Creating a Safe Space for LGBTQ Life in Uganda
The Pride Munyonyo Project
Acram Musisi is a strikingly handsome young man. His looks may not be classically beautiful, but they have an
intelligent, soulful intensity that is fascinating. As a maker of portraits, I would love to photograph him.
Acram is also an LGBT activist in Uganda. And yes, that is his real name. Like many Ugandan activists, he is not scared of going public about his sexuality and his activism, despite living in a legal and cultural environment notoriously hostile to sexual and gender diversity.
Is this because the dangers of living in what the BBC called “the world’s worst place to be gay” are exaggerated by the media and, as some claim, by activists seeking attention – and donor funding?
Even some Ugandan activists and allies criticize what one has called the movement’s habit of “crying wolf.” And despite the laws and the underlying homophobia, tens of thousands of LGBT Ugandans manage to live, work, and love.
Yes, most Ugandans think homosexuals and trans people are abominations – or worse – and the “anti-gay law” is
brutal, probably the most repressive in Africa and one of the worst anywhere in the world.
But like anywhere else, most people are too busy with their own problems to poke their noses into their neigh‐
bours’ lives, and the police usually have more urgent things to do than hunt “the gays.”
So most LGBT Ugandans, like LGBT Africans generally, get by. As long as they take precautions and keep their heads down, much like LGBT people in the West did until fairly recently.
But activism demands more than this. Rightly so. No one should have to live in shame and fear.
So people like Acram do face real dangers. Ugandan homo‐phobia is not really about eradicating homosexuality and gen‐der diversity – any sensible person knows that’s not possible – it’s about silencing the activists who want to bring sexual and gender diversity into the open and end the culture of shame and fear.
Like most, Acram has very personal motivations for fighting this cuture. He is one of those who learned very early that failing to hide can make being gay in Uganda, as he told me, “the most dangerous thing you can imagine.”
Acram explains that he discovered his sexuality at a boys’ boarding school. Like such environments anywhere, the homosocial overlapped with the homosexual. “We used to date as fellow boys, writing letters and romantic messages to each other,” Acram recalls. “Everybody had to have a ‘best friend’.”
For most boys (and girls), the feelings involved in these early romantic friendships are short-lived, but for a few, like Acram, they persist and deepen. “When I went on to high school,” he explains, “I never dated a girl. All my feeling stayed towards my fellow boys, and this was when I realized I was gay.”
But being gay in Uganda, as the teenage Acram already knew, “is seen as evil, ungodly, and an abomination to our cultural values, which claim a man can only love a woman.” In his second year of high school, Acram met his first real boyfriend, Byekwaso.
They were classmates, but Acram can’t remember how the relationship started, only that “when we became lovers, it was with a lot of fear and trauma, not wanting anybody to know our secret.”
Despite the fear of being discovered, Acram says the relationship was “amazing.”
“We lived in fear of the teachers and other students, but we were seriously in love. We were both scared, but we used to meet secretly at night in dark corners of the school, and we managed to steal some romantic times during the holidays in different spots outside.”
Boarding schools are hard places to keep a secret, especially a scandalous sex secret. Somehow Acram and Byekwaso managed to keep theirs for almost three years, but once the rumours started, “everybody was against us.”
Mocked and shunned, they were helpless against the insults and bullying. “We felt like hyenas,” Arcam told me. “None of our friends wanted to be seen with us, and the rest of the school treated us like thieves.”
A few days later, they were called to the headteacher’s office and expelled on the spot, though not before being “whipped like animals,” as Arcam describes the ordeal.
Without any resources of their own, and no one to turn to except their families, they had no choice but to carry their shame home, and since Byekwaso came from another part of the country, no choice but to go their separate ways, alone and in disgrace.
Acram, understandably, doesn’t want to talk about his feelings during this nightmare. All he will say is that on reaching home and handing over the expulsion letter from the school, he was brutally beaten by his father and then by his uncle before being chased from the house and told never to return.
“I was a shame in the village. My father was highly respected and valued there, but homosexuality is considered a curse and an evil omen. The only way to save my family from disgrace was to send me away forever.” Abandoned and homeless, Acram had no choice but to hike to the nearest large town and live on the streets. “I never saw my first love again,” he reflects. Eventually he made his way to Kampala, Uganda’s chaotic capital city,
and survived there in the Kisenyi informal settlement, popularly known as Little Mogadishu, by begging and any casual labour he could find from day to day.
