23 Sept 2011- Uganda- The brutal murder of gay activist David Kato has motivated more people to speak out. “MY BODY is not a battlefield,” declares one poster on a Kampala street.
“Uganda belongs to all who live in it,” reads another. On walls across a country known for its condemnation of homosexuality, a simple yet powerful appeal is being made: hate no more.
The Hate No More campaign, launched on August 10th, is a courageous four-month initiative to raise awareness and end discrimination. In addition to the nationwide poster campaign, LGBT activists are engaging in direct dialogue with religious leaders, NGOs, police, health providers and politicians.
“These people exist among you,” says Joshua Muhanguzi of Freedom and Roam Uganda, the organisation spearheading the campaign. “They’re your brothers, your sisters, your parents. So stop the hate.”
In the same month, following widespread international pressure, the Ugandan cabinet finally rejected the 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill proposed by MP David Bahati.
While homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, the Bill sought the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” and threatened three years’ imprisonment for those who failed to report a known homosexual within 24 hours.
As well as suffering verbal and physical abuse, many LGBT people in Uganda are expelled from school and disowned by their families because of their sexuality. Many are denied medical and counselling services.
“Lesbians have been forced into marriage to cover up their sexuality,” says Joanitah Abang, programmes manager for Freedom and Roam Uganda.
“Others have been raped by family members and friends to cure them of the ‘disease’.”
Campaigning in her home district of Lira, Abang received positive responses from the community, including the police. Local radio stations, however, accused the campaign of recruiting people to homosexuality.
“They claimed I was given money to recruit people; the whole place is on fire, they want to kill me,” she says. “I just tell people, whatever you do, you cannot break me.”
The brutal murder of gay activist David Kato in January was a harsh reminder of the high risks Ugandan activists face, but his death has motivated more people to speak out.
“The campaign is keeping David’s spirit alive,” says Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, founder of Freedom and Roam Uganda. “It was like a wake-up call, people realised the reality that this could happen to any of us; it brought us together.”
In August, Nabagesera was the opening speaker at Foyle Gay Pride in Derry, an experience which further inspired her.
“It gives me hope. I may not be alive when it happens, but I know one day in Uganda people will be able to go on those streets and celebrate who they are.”
At Sappho Islands, a gay bar set up by Nabagesera in Kampala, people have a space to express themselves and celebrate. “Here, people are allowed to be who they are. This is our place,” she says.
“For me to put the rainbow out there is a political statement.”
A backlash against the campaign has already begun, with the Family Life Network and Uganda Coalition for Moral Values rallying together as the Uganda National Parents Network to launch the Pass the Bill Now campaign on September 2nd.
In March 2009, the Family Life Anti-Homosexuality Seminar allegedly spearheaded the Anti- Homosexuality Bill. It hosted speakers from the American religious right including Scott Lively, whose presentation accused homosexuals of recruiting children and threatening Ugandan culture.
The campaign claims the legislation is necessary to protect children “targeted for recruitment, defilement and rape by homosexuals and lesbians who were being funded and trained by some western governments and international organisations operating in Uganda”.
“We sound a serious warning that we will recall any MP who betrays our children, our people and our nation,” threatened Family Life Network executive director Stephen Langa.
Geoffrey Ogwaro, co-ordinator of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, claims the Bill has had a positive impact. “People used to discuss it as ‘those people’, then suddenly on the street you heard people saying, ‘Suppose my brother is homosexual, am I going to give him in and they hang him? I can’t!’”
LGBT has been introduced into mainstream vocabulary and the visibility of LGBT activists has encouraged people to come out and seek support. “Psychologically it has a very positive impact,” says Ogwaro. “Young people now know there are support groups. Instead of becoming suicidal, they can go and talk to someone.”
Every Sunday in Kampala, the LGBT organisation Icebreakers provides a secure space for members to socialise, as well as counselling and testing days.
Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, is confident progress is being made. “Organisations are stronger, activists are freer to express themselves,” he says.
“The fact that I can be openly gay in Uganda, that young people are now coming out to their families, I tell you in 10 years there will be people coming out in parliament.”
In December 2010, Frank Gilbert formed the Rock Angels, a karaoke drag act, with 10 gay men from Bwaise slum in Kampala.
A born-again Christian, Gilbert says singing gospel brings him solace during times of isolation, such as the six months he spent homeless after his family disowned him for being gay.
Gilbert represents a challenge to the argument that homosexuality is a western import, counter to Ugandan culture and religious values. “They think it’s ungodly, that it’s a curse,” he says. “For us, who are homosexual, who are creative, we also preserve our culture; we love our culture.”
By Caelainn Hogan