In May, I wrote an article asking whether the LGBTQ community in Uganda—a country that, fairly or not, has become an emblem of African homophobia in the eyes of Westerners—could launch another successful Pride Week this year. Now I write to ask the price of launching one.
Uganda’s 2016 Pride celebration has come to a halt after police raided a related pageant event held just outside Kampala on Thursday. The raid affected hundreds of queer people and allies who were trapped in the event space, beaten, humiliated, and threatened with public shaming. At least 16 were arrested. The raid has been followed by threats of violence from public figures including State Minister of Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo, who suggested that “if participants were to be beaten by a mob” they would have “brought it upon themselves.” As they attempt to recover from last week’s injuries and humiliation, attendees continue to suffer verbal and physical abuse from emboldened attackers, and all this at a moment when they say anti-gay violence was already on the rise across Uganda.
Because of the relationships I built while writing my last article, I heard about the initial raid about an hour after detainees were released by police. Mark, a makeup artist who worked backstage with the Mr. and Ms. Pride pageant contestants, sent a few clipped messages via Facebook: “We’ve been raided and arrested by police from the venue. We’re many, too many.” But it wasn’t until I spoke with Ritah, an organizer of Pride Uganda, that I learned what the group had experienced.
When the police arrived, Ritah was onstage preparing to thank Pride Uganda’s supporters. “I was behind the mic and suddenly people were saying, ‘Police! The Police have come!’ ” Ritah told me. “We thought it was something rather small. But before we could gather ourselves up, another group of policemen were there, and they started hand-picking trans people.” According to Ritah, nearly 300 people were in attendance, so the arrival of the police sparked a dangerous stampede. “People were scared, they were screaming. But we were in a building on the fourth floor so we could not escape,” Ritah said. Police ordered everyone to sit on the floor in a corner where they could be surrounded and inspected. “They began forcefully checking the trans people, asking ‘Are you male or are you female?’ ” Ritah told me. “People who were not really out were trying to hide their faces. But at one point the police forced us to put our faces up so that they could take pictures.”
Almost more than the threat of physical violence, it was the threat of public exposure that terrified Pride attendees—and some made desperate choices. “I was so scared because of my family,” Pride attendee Harleem told me in a subsequent phone interview. “I didn’t want my face to come out in the newspapers.” Harleem and her friend Gerald were standing near a window as the raid began, and when they saw officers chasing, detaining and photographing their companions they panicked. “My friend asked me ‘what are we going to do now?’” Harleem told me. “And I said ‘Ahhh. I don’t know now what were are going to do. Maybe we can just jump.’” Harleem jumped into a restaurant on the building’s second floor, where she hid alone for several hours. Gerald fell farther and sustained injuries that sent him to the hospital. For Ritah, this story speaks to the terrifying nature of the police force’s tactics. “By the time someone decides to jump from the fourth floor of a building,” Ritah told me, “that means he’s thinking, Better I die this time, this moment.”
Since the raid, there has been an outpouring of verbal support for Uganda’s queer community. The U.S. Ambassador to Uganda, Deborah R. Malac, released a refreshingly clear condemnation of the raid in an official statement: “No one should face abuse or discrimination because of who they are.” Media outlets like the Advocate are celebrating queer Uganda’s vow to “stand prouder” despite obstacles.
But a statement from Polly Namaye Bagambaki, deputy spokesperson of Uganda Police Force, made it clear that official Uganda will not recognize the raid as a violation. The statement suggests that the raid was motivated primarily by public safety concerns: “In attendance, there were close to one thousand (1000) people. … Such an event would require that the organizers notify the Police within the specified period for purposes of security of those in attendance as well as other members of the public who may be affected directly or indirectly by the event.” Bagambaki added that the Police Force wishes to “dispel all misinformation surrounding the incident,” an offhand dismissal of the many stories about police brutality.
Meanwhile, Pride Uganda 2016 is “canceled until further notice,” according to Mark, and its would-be participants are plagued with fear in an increasingly hostile environment. “This whole event gathered a lot of people who had to witness how the police can harm us and mistreat us. Now many people are traumatized,” Mark told me. “I’m hoping at some point there will be some secretive preparations to crown Mr. and Ms. Pride Uganda. But apparently we’ll just have to go with the flow. What can we do but cope?”
Gerald was only recently released from an undisclosed hospital, where he had been forced to claim that his injuries were the result of a boda boda (motorcycle) accident so that his family would not suspect his involvement with the queer event. And Ritah has already been subjected to another homophobic attack. On her way to a gay-friendly club over the weekend, she was accosted by a motorcyclist with whom she had driven many times. Declaring that Ritah was cross-dressing, and that her clothes were an affront, the motorcyclist and several onlookers began to strip and punch her in clear view of the club’s bouncer, who did nothing. She was able to flee only after a friend loaned her a blazer barely large enough to cover her exposed body. “I felt so bad because someone was yelling that if I didn’t undress I’d be stabbed to death,” Ritah told me. “That place was our safe place, and now I don’t think we can call it safe.”
Thinking about the night of pageant, I’m put in mind of the American organizations and individuals that helped make the event possible. NYC Pride donated items to support the event’s fundraising efforts. I personally helped collect and ship donated wigs for the evening—wigs that had to be torn from contestants’ heads before they drew scrutiny from police. We’ve done a lot of work to help queer Ugandans take risks, risks that they have every right to take. But I wonder if we’ll know what to do now that they’re experiencing the consequences.
Editor’s note: Names of Pride attendees have been changed in the interest of safety.