Queer Life in Kampala, Uganda

“When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers,” says Simon, a human-rights activist based in Kampala. Following the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in February, Simon says he worked overtime to help LGBTQ people whose lives were disrupted by the anti-gay fervor surrounding the bill. (Some of the Ugandans’ names have been changed for their protection.)

Photo by Thomas Mainz

In February 2014, after five years of discussion and debate, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act into law. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern explained at the time, under the legislation, “gay people faced life imprisonment for having gay sex and seven years in prison for ‘attempting to commit homosexuality’ or ‘promoting’ homosexuality.”

Outside Uganda, pundits explained the bill as an expression of homophobic bigotry, with some observers suggesting that it was largely political theater. Like many human-rights leaders inside Uganda, these critics saw it as part of a long-term effort to distract the population from the corruption and ineffectiveness of the administration.

Whatever drove its passage, this first version of the bill was short-lived. On Aug. 1, just days before Museveni was due to attend President Barack Obama’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, Uganda’s Constitutional Court struck down the law on a procedural technicality, declaring that it had passed through parliament without a quorum being present. Since then, supporters have promised to re-introduce the bill. For now, though, Uganda’s queer population is back to living under the less draconian anti-gay statutes written in Uganda’s colonial era. Some brave souls even staged a gay pride event in Entebbe shortly after the Constitutional Court’s decision was announced.

On a trip to Uganda this spring, I decided to photograph queer Ugandans to piece together a portrait of their day-to-day lives in the shadow of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. What I learned from them surprised me, even though I had been following the news coming out of Uganda for several years.

Simon, 36, is never far from one of his mobile phones. In the months following the passage of the bill, a majority of the calls were from queer youth who had been kicked out of their homes or expelled from school. He says that teachers feared breaking the law by simply having gay youth sitting in their classrooms. 

Photo by Thomas Mainz

Simon holds up all the paperwork he keeps for his human-rights work. Since they operate with the constant threat of authorities raiding their offices, most organizations supporting queer people keep documentation to a minimum in order to protect their clients from prosecution. 

Photo by Thomas Mainz

The first thing to know is that most queer Ugandans were not being hunted down and beaten in the streets. Despite the climate of fear, and the legitimate need for some to seek refuge in safe houses or outside the country, most were, and still are, getting by.

For people in the middle and upper classes, this is relatively easy: Their private lives can take place behind closed doors or behind the walls and barbed wire that surround their homes. Queer people living in poorer communities typically have much less privacy. This can lead to their being turned in by neighbors, co-workers, or even family members. In the end, the anti-homosexuality law simply made it easier for queer people to be blackmailed, giving companies, courts, and communities a free pass to discriminate against them. With or without the law, queers in Uganda are still under fire.

“If we all rush away, the spirit will die,” says Daniel. After being outed in a local paper, the 32-year-old says he lost his job and had to go underground; his partner fled the country. Though he would rather stay in Uganda, Daniel says he is planning to leave as soon as he can. “It is not safe for me here anymore,” he says. 

Photo by Thomas Mainz

While waiting for travel documents, Daniel is living in a safe house in Kampala. Exact figures are hard to come by, but local human-rights organizations claim hundreds have sought refuge in neighboring countries and around the world. 

Photo by Thomas Mainz

Muhammad, 31, says that everything changed when he and his partner were arrested in the weeks following the passage of the bill. His boyfriend fled to neighboring Rwanda soon afterward. Now he, too, wants to leave Uganda. “Life is not easy here,” he says.

Photo by Thomas Mainz

Months after being arrested and beaten, Muhammad says he is still on medication for the injuries he received from being kicked in the side by police officers while in jail. “I am not in a good condition right now,” he says. 

Photo by Thomas Mainz

“This place here, it is hell,” says Anisha, 23. Once a sales manager for a major Ugandan company, she says she lost her job soon after her co-workers heard that she was lesbian. With a shattered work reference and a tarnished image, Anisha says she probably won’t be able to get a good job in her sector again. “Now my dream is to leave Uganda, to go to the free world, to make my own money, and live without anyone following me,” she says. 

Photo by Thomas Mainz

Life is difficult for gay Ugandans despite the generally open mentality of the Ugandan people.

Most of the images from Uganda’s debate about homosexuality that make it to the West are of angry protesters waving homophobic signs. Walking the streets of Kampala, it was obvious that everyday Ugandans are not hate-mongers. In quiet conversations, average Ugandans told me they supported the bill because of things they had heard from religious leaders. When asked, most said they had never been around an openly gay person.

In recent years, Uganda was been flooded with a vibrant energy. It is a place in which change and growth are visible almost everywhere. Some say this rapid globalization might have contributed to the energy behind the law.

