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 According to the New York Times, “The law was not as tough as an initial bill, introduced in 2010 and later withdrawn, that would have imposed the death sentence in some cases and would have required citizens to report acts of homosexuality within 24 hours.”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.
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.”
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.”)
“African cultures aren’t exactly accepting of gays,” Dennis says. To exacerbate that problem, Uganda is “a very religious country,” often referred to as Africa’s most Christian. “God, God, God. Culture, culture, culture,” Dennis says. Missionaries and churches and the Fellowship—the secretive US evangelical group run by Doug Coe whose stated goal is to influence politicians, be they Hillary Clinton, GOP congressmen, or Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni—have poured much money and effort into Uganda to support and bolster their Christian brethren. The Icebreakers office that Dennis and I are chatting in is a safe space, but that’s an unpublicized, unmarked secret, guarded especially from the Pentecostals we can hear testifying through their church service next door; some of the country’s loudest anti-gay voices belong to priests who’ve made themselves famous on the issue. Priests who got ink all the way across the Atlantic because they’re not just hatemongers but also friends with people like Rick Warren and the Republican congressmen in the Fellowship, three of whom had just grabbed headlines in an adultery scandal dubbed “C Street,” after the group’s DC headquarters. Bahati became famous too, saying Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and other influential Americans were behind him in his initiative, getting name-checked on NPR, doing an interview on The Rachel Maddow Show. Members of the Fellowship eventually disavowed his gay-killing efforts, but not before they pumped millions into youth programs where he could influence the hearts and minds of the next generation of Ugandan Christians. No wonder Dennis is more worried about the “extremely hostile” public than the homophobic state.
Still, there sits in the Icebreakers office the young subject of a failed anti-gay police Facebook sting. I like your smile, the cops will sometimes message a known or suspected queer, then suggest communicating by text, then suggest meeting up in person, then arrest him when he shows up. The queer calls Dennis, Dennis calls a lawyer, there’s never any gay-sex proof—the cops, after all, don’t go so far as to screw their suspects—and the charges never stick. Dennis bails someone out of jail, like this kid, about 10 times a year. It doesn’t speak well for the efficacy or enforcement of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill were it to pass, which Dennis doesn’t think it will. But “because of [pro-gay] support from the international community,” and the Western media frenzy in response to the bill, “Africans feel gays are too powerful and want to take the law into their own hands.” When Obama came out against the bill, Ugandans came out to protest, telling Obama and the rest of the gay-influenced West to mind their own business.
Since the controversy started, FARUG says, more gays have been getting evicted from their homes and bars. Bill or no bill, Dennis has a lot of advocating to do. “We’ve seen changes. More organizations have come on board. People change minds one-on-one.”
Like Geoffrey’s. He’s been waiting patiently, watching attentively, while we go around to offices full of homos all day. I had to feel him out, of course, when I hired him for this assignment, and when I asked him how he felt about all this anti-gay hullabaloo, he said, after considering for a moment, that it seemed a bit wild and unnecessary. “What is your idea?” he asked. I hesitated too. Part of my answer involves the sentence “I am bisexual,” and I sat with that in my mouth, trying to remember the last time this little brick of anxiety settled in my chest while I wondered if someone would refuse to work with me, would stop being nice, would start being weird, or even hostile. Oh, yeah. It was eight months ago. In Oklahoma. But Geoffrey was unfazed. He was pensive about the subject, certainly not militant or violent. By the time we leave Dennis’ place, he’s progressed to rampant curiosity, asking me a lot of questions about whether a gay couple has to choose which one is going to be the dude, and if so how the couple goes about deciding that.
Better that he’s asking me than Giles Muhame, a 23-year-old in a slate-blue button-down and gray pants with doughy, outsize hands who seems to have been misinformed. “Fisting tears your ass and makes pus come out,” he tells us in the courtyard of a nice hotel. This is the proprietor of Rolling Stone, the tabloid that in October 2010 published names and photos of alleged gay Ugandans with the cover line “Hang Them.” The tabloid has no relation to the American Rolling Stone, whose publisher, Jann Wenner, must be “envious that we’re stealing the show from him.” (Actually he published an open cease-and-desist letter, but Wenner has said he can’t actually do anything because the magazine never thought to trademark its name in Uganda.) Muhame had just started the little paper with his parents’ money a couple of months before that story. As for fact-checking these allegations, they had proof. Proof like “a girl acts boyish, hangs out at X place that’s haunted by gays.” For the first few days the “Hang Them” edition was on newsstands, Muhame says, nobody bought it. But then the Western media got ahold of it, and they had to do a second printing, bringing the grand total up to a few thousand. He doesn’t care that people call him a Nazi. He complains that Uganda’s real papers, the Observer and the Independent, were coming out against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and glorifying homosexuality. It was downright un-African. He says homosexuals wouldn’t be such a threat to society if they didn’t recruit in schools and coerce children into having sex with them by giving them slick cellphones. He explains that Uganda’s not supposed to be like America, where everybody loves homosexuals—that’s not true, I interrupt him—where homosexual sex isn’t against the law—only since 2003, I have to point out—where homosexuals can do whatever they want, like get married—also not true, I say. This is one of the only times in our long interview that the extremely well-spoken Muhame falters for a second. “If it is not legal in the US, why is there all this bashing of Ugandans?” he asks. And what is my country’s deal with condemning the government for wanting to hang people? “There is no country that doesn’t torture. Even the US. Remember the extradition policy to Egypt?”
Checkmate. 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.
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.