This essay is part of The Mantle's series Against Censorship.
What does it mean to be gay in Uganda?
It is a tough question because I have never known a different life. I am a gay man, born in Uganda, an African. It is all that I have known; it is my identity. I am African, a Ugandan, and I am gay, my secret identity—the one that has to be hidden from the rest of my countrymen.
We call ourselves kuchus, a neutral, all inclusive word. It is an identity that is ours, separate from the vileness and abuse thrown at us. We are kuchus, all of us, gay and transgender Ugandans, although life tends to be harder for my transgender friends.
In January 2011, Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato Kisule was murdered for being himself.
I had a happy childhood, I must confess, similar to most of my friends. I come from a middle class family with a working mother and father. My father is of the old school, a firm believer in the patriarchal traditions of Africa, a clan elder who is fiercely proud of our heritage. We are six brothers and six sisters sharing one father. The mothers are different. I am the second born of my siblings. I was the favourite son, the apple of Daddy's eye and, in comparison to my rebellious elder brother, a studious, immensely gifted and dutiful son. My father put all his hopes in me, a privilege that grew onerous as I grew older and realized who and what I am.
What is it like to grow up gay in Uganda?
It is hard.
The first inklings of difference: When one realizes and suppresses the surprising reactions to one’s peers. When one joins in in the raucous, very ordinary conversations of horny teenagers and must hide his own puzzlement at not being similarly aroused; instead, I was increasingly fascinated by bodies so similar to my own.
It was a time of immense conflict, for me, those teen years. I fled to religion, finding comfort in the teaching that sex and sexual feelings were something vaguely “not good.” But I couldn't deny my feelings. Nor could my developing intellect be denied in jumping to its own conclusions about my feelings.
Realizing that I was different, I instinctively chose to hide, but at the same time I was driven to devour all information about myself and these feelings within me. But the first problem was that there was hardly any information available. The old books I scoured in the school libraries hardly mentioned what being gay actually meant for an individual.
And, at the same time, there was much that I could hear from the mouths of my peers and elders. Homosexuality, it was called, this feeling of excitement and longing for the touch of another guy. It was condemned in the Bible, which was one of the few volumes daring to even mention the subject. And, was there any other interpretation than the literal one? The church, the preachers—they mentioned homosexuality only to condemn it. Decisively. Unambiguously.
I could remain celibate, play at being sexless, bury myself in my books which I loved, and pursue a career that I found challenging. But I discovered that I couldn't hide myself from my own thoughts and desires.
I simply could not be gay—it was not an option. I was an African man. I had to fall in love with a woman. I had to have children in order to make my father proud and to build a stronger clan. I had to have heirs because my dad had already designated me as his heir. Being one of the dreaded homosexuals, or homos, as we are derisively termed in popular speech, was impossible...
For some time, I lived in secret; it was so easy to hide. The camouflage is perfect because so few Ugandans can even conceive that the person next to them, a classmate, a work colleague, a relative, a clan-mate, would ever dare to be a homo. We are invisible, and we gladly embrace that cloak.
But, the hypocrisy was not to be—not for me.
Measures of Acceptance
My friends got married, and started having kids. And I played the field, hoping against hope that a change within me would occur. Others had gone and done so, accepted themselves for what they are or what society says they should be, and gotten married, according to the dictates of their surroundings.
Not for me.
I came out to myself, late. Delirious acceptance, of what I was, of the fact that I was not going to change. But I came to an impasse, too. What to do with the rest of my life, which had changed from that moment of self-acceptance? I stopped sleeping with women. Once self-accepting, I no longer felt the need to deceive others, myself included. I played the kuchu field, finding, wonder of wonders, that there were others who were like me. Very much like me, with the same feelings, hidden, with the same impulses. And, we were willing to share with each other our bodies, liberally.
But, something was missing. I wanted and yearned for something more: love, the companionship and commitment of a life mate. When I first broached this subject with some kuchu friends, I was laughed off. Kuchus, I was informed, do not make commitments, because if did, how would you hide? Impossible! Out of necessity, ours was a life of deceit.
But I did meet someone. We fell in love and have been together now for ten incredible years! Gay, Ugandan, and partnered in Uganda!
The years of self-deception fell off with maturity. Then came the years of active hiding, morphing into one another. Being in love with the man that completed me was something which helped tremendously. Holding him in my arms, making love, it was something which was so beautiful; our togetherness negated all the things that were supposedly bad. I couldn't imagine our love being ugly, bad, unblessed. Yes, I had lost my faith, because I was unable to reconcile what I was told with what I was. If I was a sinner, it seemed fit to sin without the guilt.
We hid, and continue to hide right out in the light. But, our invisibility cloak started thinning with the time that we spent together, the notice we drew to ourselves by not having the companionship of the opposite sex. Not even for show. Of course, the rumors began to seep out of the closet.
