Weirdly enough, I didn’t sleep at all on the night of 31 May. I felt anxious, but I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly was happening, I guess. I felt all befuddled in the late morning, but a text from my friend Kelvin immediately woke me up. It said that 44 people got arrested that evening for attending a same-sex marriage ceremony in Kampala, Uganda. One of our friends was there, but was able to escape from the police. He injured his foot in the process, so he found themselves at a clinic.
This shouldn’t have surprised me at all. It was only a month ago that a controversial bill had passed in the Ugandan parliament. The Sexual Offenses Bill was supposed to prevent sexual violence and all forms of sexual offences in the country and was partially drafted by feminist activists. Yet there were clauses in the bill that criminalised same-sex relationships and sex work which made it hard to celebrate. It felt like taking one step forward and two steps back.
I had already been involved in research about LGBTQI+ rights in Uganda, so I knew about some of their conservative laws and that hate crimes towards queer people had taken place. Yet I couldn’t seem to reconcile all that with the wonderful, kind, and open-minded individuals I had met since I came to the country four months ago. In my experience, Ugandans have a rather laissez-faire attitude and take pride in being a peaceful nation, even though they are encircled by nations where violence thrives.
What’s a Gay?
I met Kelvin two months ago in a hotel on the shores of Lake Bunyonyi. He was there with the group of people that had been the victims of a homophobic hate crime last year. The LGBT-shelter where they had been staying was raided, and they ended up spending 52 days in jail where they were humiliated and physically abused by the police.
When I walked into the lodge, I found young and fierce guys dancing and singing to Beyoncé. They immediately caught my attention. I hadn’t seen any openly gay people around where I was staying or anyone that didn’t conform to the traditional gender prescriptions for that matter. I was also very curious to see how my local friend was going to react to them. To my surprise, he didn’t react at all and I felt bad for my assumptions.
That was until one of the guys came up to me to ask for a lighter and we started talking. I learned that these men came from Kampala and since I was also going there soon, we exchanged numbers. When I went back to my conversation with my friend, I noticed his attitude had changed. It came out that he was jealous because I was “flirting” with another guy. I laughed and said: “You know that guy is gay right?” His facial expression revealed that he had no idea what I was talking about. “What’s a gay?” he uttered confused.
Is the Mouth Just for Eating?
This event sparked a conversation with some of the local boys that I was working with, which I found both frightening and hilarious at the same time. Some excerpts from our discussions:
“How can a man marry another man? I’ve never heard of it; I don’t think it can happen.”
“If a man marries another man, then who is the head of the family?”
“But how can two men make a baby?”
The latter statement was followed by a pretty awkward explanation on my part that love and sex is not necessarily always about making babies, but sometimes just about having fun together. Which at its turn evolved into a conversation about sexuality in general, including anal and oral sex between heterosexual people.
“How can you teach us such things and on a Sunday nevertheless?” was the reaction. But it was paired with a lot of laughter and timid curiosity towards each other’s experiences, which I find exemplary for Ugandans’ attitudes towards controversial topics.
The country’s enduring president Yoweri Museveni actually tried to ban oral sex, issuing a public warning during a press conference in 2014. “The mouth is for eating” were his notorious words, “not for sex”. He blamed ‘outsiders’ for trying to convince Ugandans to perform oral sex on one another (oops, guess he wasn’t entirely wrong about that one). The president’s efforts weren’t totally a loss as a good friend has confided to me that it is hard to find a Ugandan man to go down on you, especially in the villages.
“So what do you do then?” was my instant reaction. “Is there no foreplay, you just go straight to the deed?” That’s when I learned about a thing called kachabali, which allegedly is a technique used by Bakiga men — the ethnic group of southwestern Uganda — to please women. The man holds his penis in his hand and strikes the woman’s clitoris using circular movements, first clockwise and then counterclockwise. The technique became known in the rest of the country as “Western Jazz”, referring to its origin from the west of the country. I couldn’t help but wonder if we were all going to try out new things in the bedroom after that exchange and it made me smile.
Can Sex Toys Get You Arrested?
After staying at Lake Bunyonyi for three months, I moved to Kampala where I have met some amazing friends with whom I talk more openly about sex and relationships. They laugh at Museveni’s speeches and at some of the more conservative Ugandans, and they have some great stories about living and loving in Uganda.
One of my girlfriends used to date a European guy who wanted to surprise her with a gift for her birthday. On the day the package arrived, she walked to the post office full of excitement. But arriving there, she found the police waiting for her and before she knew it, she was arrested! She had no idea what was happening. Eventually it was revealed that the package contained a sex toy, which didn’t sit right with the authorities. She got out of it, but she never got her toy back, which she’s still bummed out about.
In Kampala, it is more commonplace to see queer people in public spaces. I initially thought people were open about it and it was more accepted. One Saturday night we were all out together and we decided to go to a friend’s house for an afterparty. I started talking to one of the guys that joined us and we had a good vibe going on. All of us were dancing together and having fun, including my gay friends. I had assumed that the person I was talking to would be accepting of queer people since we had all been having a great time together. Until he blatantly told me “I’m a homophobe”. My jaw dropped.
I tried to hide my initial dismay and resumed the conversation because I wanted to understand what was going on. The guy had known that some of my friends were gay, and he had talked to them and even danced with them. So I couldn’t grasp why he would say he’s a homophobe. He explained “They can do whatever they want to do. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s just not for me.” So, I told him, “Honey, you’re not a homophobe, you’re just straight.
In Europe, saying that you’re a homophobe is about the equivalent of saying you are a terrorist. In Uganda, it’s more like saying that you don’t like vanilla ice cream. Yet with such statements being normalised, it’s hard to know how deeply rooted homophobia actually is. This man didn’t seem like he would inflict violence on anyone, yet he also didn’t seem like he would jump to the defence of a queer person being attacked.
