Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Uganda: Confronting homophobia in the Pearl of Africa

Source: Xtra

By Kaj Hasselriis

Every major city in the world has a gay hangout — a place for queers to meet, drink and cruise.

Even a city where homos are under attack, like Kampala, Uganda.

My search for a gay bar in Uganda's capital started on the internet. But it wasn't as easy as Googling "Kampala gay bar," getting a name and doing a map search.

First, I found a gay dating site where a few dozen guys in Uganda have profiles — none with photos. I created my own ad. An hour later, I got a text: "Hi dia am isaac."

We agreed to meet at Garden City, Kampala's only shopping mall. There, Isaac told me a chilling story: One night, one of his friends was making out with his boyfriend at home. Then, the friend's parents walked in. The father beat his son's boyfriend to death, then told authorities it was a robber.

I asked Isaac if there was a safe place for Kampala's gay community to meet. He said the city had a lesbian-owned bar that, once a week, has a gay night. He described where it was but said he's never gone because one of his family members lives nearby.

Isaac lives in fear that someone might see him going in.

Fortunately, I don't have that problem. So, following Isaac's instructions, I hired one of Kampala's ubiquitous motorcycle taxis to take me to a school near the city's main university. When the boda driver dropped me off, I walked down a long, dark, lonely stretch of gravel road until I found a neon sign with the name of the bar.

Tingling with excitement, I passed an armed security guard and walked in. The bar was like a giant open-air beer tent, surrounded by a tall wooden fence. On one side was a stage, where a portly emcee was trying to coax people to sing karaoke. On the other side were pool tables. And at the very back was a small bar area with a DJ booth. There, about 20 men were gathered, laughing and putting their arms around each other.

But that kind of affection isn't unique to gay men in Kampala. It's not uncommon to see straight men walking down the street, hand in hand.

Was it really a gay night? There were no rainbow flags to ease my doubt.

I ordered a Moonberg beer and stood in the centre of it all, conspicuously. As I tried to fine-tune my Afro-gaydar, a group of guys beckoned me to sit with them on wooden stools.

"Is this a special night?" I asked.

"Yes," one of the men answered.

"Do you come here every week?" I asked.

"Yes," they all said.

It was pretty obvious we were skirting around the same issue, until one of the guys asked a question of his own: "Are you gay?"

"Yes," I responded.

They all smiled. Welcome to the club.

Under an enormous, yellow moon, I met a ton of new friends. The first was a tall, flamey travel agent who introduced himself as Long Jones. Then, I met a cute bulldyke with a shaved head named Stosh, a young guy in casual business clothes named Blessed and a short, nattily-dressed boy in a sweater vest and cap who spells his name "Ryan" but prefers to go by "Ree-ann."

If it bothered them to be living in one of the world's most homophobic countries — facing what could be one of the world's most homophobic laws — they didn't show it.

Everyone I met seemed unbelievably happy.

Soon, the bar filled up. In total, about 75 homos mingled and danced to Justin Timberlake. And in the centre of it all was the bar's owner — a fierce-looking lesbian wearing a white track suit and the most beautiful pony-tailed mullet I've ever seen.

A couple of hours later, after I filled my cell phone with half a dozen new numbers, Ryan hugged me goodbye and I hopped on a boda to return to my hotel.

I'll be back next week. In the meantime, I have new friends to meet for coffee. Stay tuned for their harrowing tales of homosexuality in Uganda, in the days ahead.

Even before I landed in Uganda, I got a taste of how much influence the Christian right has on the country.

On KLM flight 561 from Amsterdam to Entebbe, I was surrounded by Christian missionaries. The plane was literally packed with Bible-thumpers from Texas to North Carolina.

Said one passenger to another: "We teach Ugandans that God wants us to have one partner for life."

She could have specified "one opposite-sex partner for life." That's because fundamentalists are landing in the Pearl of Africa by the planeload to tell Ugandans that homosexuality is a sin — a sin punishable by death, if a controversial bill gets passed this year by the Ugandan Parliament.