Besides the struggle just to get enough to eat, he had to hide being gay from the other street people. Everyone faced constant harassment from the police. “I used to sleep under the ditches with one eye open. Night raids, beatings, and arrests by the police were common, and gangs of thieves were always ready to take anything the police did not.”
“I had been living one year on the streets of Kisenyi when a good Samaritan who knew me from my village – and knew what had happened to me – helped me find a job as a cleaner in a factory. He spotted me by accident when I was begging. He recognized me and called my name. It felt like a miracle.”
At the factory, one of Acram’s jobs was to clean the office of the company secretary, Justin. Though still young he was only a few years older than Acram – Justin was doing well and starting to climb the corporate ladder. But he was also gay.
Like a lot of closeted gays, Acram and Justin sensed the other’s interest but couldn’t openly acknowledge it. Finally, Justin approached Acram after work one day and offered him some extra “piece jobs” at his home. Acram started working there every Saturday, and gradually he and Justin “understood one another” and then became lovers.
But workplace romances are as hard to keep secret as high school ones.
Acram has no idea what gave them away. Maybe someone saw or heard something, or maybe people just put two and two together, but at some point their relationship became known.
Acram knew something was wrong from the way co-workers were looking at him, whispering and laughing whenever he went by. But he had no idea that more was going on until “one good friend warned us that a plot was being hatched against us by other employees. They had actually gathered huge sticks and stones and were ready to beat and stone us to death!”
The friend took the initiative and called the police. They rescued Acram and Byekwaso from the factory only to turn around and arrest them for “homosexual practices.”
The friend’s intervention is a good example of how important informal LGBT networks can be in a place like Uganda. He not only warned Acram and Byekwaso about the plot against them and called the police, probably saving their lives, but when they were arrested, he contacted one of the few organisations that could help them.
Ugandan Gay on Move does more than just “advocate.” It gives practical help to people persecuted for their sexuality or gender identity and was able to get Acram and Byekwaso out of jail, have the charges dropped (best not to ask how), and provide temporary shelter.
Acram says, “they turned our lives around. We were so dejected, so tired of the community that was failing to accept us, so fed up with finding ourselves back in trouble every time we seemed to have a chance of happiness, that we had almost decided to commit suicide.”
Telling this part of his story makes Acram so emotional that tears come easily. “It happens whenever I remember what I’ve gone through, and all the other LGBT people who have been victims and even lost their lives because of this hate and persecution.”
Byekwaso passed away from HIV-related causes a year or so later. Acram and he had already separated by then, because Acram wanted a monogamous relationship and Byekwaso wanted to date other men too. Still, they parted on good terms, and Acram remembers Byekwaso fondly. “He loved and cared for me. He was a great man.”
Acram’s own project, Pride Munyonyo Resource Centre, is both a tribute to Byekwaso and a testimony to his and Acram’s experience of rejection, struggle, and love, and the similar experiences of other LGBT Ugandans. In the whole of Uganda, Acram tells me, there is no safe space where people can drop in for LGBT-friendly counselling, non-discriminatory health care, free legal advice, or just relax, read LGBT literature, watch LGBT-themed films and TV, organize discussions, or socialize without worrying about harassment, blackmailers, or police raids.
Pride Munyonyo aims to be the first centre of this kind. Acram and his team are now raising funds and recruiting professional volunteers (counsellors, doctors, nurses, trainers, lawyers, etc.) to staff the centre once it’s up and running.
The greatest danger to LGBT people in Uganda, according to Acram, is simply the climate of fear, ignorance, and prejudice, and the constant danger of “mob justice” that these emotions fuel – whether perpetrated by an actual mob or by the police, who are scarcely more rational in how they deal with anyone who flouts the strict Victorian gender and sexual “morals” that Uganda inherited from colonialism.
For many years Ugandan LGBT activists have been struggling to cure this colonial hangover. The Pride Munyonyo Resource Centre will be an important step in this fight, but only if it gets the support that it needs.
To find out how you can help with funding or your skills, visit: Pride Munyonyo
Photos courtesy Pride Munyonyo Resource Centre, except Kampala market scene by J Stimp, “Shopping at Owino Market” (www.flickr.com)