After that experience and some others, I realised that my gay friends constantly have to carefully navigate their surroundings. They are daily negotiating what can be said or done because you never know who’s going to be a homophobe and they can pop up where you least expect it.
Is Homosexuality Un-African?
Anti-homosexual legislation in Africa is often anchored on the argument that homosexuality is ‘un-African’ and that it destroys local traditions and heterosexual family values. This was exemplified in many of my encounters. From people stating that it just “isn’t for them” to them wondering how gay people procreate because making a lot of babies is clearly a prerequisite for being a good Ugandan citizen.
Monicah Amoding, the MP who proposed the sexual offences bill, defended the legal discrimination against gays by saying “Uganda isn’t ready yet for homosexual rights. Those who are criticising us should wait for Uganda to grow up in that area. Our society hasn’t come of age to appreciate those rights that some parts of the world want us to do.” As though Ugandans are behind on the linear development towards human rights …
Yet it is widely known by historians and academics that in pre-colonial Africa, many traditional cultures were tolerant of different sexualities and gender relations. For instance, in the Baganda tribe, Uganda’s largest ethnic group, ladies from the royal clan are addressed with male titles and may or may not be required to perform duties expected of women. Among the Lango people of northern Uganda, certain men, named mudoko dako, were kindly treated by society as women, and believed to form a third gender alongside male and female.
King Mwanga II of Buganda, who ruled for a short period in the 1880s when Europeans were beginning to exert influence on the kingdom, was openly gay. Mwanga became notorious because he ordered the death of 32 male members of his court who refused to have sex with him because they converted to Christianity. What is interesting about this is that the Ugandan Martyrs, as they are now known, didn’t refuse having sex with the king because it was something that was not done at the time, but because of their newly found respect for the bible which condemned such conduct.
Sadly, any acceptance of different genders and sexualities was soon to end. In January 1892, British colonial administrator Captain Lugard managed to force King Mwanga to sign a treaty recognising the British East Africa Company’s authority in Buganda. In 1894, the British Protectorate of Uganda was born. Under British colonial rule, laws prohibiting same-sex sexual acts were enacted and brought with them the degradation of previously existing communities. In 1950, a new Penal Code system was enacted that was a brutal culmination of state sanctioned homophobia.
Is the Kill-the-Gays Bill US Backed?
The Ugandans I talked to have divergent opinions about gay rights; some of them more accepting than others. None of them, however, seemed capable of inflicting violence upon one another. Even the people who stated that they were homophobes were at the same time having fun with gay people, and their statements seemed more of an iteration of their government’s stance than actual personal conviction.
Yet violence does happen, and queer people suffer. Kelvin lost his home and income after the LGBT-shelter he was staying in was raided by the police last year. The whole thing was filmed and broadcast on national television, outing him as homosexual to the whole country, including his boss who fired him on the spot. He and 19 other residents were arrested on the grounds of disobedience towards COVID-19 restrictions, although it was clear that homophobia was the real incentive. Kelvin didn’t feel safe to go back to the shelter and became a sex worker to pay for rent and food. Now he is reliving a lot of this pain due to some of his friends going through the same thing because of another police raid.
Without excusing any homophobic utterances on any scale, I realised that the violence that threatens gay people in Uganda is state-inflicted. David Bahati, Uganda’s State Minister of Finance for Planning, introduced one of the most brutal anti-homosexuality bills in the world in 2009. The bill suggested the death penalty for homosexual conduct and imprisonment for the “promotion of homosexuality” or failing to report a person who is gay. (Editor’s note: in 2014 the Constitutional Court of Uganda ruled the resulting act invalid due to some technicality.)
Bahati is the Ugandan spokesperson for the Fellowship Foundation, an American non-profit organization with a mission to “increase the number and effectiveness of conservative activists” and to “identify, train, recruit and place conservatives in politics, government, and media.” Some twenty Christian organisations from the US are pumping millions of dollars into the country to support their homophobic and anti-abortion agendas. The mystical Fellowship Foundation is the biggest spender, with more than $20 million sent to Uganda between 2008 and 2018.
While people often like to assume that autocratic African leaders are uneducated, Bahati has a Master of Business Administration degree from Cardiff University and an executive certificate in campaign leadership from the Leadership Institute in Arlington, Virginia. It is there that Bahati allegedly met a group of influential people from The Fellowship Foundation, and they not just inspired him but also offered technical and financial support for the anti-homosexuality bill.
Investigative journalist Jeff Sharlet wrote a book about the secretive Christian group and its far-reaching political influence. The elusive story even made it into a dramatised Netflix series called “The Family”. In episode 4, it is revealed how the Foundation helped Bahati create the “Kill-the-Gays” bill as it is known in Western media.
Homosexuality therefore isn’t un-African, homophobia is. Anti-homosexuality is a colonial legacy and is perpetuated and nurtured by conservative Americans today. It is a perfect example of cultural imperialism, meaning that a powerful country not only dominates another nation economically and materially, but also imposes their culture on them.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should ignore the reality that homophobia is an issue in Uganda. As always, it is important to remember that neither Africa as a continent nor Uganda as a country forms a homogenous entity. In Uganda alone, there are more than 40 different ethnic groups and languages. And all of these ethnic groups are comprised of individuals with different feelings and opinions. Many amazing Ugandans, gay or straight, are resisting this inherited bigotry.
Resistance can be found in small things, like sneaking a kiss with a boyfriend in a public space — hasty, but steadfast and proud. Or wearing a T-shirt that demands justice for trans lives in a village where most people don’t know how to read. I have been worried about the safety and health of my queer friends lately, but at the same time, they bring me so much joy. I am excited to continually see them finding new ways of fighting old structures and writing their own narratives.