Last March, a trio of America's most freakish Christian zealots — Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge and Don Schmierer — visited the Ugandan capital, Kampala, and preached hatred against queers. Soon after, an ambitious young government MP, David Bahati, introduced a bill that calls for the execution of gays, the imprisonment of people who fail to report homos to the authorities and the elimination of all organizations that support gay rights.

Homosexuality has been illegal in Uganda since British colonialists criminalized it back in the 19th century. It has never been accepted. But Bahati's bill takes homophobia to a whole new level, and he claims to be doing it in the name of a man who has great influence over Ugandans — Jesus Christ.

Christianity is everywhere here. Most of the rickety mini-buses that carry people from town to town are branded with hand-made signs like "God is great" and "Jesus lives." Grocery stores are literally stacked with Bibles. And every Sunday morning, the air is filled with the sounds of worshippers.

Not all of the country's Christians are anti-gay. But there's no doubt that the debate over Bahati's bill has opened up a rhetorical floodgate of homophobia.

Shortly after my arrival in Kampala, I met three cute British guys who told me that, one Sunday, the minister in the village where they're volunteering turned his sermon into an anti-gay tirade. Then, I met a young Ugandan guy at a cafe who said he went to a public meeting where one of the country's craziest but most respected preachers, Pastor Martin Ssempa, tried to make the case for execution by showing graphic gay porn.

The first time I opened a newspaper in Uganda, it featured news of a street demonstration by children in support of the anti-gay bill. The next day, I read an article about homophobic remarks made at a local wedding by the country's vice-president. And shortly after that, another paper ran a debate on whether single-sex schools should be banned — since homo panic is causing many to think those institutions are breeding grounds for queers.

But where does Uganda's gay community fit into all this? Is there a gay community? Who's in it? Are they out — or in hiding? And what — if anything — can they do to stop this insanity?

That's the reason I've come to Uganda. I want to meet the people who are being persecuted, hear their stories and share my experiences with Xtra's readers.

Stay tuned for a revealing series of articles about Uganda's gays. Proud. Defiant. And ready to fight.

Young activist tells tale of beating, prison & defiance

Blessed Busingye was kicked out of his local supermarket in Kampala, Uganda for being gay.

"Your presence makes us uncomfortable," the store manager told him last fall.

But that's nothing compared to some of the other anti-gay experiences Busingye has endured — and he's only 21.

"Let me face reality," Busingye says in a Kampala coffee shop, with defiance in his voice. "I can't turn back now. I'm young and I'm fighting for my sexual rights."

As always, Busingye is dressed for success, in a neat shirt tucked into tight, pressed pants. With his wide smile and thin, trimmed mustache, he looks like a young Eddie Murphy at the top of his game.

Busingye grew up in a small town in western Uganda called Mbarara. He started fooling around with other boys when he was 10. "We kissed and touched," he said. "I was fond of it."

He also didn't think it was wrong. "It's something I knew was in me," he says. "I liked it so much. I didn't think it was bad at all."

In high school, Busingye had a boyfriend named John and six other gay friends. But one day, a straight boy who didn't like the attention of one of the gay boys ratted them all out. One by one, Busingye and his friends were taken to the principal's office and caned by everyone on the school staff.

"You've destroyed the school's name," the principal yelled as he beat them.

All the boys were expelled. Then they were thrown in jail.

"We were just trying to be ourselves," says Busingye. "We didn't know what we were doing was against the law."

Busingye and his friends faced years in jail. But local media attention over their arrests caused Amnesty International to spring into action. The human rights organization put a lawyer on their case and freed them after just two days.

Busingye gets a mischievous grin when he remembers those 48 hours. "It was fun," he says. The boys were all locked up together.

Busingye's parents, however, were not amused. His father wants little to do with him. "My mother isn't the same person I knew a long time ago," he says, morosely.

But the negative reaction to Busingye's homosexuality didn't cause him to retreat into the closet — it politicized him. "I was empowered," he says.

At his new high school, he started a youth club to help students deal with sexuality issues like HIV/AIDS and abortion, which is also illegal in Uganda. Then, Busingye started an NGO that acts as a network of youth clubs across the country. It's called Youth Reproductive Health Clinic Foundation (YRHCF).