Ugandans tend to identify strongly with their clans, their religious beliefs, and their national identity, even as it’s beginning to shift. Politically speaking, the country is heavily dependent on foreign aid to deliver essential services—not a point of pride for anyone there. Culturally, the population is soaking up music, films, television, and religious practices from around the world.

Queerness—a taboo topic for centuries—now seems to many Ugandans to be yet another recent foreign import. However, unlike smartphones and Filipino soap operas, it is one that few people want.

For several reasons, many Ugandans associate homosexuality primarily with the sexual abuse of children. For some people, this is the only kind of same-gender sexual contact they have heard about or experienced. Precise numbers are impossible to find, but local NGOs told me that as more than a quarter of the youth have been sexually abused, and same-sex abuse is a part of that statistic. Whatever the actual numbers, the awkward, often hushed, conversation around this topic only strengthens the perception that queerness is deviant.

In the imagination of many Ugandans, homosexuals are outside predators, swooping in with gifts and money to recruit their children into a strange, chosen lifestyle that goes against their beliefs. That their child was born queer seems unimaginable to most people there, as it is in many other corners of the world.

Negative messages about homosexuality are only strengthened by religious leaders, politicians, and journalists, many of whom presented the Anti-Homosexuality Act as a stand against what they see as “moral decadence.”

What frustrates queer people in Uganda is that with very rare exceptions—such as last December’s TV debate between human-rights activist Pepe Julian Onziema and Pastor Martin Ssempa, one of the bill’s most outspoken supporters—they have no access to the national stage. Meanwhile, their opponents, especially religious leaders, are omnipresent. In recent years, Uganda has experienced an evangelical revival. Switch on a television, and you will see an international cast of evangelical pastors preaching over the airwaves. Their pictures hang on billboards and posters around the country, and these superstars sell out stadium events where the cheapest ticket can cost as much as the average monthly salary. It is hard for human-rights activists to win over the public in this climate.

By threatening gays and their allies with fines and imprisonment, the law attempted to punish non-heterosexual expression out of existence. That is impossible, but the law pushed the queer population further to the margins.

A human-rights activist rides through Kampala on her way to a health-outreach event. Though such open signs of queer identity as the sticker on her mobile phone are rare in Uganda, they do exist. Generally only activists live openly, partially protected by their status. 

Photo by Thomas Mainz

Months after the passage of Anti-Homosexuality Act, Kampala’s nightlife continued. 

Photo by Thomas Mainz

A gay Ugandan uses his mobile phone to check in with his friends before heading out to a party on a Friday night. Mobile devices have revolutionized the way queer people connect in places like Uganda.

Photo by Thomas Mainz

Gay male friends touch hands while preparing for a night out on the town. Though it is common in some parts of Uganda and across Africa for male friends to hold hands, some say this cultural norm is changing across the continent. 

Photo by Thomas Mainz

Two gay friends walk arm-in-arm through a shopping mall in the Ugandan capital. What is safe here might get someone into trouble in another part of town.

Photo by Thomas Mainz

As is often the case, the people who fare worst in this environment are LGBTQ youth and impoverished queers who lack the money or connections needed to get themselves out of trouble. One nasty rumor can get a queer 16-year-old kicked out of his home and perhaps expelled from school, destroying his future. Mere gossip can cost a gay man his home or a lesbian her job. And despite the health minister’s assurances that LGBTQ Ugandans would have full access to medical treatment, many people told me they were nervous about seeking help. Health advocates say this fear could lead to higher HIV infection rates.

Activist Isaac Mugisha walks along the fence surrounding Spectrum Uganda, one of the country’s leading nonprofits advocating for the rights of LGBTQ people. The organization has taken down the signs that once hung in its compound.

Photo by Thomas Mainz

Simon plans to stay in the country for as long as he can. “I have decided to fight from within,” he says. In spite of everything, he is still a patriot: “I am proud to be Ugandan, my roots are here.” 

Photo by Thomas Mainz

Near the end of my time in Kampala, I returned to the offices of a local human-rights organization. Offices like this are the human-rights equivalent of first aid posts. Sitting across from me in a dimly lit, whitewashed room was Simon, the activist who spends his days helping queer kids who have been kicked out of school enroll at new ones. He also maintains a safe house for queer people fleeing their families or on the run from the authorities.

Simon was stressed. Rent was due, he didn’t have the money to pay the school fees of all the kids he was helping, and he had three people living under his protection who desperately wanted out of Uganda. With or without the Anti-Homosexuality Act, he said, many of Uganda’s gays live in fear.

“Being gay is something someone feels in their heart,” he said. “But you cannot hide forever. Eventually your heart will betray you.”