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New Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi – Uganda’s LGBT community
Photography Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

Fighting for Pride and freedom in the worst place to be gay

Pride celebrations in Uganda were halted following hostility from police: we speak to a queer activist and minister working to better life for the local LGBT community

This year we have witnessed a wide range of cultural events celebrating 50 years since male homosexuality was partially decriminalised in the UK. Queer stories have unfolded on our television screens and works by queer artists were proudly hung across the walls of the Tate. It has been a time for celebrating progress, and also for discussing the challenges that currently face our community.

But as we scrub the last remnants of glitter off our faces after a summer of Pride celebrations, it’s important to remember that life is, to put it mildly, extremely challenging for LGBTQ people in other parts of the world. 72 countries still criminalise same-sex consensual activity, and in 45 of these countries the law is applied to women as well as men. Although laws that recognise LGBTQ relationships and families are on the increase, less than one in four of the world’s states recognise or protect queer people.

Africa is the continent with the highest number of countries that criminalise homosexuality. In fact, 34 out of 55 states prohibit consensual same-sex activity. Politicians, faith leaders and the media have been quick to capitalise on hostility towards the LGBTQ community, creating the perfect storm of discrimination and violence.

In Uganda, a 2013 Pew Research Center poll found that a staggering 96 per cent of respondents answered “No” to the question “Should society accept homosexuality?” Both male and female homosexuality is illegal in the country, with male homosexuality carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Like many commonwealth nations, these laws are a legacy of British colonisation. A 2015 survey of over 100,000 gay men from 120 countries worldwide ranked Uganda as the worst place to be gay, with the majority of Ugandan respondents saying that life in the country is becoming more difficult.

Hostility towards LGBTQ Ugandans has become so bad that this year’s Pride events were cancelled following threats of arrests and violence from the authorities. “There’s absolutely no respect for LGBTQ people in Uganda,” says Jide Macaulay, founder of House Of Rainbow, an international nonprofit that encourages dialogue between religious and LGBTQ communities. Jide cites the“culture of denial” in Uganda and other African countries as one of the fundamental issues facing LGBTQ people. “They refuse to accept that family members or people in their community are LGBTQ,” he explains. “This rejection causes many people to have psychological breakdowns from constantly living in fear of violent attacks. The campaign around the world is that ‘love wins’, but at what cost?”

Politics and religion play a huge part in encouraging intimidation and discrimination towards LGBTQ Ugandans. “The Pride event didn’t happen this year because politicians are trying to score points,” says Jide. “Politicians want to show religious fundamentalists that homosexuality has no place in Uganda.”

Jide believes that the Ugandan government’s attitude towards LGBTQ people is forcing people underground and having disastrous effects on the sexual and mental health of queer Ugandans. Working with colleagues in Uganda, he set out to create a platform for faith leaders to interact with LGBTQ people, and to educate both communities on issues surrounding HIV and sexual health.

After the introduction of these programs, Jide travelled to Uganda in August last year after accepting the role of grand marshal at Pride 2016. Following a successful opening ceremony, police raided the event and all remaining celebrations were cancelled. People were beaten, arrested and outed. Two attendees were so afraid that they jumped from the fourth floor of a building to escape police, breaking their ribs in the process.

This year, Pride organisers went out of their way to start a dialogue with the authorities months in advance. “The LGBTQ community didn’t need to get permission, but I thought it was very progressive that they went to the government anyway.” Jide explains. Unfortunately, these measures were not enough. Shortly after landing in Uganda to reprise his role as grand martial, organisers received threats of violence and were informed that armed police were poised at all locations. Mindful of what had transpired the previous year, the Pride leadership were given no choice but to cancel all planned events.

“Many people have psychological breakdowns from constantly living in fear of violent attacks. The campaign around the world is that ‘love wins’, but at what cost?”

“Ethics and integrity” minister Simon Lokodo is one of the most powerful opponents of LGBTQ rights in Uganda. Lokodo is a champion of the infamous anti-homosexuality bill, which gained international attention for upgrading the maximum penalty for consensual same-sex activity from life imprisonment to death. The law briefly came into effect in February 2014 before being declared invalid by the Constitutional Court of Uganda.

As a former Catholic priest, Lokodo exemplifies how the lines that separate Uganda’s political and religious leaders have become blurred. In a 2014 interview he stated that he would rather die than kiss another man, even comparing it to eating his own faeces. Believing that the state should be able to interfere in people’s private lives, he has described homosexuality as “unnatural, abnormal and strange,” stating that it “only does damage and destruction.”

Unfortunately hearing faith leaders and politicians describing homosexuality is an abomination or un-African is part of everyday life in Uganda. As an ordained minister at an LGBTQ inclusive church, Jide struggles immensely with the homophobic rhetoric used by religious leaders. “Faith leaders are supposed to be approachable, sympathetic, passionate and extremely understanding,” he asserts. “So many preach sermons on Sundays that are an incitement of hatred towards a minority group. These words are criminal.”

But it won’t always be this way. Jide feels positive about the work that he and other organisations are doing in Uganda to create dialogue between faith leaders and the LGBTQ community. House of Rainbow has formed two LGBTQ-lead support groups to help people come to terms their faith and sexuality. These groups have the ethos that allowing LGBTQ people to love themselves will enable them to share that love with others - even those who don’t currently support them. “My message to LGBTQ people is that God loves you just the way you are.” Jide explains. “Don’t let people bully you. Don’t let your parents bully you. There are real disasters in this world, but homosexuality is not a mistake.”

“The international community has an important role to play in supporting the LGBTQ movement in Uganda: by listening to their demands, providing diplomatic support and resources for organisations at the frontline”

As a trustee, Jide has been working closely with The Kaleidoscope Trust, a London-based nonprofit working to expand the rights of LGBTQ people internationally. Paul Dillane, Executive Director of the charity, believes that Pride events are a vital way for LGBT people across the world to come together as a community, assert their rights and celebrate diversity. “Whilst successful Pride events have taken places this year in countries which criminalise homosexuality including Singapore, Jamaica and Sri Lanka, it is desperately disappointing Pride Uganda have been prevented from doing so.” he says. “The international community has an important role to play in supporting the LGBTQ movement in Uganda: by listening to their demands, providing diplomatic support and resources for organisations at the frontline.”

Pride is an important visual statement for LGBTQ Ugandans. It is a day to let their hair down and celebrate, but also to raise awareness of the community. A lot of Africans believe that being gay is secretive and deviant, so LGBTQ Ugandans simply being visible breaks down barriers. “The day that we can have a Pride that is peaceful we’ll see parents, allies and other citizens joining hands alongside us,” he adds. “Countries like the UK and Germany didn’t get to Pride overnight, it took decades. If we continue to push for protection of LGBTQ people, one day we will have a breakthrough.”

Moving forward, Jide would like to see more visibility at events such as London Pride for countries like Uganda where LGBTQ people can’t march themselves. “There’s a lot people can do to support the movement in Africa and elsewhere.

“Homophobia is not just an African problem, an Indian problem or a Russian problem - it’s all of our problem.” Pride Uganda may have been disrupted, but the struggle for equality continues.