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New Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi Uganda’s LGBT community, cropped
Photography Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

Celebrating gay pride in Uganda

As one of the worst places in the world to be LGBTQ, celebrating Pride in Uganda carries huge risks – but a dedicated community of activists is fighting for the right to live and love freely

“I was evicted from my home on my birthday. I’d been having a party, and my friends came around – including trans men and women. Basically, the whole crowd was LGBT activists and friends. That evening, my landlord banged on my door and told me that I had to leave by the morning. A community leader came around hurled insults at me, saying I’d been sleeping with a woman I’d been calling my sister. It was horrible.”

Ritah knows all about the struggles LGBT people face to live a normal life, free of persecution or fear, in Uganda today. As a lesbian woman and long-time LGBT activist, being evicted from her rented home on her birthday wasn’t entirely unexpected, but it still came as a shock. Rita was experiencing first-hand the effects of a controversial anti-homosexuality law – and she wasn’t alone.

Rarely do you come across as venomous a piece of legislation as the one passed by Uganda in December 2013. An especially pernicious act of anti-LGBT hatred, president Kaguta Yoweri Museveni signed a law meaning that being found ‘guilty’ of homosexuality would carry a life sentence. Homosexuality was already illegal in the east African country (often stoked up by US far-right Christian preachers), with widespread harassment and persecution of the estimated half a million Ugandans who currently identify as LGBT. But even this was a particularly twisted, bile-inducing piece of legislation. Amnesty International described it as “institutionalis(ing) hatred and discrimination against LGBTI people in Uganda”; the international community took note; life got even worse for LGBT people in Uganda.

Alongside introducing life sentences for those found ‘guilty’ of same-sex relationships, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill made it a crime to ‘promote’ homosexuality. If you were an NGO working with LGBT youths, a law firm providing pro-bono representation to victims of homophobic violence, or even a cafe owner allowing your venue to be used for LGBT events, you could incur the wrath of the law. The impact on the lives of everyday LGBT Ugandans was swift, and predictable. They lost their jobs, their homes and, in extreme cases, their lives.

Although the law was overturned on a technicality in 2014, life for the LGBT community in Uganda is not much better – unless you’re one of the majority who live in the shadows, never disclosing their true identity or sexual orientation for fear of violent and brutal repercussions. And even though the homosexuality act has been overturned, a controversial recent NGO bill has placed severe limitations on the work that aid organisations can do to help LGBT communities and survivors of sexual violence. 

Despite the hatred and violence, the fear and the struggle, Uganda’s LGBT community continues to survive and even thrive. Photographer Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi set out to document their resistance, as for five days in 2015 the community held its fourth-ever Pride celebration. Events took place in secret, at locations shared only by word of mouth to members of the LGBT community days before the event. Despite the huge risks involved, 2015’s Pride was Uganda’s biggest yet, with around 600 people turning out. Alhindawi’s pictures are full of joy and life – which makes it all the more shocking when you learn that, in the process of shooting the Pride Uganda series, Alhindawi was kidnapped and violently assaulted by unknown assailants.

“It was the last night of Pride, and I went to the closing party at this bar in Kamala,” the photographer explains. “I left relatively early and ended up finding what looked like a safe taxi to take me home. He started driving me really far, far away on the outskirts of Kampala. He pulled over and this other man showed up and they attacked me. One was strangling me while the other searched me with a knife. It was pitch dark, on this dirt gravel road with a forest on the other side going down a slope. You could see Kampala through the trees. I thought I was going to die.”

The violence Alhindawi experienced is but a fraction of that which blights the LGBT community in Uganda every day (she tells us that just two days prior to her attack, a Ugandan journalist was also targeted at the same venue she was). LGBT people in the country live in constant fear of being ‘outed’ in the Ugandan press, which is why many of the names in this piece have been changed. While a small community of activists like Ritah live openly, there are inherent dangers in doing so – making the Pride photo series all the more powerful, as Alhindawi explains.

“Pride in Uganda isn’t celebrated like Pride in the west. For westerners, a gay pride celebration looks a certain way. I focus on details like the razorblade used to perfect the shape of a trans-woman’s eyebrows before the Miss Pride competition, and the location in which the Pride parade took place, along paths in the lush, verdant landscape of a park near Lake Entebbe.”

Activists have to take strict precautions to ensure the safety of those attending the events – but, as what happened to Alhindawi shows, even this can’t eliminate the risks. “There was a set of rules. ‘Keep it quiet, be careful when coming in and out, and leave in groups’. I could only photograph known activists, because so many people there hadn’t come out to their friends or family and it wasn’t safe for them to be photographed – the Ugandan press will steal photos and out them in the media.”

Ritah volunteers for an organisation called Icebreakers, which offers psychosocial support, referrals to legal advice services and emergency care for young, at-risk members of the LGBT community. “Every week we hear stories of people who’ve been beaten up, been robbed of their things,” she tells me. “I wouldn’t say it’s such a happy life for me, being gay in Uganda today. It’s all about being strong and standing firm. I don’t believe in running away and seeking asylum in another country. There’s too much to be done here.”

Joaninne Nanyange is a legal representative of the Kampala-based Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, and often works with the LGBT community. “The environment (for LGBT people) in Uganda is confusing. Uganda is certainly greatly homophobic, and the public doesn’t seem ready to even have a conversation about homosexuality. But police don’t go around arresting every LGBT person they could arrest, and it’s hard to know when and how people will be triggered into homophobic violence. This uncertainty makes it extremely dangerous to live as an LGBT person in Uganda today, because you’re in perpetual fear of what might happen.”

We spoke to one of the people featured in Alhindawi’s photo series to get their take on being LGBT in Uganda today. Margaret* is a 22-year-old trans woman who has been living openly as her true gender since the age of 15. “I’m really happy, I’m really proud of being who I am.”

Margaret was incarcerated under the Anti-Homosexuality Act. “In prison, your life is like that of a dog. You’re raped; you’re discriminated against. It’s so hard”. Even out of prison, Margaret’s life often resembles little more than an extended lesson in survival. “I have tried to access work, I have tried to access jobs, but as soon as I try to dress as a woman my boss said, ‘You’ll bring my business down, because you’re an LGBT person.’ So I lost my job, I can’t ask my family for help, and I’m just living in my house with nothing to eat. I just exist.”

When you understand the reality of life for LGBT people in Uganda today, Alhindawi’s Pride photo series takes on a new, humbling quality. While many LGBT people leave Uganda for cities like Nairobi, which promise a better quality of life (although often this promise turns out to be illusory), activists like Ritah remain to fight for a more inclusive future.

“I strongly believe that every human being should be able to freely love who they want. No one can dictate who you are allowed to love.” 

All images shot by Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi. Some names have been changed in this piece to protect the identities of the individuals discussed. Amelia Bryant contributed to the reporting of this story