A couple at a gay bar in Kampala that recently opened Photographs by Bryan Anselm
Update (12/20/2013): On Friday, the Ugandan legislature passed the law stiffening penalties for "aggravated homosexuality." According to the New York Times, "The law was not as tough as an initial bill, introduced in 2010 and later withdrawn, that would have imposed the death sentence in some cases and would have required citizens to report acts of homosexuality within 24 hours." Gays can still be sentenced to life in prison under the final legislation.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to karaoke. And those of you who were at Buckingham Palace: Welcome back." That's a joke; none of us was at Buckingham Palace, which is 4,000 miles from here, but we've all been watching Kate Middleton storm Westminster Abbey in five yards of ivory satin gazar and appliquéd lace on televisions citywide all day. On the projector screen in this Kampala bar, the news now focuses on footage from local events, like when cops used a pistol to smash out the window of a car, unleashed a torrent of pepper spray into the faces of its passengers, including opposition leader Kizza Besigye, and then dragged them off to custody. We watch subsequent crowds of protesters being dispersed by tear gas and live rounds, wince as men get beaten mercilessly over the head with batons. But then the TV is turned off and the karaoke machine is turned on, the Chinese kind that scrolls inexplicable pictures of hay bales and people going for sunset horseback beach rides and cityscapes (Rio, maybe?) behind the lyrics. Our emcee is wearing a sweater vest and a sassy lavender shirt and high-tops. He reminds us between every song that karaoke night is all about having fun and at one point welcomes to the microphone Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, a lanky, ropy dyke with skinny dreads who gets up from our table to rock "Livin' la Vida Loca." A string of rainbow lights spells out "Sappho" over the bartender's head. When a patron performs Bryan Adams' "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?," a guy yells out, "Yes, I have!"—dramatic pause—"My mother is a woman!" and everybody laughs because that guy is gaaaaaaay, and the boys slow-dancing up front are so tender it could break your heart, and when I make eye contact with a butch gal who has her hand down the front of a femme's strappy coral tank top, she smiles and says, "I'm just checking for a heartbeat." When I ask Kasha, who's ordering us whiskey and who owns this bar—Uganda's only gay bar—if she isn't worried about somebody coming in here and hurting or arresting anybody, she shakes her head. "We're not doing anything wrong."
Uganda Penal Code Act of 1950, Chapter 120, Article 145: Unnatural offences. Any person who has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature; has carnal knowledge of an animal; or permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature, commits an offence and is liable to imprisonment for life.
That long-extant law didn't go far enough for the supporters of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, commonly referred to in the Western media as the "Kill the Gays Bill" because it upped the penalty for same-sex sex in "aggravated" circumstances (with a minor, with HIV-positivity, with frequency) to a death sentence. Once it was discovered that its proponents enjoy the love and support of American evangelicals, like the prominent group of congressmen known as the Fellowship or the Family, the headlines flowed so hard and fast that Uganda became the world's most publicized anti-gay place. Not that that stops the gays I've come to meet. Though it got her kicked out of schools, Kasha has never spent a day in the closet, and has for years been coming out, swinging, in the papers, on the radio, in response to the president saying in '99 that more gays should go to jail or to the minister of ethics saying in '07 that Ugandan gays should just leave. When Kasha was little, her mom fretted about her manly daughter's "mental illness." She wasn't allowed to live on campus when she went to university. She is tough and stylish, and she collects awards from international human rights groups for being absurdly inspirational.
LGBT activist Kasha Nabagesera (top). The sign for her Sappho Islands bar still hangs even though the pub was torn down.The office of the LGBT organization Kasha cofounded in 2003, Freedom and Roam Uganda, receives its share of arson and murder threats. And the occasion for a fellow cofounder wanting to spearhead the cause was the horror of enduring a weeklong church-sponsored corrective rape for daring to identify as transgendered. But "at the end of the day I'm hurting myself" by staying underground, one of Kasha's FARUG associates tells me when I drop by. She wants me to hide her identity, not because she's afraid of arrest or vigilantism but because we spend much of our time talking about how she has two girlfriends and one of them doesn't know that. We retire to the little cement patio in the back while, inside, a meeting commences among a pack of lesbians who look about as much like a pack of lesbians as a pack of lesbians can, polo shirts and baseball caps and shoulders squared. "If you're sane and you look at that bill, it can't really pass," the unnameable one says of Kill the Gays, which was introduced by one member of Parliament, David Bahati, and endorsed by few. She says about the majority of the government, re: homos roaming Uganda's streets: "I don't think they care." Despite the laws already on the books, in 2010 no one in the country was convicted for being gay, or in 2011 either. And even if the bill does pass, she won't go back in the closet. "It's the worst place to be. Worse than jail." With the other gay rights groups congregating in the same area, anyway, "it's almost like becoming a gay village." A lot of gays from around Uganda move to Kampala, she says, because they think it's "less hostile." It's like pre-Stonewall New York City up in here. Here, "there are [out] people who are well known and accepted."
Some of Uganda's loudest anti-gay voices belong to priests who are friends with Rick Warren and the Republican congressmen in the prayer group known as the Fellowship.
Wamala Dennis Mawejje would be one of those. Dennis, as he is known, is the 27-year-old programs manager of Icebreakers, a grassroots organization that does everything from youth advocacy to AIDS-test drives to lube distribution. "We all need to come out aggressively," he says, and he puts his money where his fucking mouth is: He's got a blog and goes on TV, even though he both worries about using public transportation in case a bigot standing nearby recognizes him and he gets nervous when someone stares at him too long. He knows that if he'd come out as a kid, not only would he have been called names, but he also would've been expelled so all the other parents wouldn't take their kids out of his school; when he came out as a university student in 2006, he lost all his friends and had to get all new, all gay ones. He's got a scar near his eye from having a bottle broken across his face—a sort of mirror image of my old boss in New Orleans, who lost his right eye after being beaten when he left a gay bar. "Ugandans take situations as they come," Dennis says. "If they see a transgender person and they want to beat them up, they will, whether the bill exists or not." (My fixer, Geoffrey, echoed this same general idea, though his example was that if I stole his cellphone and ran, a mob would chase me down, strip me of the stolen goods and all my clothes, and send me on my shamed and naked way. "It's the public's favorite way to do it.")