"We engage with young people who are having challenges," he says, "and help them overcome them."

A few months ago, Busingye helped support two young lesbians who accused a group of men of rape. In the process, he was outed to the whole country.

Busingye's preacher, the notoriously homophobic Pastor Martin Ssempa, appeared at the trial and argued that the accused men were trying to turn the girls straight.

When Busingye's side won, Ssempa retaliated by outing his parishioner in Red Pepper, a Ugandan tabloid similar to the National Enquirer — only way dirtier.

That prompted Busingye's expulsion from his local supermarket — and his decision to join a new church.

"I love God," says Busingye. But the devout Christian doesn't tolerate homophobia. He believes the Lord is on his side. "I pray and he answers my prayers," says Busingye.

If one of his prayers is for more gay sex, the Lord giveth a lot. Last year, Busingye was sponsored to go to Amsterdam — twice — to promote his NGO.

While he was there, he discovered two new concepts: park sex and saunas. Who'd he meet? "Lots of people," Busingye says with a big smile.

This year, he hopes to get grants to go to New York and India. But if a bill to ban pro-gay organizations goes through Uganda's Parliament, YRHCF would have to fold — and Busingye could go to jail for a lot longer than 48 hours.

He's not afraid, though. "I'm still young," he says. "I'm fighting for my rights on behalf of others."

Hundreds rally against homosexuality

It wasn't quite the "Million Man March Against Homosexuality" that organizers promised, but its size was still impressive — and troubling.

In a small town in southeastern Uganda called Jinja, 350 people demonstrated against gay rights on Monday. Young and old, they carried crudely made signs with homophobic messages:

    * "Homosexuality is a curse, it leads to death!!"
    * "Let's kick sodomy out of Uganda"
    * "God hates homosexuality"
    * "Homosexuality is evil, I hate it"
    * "Sodomy is not what we need"
    * "I say no to homosexuality"
    * "Islam stands against homosexuality"
    * "Say No. Man to man homosexuality is a curse!!"
    * "Remember Sodom"
    * "It is time to stop homosexuality"
    * "Sodomy = hell"

Many of the protesters' signs targeted one man in particular — US President Barack Obama — for speaking out against a Ugandan bill that, if passed, could lead to the execution of gays and lesbians, the abolition of pro-gay organizations and the imprisonment of allies who try to hide the identities of queer friends and family.

One anti-Obama sign showed a drawing of the US president with fangs in his mouth and horns coming out of his head, along with the words "No pact with the devil."

Trevor Snapp, an American freelance photojournalist who witnessed the march, said, "If someone had been called out for being gay, they would have been ripped to shreds. Just the mere mention of homosexuality made people freak out, fall down and start shivering. It was really intense, kind of like a frenzy."

After the march, a rally was held. Christian and Islamic preachers made homophobic speeches linking homosexuality to pedophilia. Oddly, though, Snapp said that the protesters' reactions didn't always seem hateful. "People actually seemed giddy with the naughtiness of it all. Homosexuality just isn't talked about in Ugandan society."

According to Snapp, the crowd was made up of two groups of people: middle-class churchgoers and poor, shoeless villagers who were encouraged to join the mob. "Underlying all of this is poverty," he said. "Poor, uneducated people are being incited and manipulated by powerful preachers."

Snapp also saw three white men at the event who were identified to him as American Evangelicals. Yet most of the speakers blamed countries like the United States, Canada and Great Britain for spreading homosexuality. Snapp said one of the main messages was: "The West is giving aid to Africa but forcing it to become homosexual."

"There's a really clear desire of people to say 'Fuck you' to the west," he said, "and gays are being used as the scapegoats. The power of fear and scapegoating is exciting for these preachers, and they're sinking their teeth into it."

Another, bigger demonstration is being planned for Wednesday in Kampala, Uganda's capital. "If this bill goes through Parliament," said Snapp, "it'll get passed, no question. No one wants to be seen supporting this."
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