists have fanned the flames of a virulently homophobic charismatic evangelism in Uganda. A leading activist noted that this fundamentalist hate-mongering takes advantage of the deep religiosity and widespread lack of awareness on issues of sexual and gender diversity. Many of these preachers have whipped up fear by claiming same-sex marriage might be forced upon Uganda by Western powers and that LGBT people, especially ‘predatory’ gay men, will ‘recruit children into homosexuality.’ Nikilas Mawanda, a transgender activist and board secretary of SMUG, pointed out that ‘activists have not advocated for same-sex marriage, but have simply called for basic human rights protections for LGBTIQ people.’

“American Christian fundamentalists active in Uganda often hide their involvement by working through local front groups and individuals such as the Family Life Network and Martin Ssempa, a pastor. Many activists have identified Lively as having the most malignant influence. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s The Export of Hate report from September 2014, ‘(Lively) first traveled to Uganda in 2002 to warn about the LGBT menace to that country. …Many Ugandans believe he was one of the instigators of the harsh anti-homosexuality bill that was enacted in 2014, which punishes same-sex intimacy with penalties that can include life in prison.’

“A diverse coalition of individuals and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) challenged the constitutionality of the Act for violating the human rights of LGBT people. However, the Constitutional Court of Uganda ended up ruling on a technicality instead of the substance of the petition and on Aug. 1, 2014, invalidated the AHA on procedural grounds, noting that the National Assembly had passed the law without a necessary quorum. This ruling ‘left a window for Parliament or government to table an Anti-Homosexuality Bill in (the) future,’ Lusimbo noted. Other observers attributed the swift nullification of the AHA to international pressure as most cases generally languish in the Court for many years before being resolved.

“A blanket prohibition on LGBT organizing or gatherings was imposed when the AHA was in force. Following its nullification, LGBT activism slowly resumed. Hundreds of people attended low-key gatherings for Pride in August 2014 and August 2015 and the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) in May 2015. Police raids of LGBT venues have slowed down since the nullification of AHA. Ugandan LGBT activists continue to push for awareness and respect of their human rights despite seemingly insurmountable political and social hurdle.”

Friends to the Rescue

Sometimes even small groups can make a big difference. The Olympia (Washington) Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) consists of about 150 members and attendees. On April 13, 2014, the Meeting approved the following minute:

“Olympia Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends [Quakers] noted with deep concern the Ugandan Government’s passage of a law targeting the LGBTQ population. This law has created a climate where the life, health, and freedom of all LGBTQ Ugandans and those who help them are at immediate risk. We are appalled at hearing about those who have already been kicked out of their homes, denied basic rights, abandoned, beaten, imprisoned, or killed, or who live in constant fear.

“Olympia Monthly Meeting has been called to create the ‘Friends Ugandan Safe Transport (FUST) Fund’ to aid LGBTQ Ugandans who are fleeing their homeland for their lives and safety. We have been given an opportunity to provide direct assistance that will save lives.”

In the first year of this effort the group helped 1,004 Ugandans get to safety and freedom. To date, nearly 1,400 individuals have escaped because of the program, according to its website. Many others remain at risk and are trying to escape.

“Joe” is one of the two coordinators for the FUST. In the past he worked for an organization that afforded him extensive contacts in Africa. We cannot use his real name or the name of that organization because some of his contacts still in Africa could be at jeopardy of persecution themselves if they were associated with a group like FUST. Joe explains what the organization does, what they can do to help and what their limitations are:

“This project came into existence because of the request of Ugandans themselves and is set up by Africans for Africans. We (Olympia Friends Meeting – Quakers) assist them by raising money to cover the costs of the amazing work they do.

“Systems are set up by the conductors (conductor is the term used for those who serve on the ground in Uganda to physically get LGBT people out of the country. It is extraordinarily dangerous work) and those they work with for transportation, medical, psychosocial, housing, food, legal, and visa support for those who choose to leave. Donations that come to the Friends Ugandan Safe Transport Fund cover transportation, food, temporary housing while in transit, and sometimes fees for visas. We have covered some emergency medical costs for two conductors who were assaulted based on their real or perceived sexual orientation and this work they do which made them targets. We do not pay for airfare to new home countries – others cover that and other expenses.

“The conductors don’t encourage anyone to leave and neither do we. Those who leave usually have very significant threats to the lives and safety. They find the conductors – we do not refer people to them.

“None of the passengers are in the capitol Kampala where the human rights activists seem to be congregated. None of the people helped with funds from us have gone, or will be going, to the refugee camps in Kenya. We are not able to assist LGBTQ people who are in the camps. We are a small project with a limited focus and limited funds.

“Those we have funded out of Uganda have gone to Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Southern Sudan, Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, France, Germany, Ontario Canada, Turkey, Dubai, and Australia. Some have permanent resident status and some are still working on that as refugees. Other more recent passengers are being processed in interim countries for asylum status in new home countries around the world. One of the activists in Uganda working with these passengers wrote, ‘I wish to also note that the US Embassy hasn’t been so helpful in this cause.’”

Joe says he believes that the United States has not been more cooperative because the U.S. has a military installation in Uganda. He suspects the U.S. government is willing to look the other way on human rights violations to maintain that presence in this African country.

Gabi Clayton, the other co-manager of the FUST program, has had a deeply personal experience here in the United States with LGBT violence and persecution. She writes on her website:

“As the mother of Bill, a son who at 17 was assaulted on the basis of his sexual orientation 19 years ago, who committed suicide a month later because, despite being completely loved and celebrated by his family and many friends, believed that he was doomed to live in a world that would always hate him – and held in trauma beyond the help we were able to get for him, chose death and committed suicide on May 8, 1995. And so my concern is also very much for those living in such pain and fear that feel they must flee to build a life for themselves. I don’t think this is the complete answer by any means, but it is part of one.”

Share this story: