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Monday, 1 March 2010

Being Lesbian in Uganda

Source: The Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) - 19 Feb

By Kathambi Kinoti

Ugandan lesbian activist Kasha Jacqueline speaks about being lesbian in Uganda, and discusses the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill currently before the country’s parliament. Kasha is the Coordinator of Freedom and Roam Uganda.

AWID: Please tell us about Freedom and Roam Uganda and how it was started.

KASHA JACQUELINE: Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG) is the only exclusively lesbian, bisexual and transgender organization in Uganda. It was started by three lesbian-identified women on July 4, 2003 in a bar which at the time the media frequently called a lesbian bar. Many lesbian women who heard the news started coming to the bar to hang out and make new friends. Earlier, in April 2003 we had been approached by a group of men who claimed to have a lesbian organization by the name Makerere University Students Lesbians Association. When we asked them where the lesbians were and why it was led by men, they said that the women were “shy.” Later we did some research and learnt that these men were not university students nor did any such organization exist.

AWID: Why do you think they would do this?

KJ: Simply because they wanted to use women for their own agendas. Otherwise why would a group of men claim to be a lesbian organization?

After this incident we decided to take up the idea of forming our own lesbian organization. We then brainstormed about what to call ourselves and what the organization would look like. It wasn’t easy because when we introduced it to other lesbians they had mixed feelings. Some wanted it to just be a social club but some of us wanted it to have a political component. At this time, many people had come to know about us and the bar in which we met and would wait for us outside in order to harass us as we left. We argued that it didn’t make sense for us to meet everyday, drink, smoke, and talk about women and sex, and then leave the bar only to get harassed on our way home. This issue introduced some friction into the newly formed organization and some people left including one founder member who had wanted it to be strictly a social club.

The rest of us who still wanted to be part of the group decided that those who wanted to participate in it only to the extent of socializing would have space to do so, and those who wanted to use it as a forum for their political activism could go ahead so long as they wouldn’t expose the names or identities of those who didn’t want didn’t want these revealed to the outside world. And since then FARUG has never looked back.

AWID: What is the situation like for lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Uganda today, even without the obnoxious Bill that is currently before parliament?

KJ: Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda. For many people and institutions, it is a no- go area. Many of us have been expelled from schools just for writing love letters to our same-sex lovers, something our heterosexual colleagues are not expelled for. My principal at university even made me sign a memorandum of understanding that I would not go anywhere within a radius of 100 metres of the girls' hostels because I am a lesbian! So many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons have been expelled, sacked from jobs and sent away from families. Many do not receive appropriate and necessary healthcare services for fear of revealing their sexual orientation, identity or preferences. Transgender individuals and lesbians have been subjected to ‘curative’ rape and the perpetrators in most of the cases recorded come from the victims’ immediate families.

LGBTI persons if identified are harassed on the streets, in public recreation centres and churches. Many have been evicted from their houses by landlords. I was once thrown out of a public taxi[i]because a woman who identified me as a lesbian said she would rather pay for the empty space beside her than have me sit in the same vehicle as her. When I got out of the taxi she continued to shout and draw attention to me. Some bodaboda[ii] riders stationed nearby heard her and one of them whom I didn’t identify hit me on the head with a hard, sharp object. So it is really not a safe environment for LGBTI persons, especially those of us who are out and are actively doing advocacy work to end the criminalization.

AWID: Of grave concern is the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009 currently pending before Parliament. What the Bill is about, and what are its implications for LGBTI individuals?

KJ: Currently, section 140 of the Ugandan Penal Code criminalizes ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature’ with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Section 141 punishes ‘attempts’ at carnal knowledge with a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment. Section 143 punishes acts of ‘gross indecency’ with up to five years in prison. While the Penal Code does not specifically refer to same-sex practices between women, lesbians face the same hostility from both state and non-state actors.

The 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill expands the range of same-sex relations that would be criminalized regardless of whether or not the parties are consenting adults. It introduces an offence known as “aggravated homosexuality” for which the penalty is death. People living with HIV and AIDS who engage in same-sex relations are one of the categories of people who would be affected by this offence. Anyone who 'aids' or 'abets' homosexuality will also face criminal penalties.

Generally this Bill is just an additional proposed piece legislation to further criminalize and abuse the rights of LGBTI persons. There is currently a lot of public incitement from high profile persons like religious leaders, Ministers, Members of Parliament and so on. This has further victimized LGBTI persons: The people in power and the State that is supposed to protect us are instead calling for harsher laws against us. It is very scary not to know what the future holds for you especially when it includes facing death. Many of us are now underground for fear of abuse by State and non-state actors since lots of allegations and lies are being fuelled in the public. Many people who didn’t even have a problem with us before are now being influenced and by the anti-gay crusaders who are saying all sorts of things about us. There are allegations that members of the LGBTI community recruit children, break up families and spread HIV/AIDS through sodomy. Some cannot even go to church because every sermon is about how sick we are and what sinners we are. There is a lot of talk about how we have dirty sex from eating our faeces to urinating in our mouths. This has made the public so angry that they are ready to strike at homosexuals. Many of us are now back in the closet. I am forced to work from home now for fear of being beaten on the streets since I make frequent television appearances.

The tension and mistrust within the LGBTI community is high and there are some reports of LGBTI individuals blackmailing others. During social events one is never sure that there aren’t spies present and many LGBTI persons are now confined to their own homes. Some of our own activists are making claims that we are indeed recruiters.

AWID: Media reports imply that the Bill's proposer, [Member of Parliament] David Bahati has the financial backing of powerful right-wing evangelicals in the United States, but President Yoweri Museveni seems to have given an indication that the Bill might not succeed in its present form. How likely is it that the Bill will succeed?



KJ: We have to remember that the Bill is a Private Member’s Bill and so the President can only wait for what comes out of Parliament before deciding whether he signs it into law or not. For now, Parliament is an independent organ which cannot be directly influenced by the President, although, just like any other Ugandan, he can comment on it. My concern is that when the Bill first came into Parliament, Museveni was very clear that homosexuality is “immoral and abnormal.” Now that perhaps he has been “enlightened” that he would be violating his citizens’ human rights, he has softened his position because he knows that the donor countries that fund the Government respect human rights and that they wouldn’t spend their citizens’ taxes giving aid to a country that doesn’t respect its citizens’ human rights.

The Bill should either be withdrawn or debated as it is without any amendments to “soften” it. The public has not been sufficiently educated on its provisions and I believe if they were, they would see that it doesn’t just affect LGBTI individuals but has serious implications for everyone in Uganda.

AWID: You say that the Bill has implications for everyone in the country. What would criminalizing homosexual relations mean for anti HIV/AIDS campaigns in particular?

KJ: The Bill is going to throw away all the years of work that Uganda has put into fighting HIV/AIDS. I wonder whether the MP who introduced this Bill or some of the other leaders who support it really want Uganda to win the fight against HIV/AIDS. So many HIV positive LGBTI individuals were in the closet even before the Bill. How many more will remain in the closet, and how many who were already out will be forced to go back? Government campaigns against the disease have not been comprehensive enough to reach LGBTI individuals. Many men who have sex with men (MSM) and women who have sex with women (WSW), live double lives and this fuels the spread of HIV. Many interventions against HIV/AIDS ignore WSW assuming that they are at a low risk of contracting the virus. Yet many of them also have sex with men and do not always have the power to negotiate for safe sex. They do not have adequate information about how some practices such as sharing sex toys or needles can expose them to the risk of contracting HIV.

LGBTI organizations in Uganda have been doing great work to inform and educate the LGBTI community about the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. If the Bill passes, we will have to stop this work. Driving this community further underground is going to negate all the gains that we have achieved.

AWID: What have you, and other LGBTI activists been doing to oppose the passage of the Bill?

KJ: We have partnered with human rights, women’s rights, feminist, donor and health organizations to spread awareness about the adverse effects and implications of the Bill. We have also lobbied our allies and partners nationally, regionally and internationally to strongly throw their weight behind the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law which was formed to oppose the Bill. This partnership has opened up valuable spaces for public hearings and debates including in the media. Without these partnerships it would have been difficult to access any spaces at all. We are documenting every abuse and violation to help us in future work should the Bill pass into Law.

AWID: How can human rights advocates around the world assist you in opposing the proposed law and promoting the upholding of LGBTI rights in Uganda?

KJ: Our allies need to keep up the pressure on the Ugandan Government by signing petitions, speaking out openly and urging their governments not to waste their taxes on funding our Government since it regards LGBTI persons as secondary citizens.

The anti-gay crusaders are trying to force LGBTI persons out of our country and they know that many are scared. Uganda is where I was born and neither any person - including the President - nor any piece of paper has the power to force me out.

________________

[i] Communal taxis are commonly used as public transport in Uganda and other parts of Africa.

[ii] A bodaboda is a motorcycle taxi.

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