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The Love That Dares

The Ugandan legislature has passed a tough new anti-gay law. But it doesn't speak for everyone in Uganda.

The nightly bustle of downtown KampalaThe nightly bustle of downtown KampalaCheckmate. Indeed, Human Rights Watch senior Africa researcher Maria Burnett points out that though it's obviously hard to get accurate numbers (and Uganda's population is a tenth of ours), "there were probably more LGBT people killed in the US" for being gay in 2010 than the zero that local gay rights groups report were killed in Uganda. (There were: 27.) Though the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is the one that gets by far the most foreign media play, it is not, Burnett says when we meet at a Kampala café, "the only pressing human rights issue in Uganda." Not by a long shot. Take for example the rounding-up and torturing of some 100 Muslims (PDF) by members of the government's American-trained and -funded anti-terrorism task force. "This place is a tinderbox," she says. "Today is a perfect example." While we chat, there's occasional gunfire, followed by people fleeing past the café while our fellow patrons chew their sandwiches. They're running from nearby riots following the arrest of opposition leader Besigye and a recent hike in the price of food and fuel. The police will kill two protesters today. According to Burnett, "The government could move to convict [gay] people under the current laws, but they have not done so." In fact, the courts have upheld some of gay Ugandans' basic civil rights, ordering Muhame's tabloid to stop outing them and ruling in favor of a transgendered man who sued police for raiding his house and molesting one of his friends. This is no Iran, which actually sentences gays to death (PDF). Or Nigeria's Islamic states, where gay sex is already punishable by death by stoning. Or Honduras, where security officials condoned the rape and assault of gay detainees. "Given the lack of enforcement of so many laws in Uganda, it's very hard to imagine that [the Anti-Homosexuality Bill] would be implemented, if passed, and a gay person would be executed," Burnett says. "These days, Uganda doesn't enforce the death penalty against anybody." She says that, even if the bill doesn't pass, though, the foreign media attention has made intolerant Ugandans dig their heels in deeper. And when gay Ugandans are threatened and attacked and fired from their jobs, it's generally by ordinary civilians.

"We need to go to San Francisco," Pastor Martin Ssempa tells his congregation, "and tell the men walking around in skirts, in women's shoes, 'You are confused!'"

Desperately attempting to fuel the flames of that hate fire is Pastor Martin Ssempa. Supporter of Kill the Gays and as vilified in Western media as Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church/God Hates Fags fame. Sermon-giver ("Clap for yourselves for still coming to this church, for still supporting anti-homosexuality"). Self-pitier ("Anytime I open my mouth people are trying to ruin my reputation." "They made a mockery of me. They hired people by the dozens to mock me." "When the president had a meeting with the clergy, I wasn't invited! Because of gays, because people are worried about losing funding of the Americans"). Obsessor of poop-eating. "Stop eating poo-poo," he says to his congregation. He's not talking to them when he says that. Surely none of the 150 finely dressed people assembled for service in this cement-block room on the Makerere University campus could be a poop eater; he's just reiterating his message to gays around the world. He used to show X-rated movies of them doing so, "research" he'd scoured the internet for. But he doesn't employ those kinds of visuals anymore, an usher tells me when I ask, pretending like I'm curious merely because I don't want to watch hard-core scat porn in church on a Sunday morning. Between this guy, and Bahati, and the aforementioned ethics minister who suggested all gay Ugandans emigrate, it's no wonder the US press got all worked up that these were the kinds of friends the Fellowship cultivates in Uganda. And just as those Americans have reached out to Ugandans, so Ssempa wants to share some of his word with us. "We need to go to San Francisco," he tells his congregation, "and tell the men walking around in skirts, in women's shoes, 'You are confused!'" I smile, picturing this balding little man walking up Castro Street to pick a fight with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, large, often hairy men in whiteface and nuns' robes, thinking, Try it, motherfucker. Though the previous year there were 213 documented incidents of anti-LGBT violence in my city, famously the world's most gay-friendly. "You are a man!" Ssempa yells at his parishioners to yell at transvestites. His message isn't packaged very eloquently, and this building is dingier and this service less well attended than the regular, non-gay-hating church I went to last week. But he's very animated, and there are amplified drums and frenzied hollering over a 40-minute song, and it all wells up until the rail-thin gal to my left bursts into tears and the guy behind me is pacing like a maniac and a lady in a green skirt up front drops to her knees and rocks, and rocks, and rocks, hard back and forth to the ground. That's pretty infectious.

"Were you buying that shit Ssempa was saying?" I ask Geoffrey at a club later that night. We drove here in his SUV with a backseat full of Dennis and his friends smelling like fresh soap and cologne. This is not a gay club, but tonight is unofficially Gay Night. ("We're the biggest clients," explains Dennis of the establishment's tolerance.) Everywhere men in great pants, and occasional lip gloss, and lots of dancing and flirting. Geoffrey takes it all in stride, feeling like at this point he's learned some things. "They are just like any other human beings, with feelings and entitlements," he says. Also: "They are so courteous!" Over by the bar, a toned and sanguine gentleman tells me I stand too much like a man not to have sex with women; when I confirm that, he asks me if I was "free" to disclose it to my parents. I wasn't, actually, since before I could decide to come out I got caught, at 16, the aftermath of which involved my father uttering "twisted" and "fucked up" several times over. When I ask the gentleman the same question in turn, he drops his head and smiles. "Ah, I get the sense that they know," he says to the ground. "They just don't want to talk about it." But here, I observe, in this club, everyone seems pretty blatant about his sexuality. "This is a gay bar!" he says, rolling his eyes. "It's free, like the US."

When I return to our table, Dennis hollers at me. "Where were you?" He's got a bag full of lube packets in front of him, waiting for the friend who needed it to arrive. "I thought you were kidnapped for corrective rape."

My face turns horrified.

"Just kidding!" he says, grabbing my arm. Ha ha!

"Do you know a lot of women that has happened to?" I ask.

"Nooooo, not a lot. Like five." He laughs again: "It's not like South Africa."

Alright then. Let's party.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill dies without making it to a vote. Bahati has pledged he'll get the legislation through, somehow, someday. And indeed, in October, Parliament votes to reopen debate on the bill. Meanwhile, Sappho Islands, Kasha's bar, will close when the landlady evicts the business because of all the weirdos coming in and out. Kasha will vow to open another one, one that's bigger and even better. Then the community will get together there. And in the meantime in a couple of other bars that welcome their business. And as always, at house parties and Easter dinners, wherever they can drink and talk and live, and create a space where someone else who comes out can find all new friends like Dennis did when he joined the struggle toward a whole country of tolerance, like they have to believe exists, and until it does, create little pieces of it here.

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This story originally ran under the headline "The Love that Dares: In Uganda, politicians and newspaper editors advocate killing gay people. But they don't speak for everyone."

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