But nothing was as decisive as the decision to become active in changing our world.
Finding a Voice
It started slowly for me. Maybe it does for all of us. Once I was convinced that I was not bad because I loved my man, it was a simple logical jump to the fact that I had been deceived, for a good part of my life by those who said that to be gay was in itself bad. I was angry, and the anger was stoked, carefully. My love of books had led me to more introspection. I realized that there was much that I didn’t know, that what I had taken to be immutable truths were in fact no more than the ill-informed opinions of a few idiots. The coming of the Internet to Uganda was like being thrown into the world's biggest library.
I was angered by what I learned.
But my partner, not as involved as I was at the time, urged caution, reminding me that we were together. Risking my own exposure meant I risked his life too. And in Uganda, the probable consequences of exposure for kuchus are frightening.
My anger fuelled my writing and blogging. It was channelled into other things as well. I found like-minded “activists” intent on doing something about the world of lies that we lived in.
Being gay in Uganda is tough. Being a gay activist in Uganda is much tougher.
But the anger helped, and so did the fact that my lover was soon joining me in our activist struggle. Incensed by the seemingly unrelenting assault on us by both familiar and anonymous Ugandans, we started fighting back, if only to save our sanity. Yes, more and more people came to know that we were gay, covertly, and overtly. We have been outed a number of times in the newspapers, a risk that we ran because we were activists. “We can’t hide forever,” we opined, and continued along on our dangerous path.
My parents eventually learned the truth. I was surprised when, about three years ago, my dad came to warn us that the police had been told to arrest homosexuals. He couldn't say the words, just motioned to my partner and me.
That was his way of telling us that he knew. And, once I got enough courage to talk to him, I was met with an uncompromising demand. He needed a child from me, preferably male, to serve as an heir to the family line. Later, finding that I was not heeding his demand, even after numerous reminders and hints, he dropped his expectations—at least give him a girl child, he begged.
Meanwhile, my increasing identification with the shadowy homosexual groups was becoming more and more apparent. It got to the point when I felt I had to tell my brothers, at least some of them, that I was gay. No need to hide any longer.
Not so, said my father, now worried that the common knowledge that I was gay would undo a lifetime of his work. He is a clan leader, a respected elder in our community, and the shame that was mine would be visited upon him, he told me.
Oh, well. Tough.
I am glad that we agreed to disagree ... or is it that I was just the more stubborn of the two? I had feared telling him but, as a matter of fact, in these, his declining years, my Dad does not seem to mind so much anymore. Even the demands for a child have dropped, though I plan to have one ... although how this will happen remains uncertain right now.
An Uncertain Future
The activism of my partner and I has propelled us more and more into the spotlight. When the head of the Uganda AIDS Commission accepted that gay men existed in Uganda, stigmatizing us as one of the ”drivers” of the HIV epidemic, and then said that the government had no plans to tackle HIV prevention in gay people, we were part of the group that stormed the Implementers Meeting, an international health conference. (The late activist David Kato was with us.) Three of us were arrested, jailed, and prosecuted.1 It was only after the AIDS 2008 Conference in Mexico City, after the country came under much ridicule by the international community, that the case was finally dropped.
In 2009 three American evangelists came to Uganda to teach about the evils of the “Homosexual Agenda.” We organized a group to hear this, the latest upsurge in hate speech and lies about our sexuality. And, after that, in October 2009 came the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill in the Ugandan parliament.2
Reading the text of the bill, I remarked to my partner that, according to the proposed law, we deserved the death penalty. Well, we are “serial offenders,” aren’t we? That was the lowest ebb in our lives. I remember that I felt the worst kind of despair. There was even something called the “homosexual touch”—as if our touch could spread homosexuality like a disease. We are lepers, to be shunned. The only thing good for us was death or life imprisonment: that is what our countrymen thought of us.
That crisis was weathered, in a way: the bill stalled in parliament and we breathed a sigh of relief. Prematurely, it turned out, because this is Uganda, and gay people like us cannot be left in peace.
The Rolling Stone newspaper soon started its campaign outing gay Ugandans like never before, calling for our hanging and arrest. It was different from usual—this time our pictures were featured in the rag, captioned with what most Ugandans believed we deserved: “Hang Them.”
David Kato was one of the three activists who dared to take the paper to court. He and his fellow plaintiffs won. The law was blind to the fact that he was gay, though the accused were ready to show proof. He paid the ultimate price, bludgeoned to death in his own home. With glee, those who had recently called for his hanging swiftly labelled his murder a robbery or an incident of “gay on gay” bashing, and accused him, even in death, of the usual crimes of “recruiting” gay men or of being gay for money.
At his burial, a preacher felt that it was his right to warn the crowd about the death that awaited all homos. Well, we are kuchus. The microphone was snatched from the preacher's hands while he was at full harangue, and we continued on to bury our fallen comrade.
Yes, it is tough, being gay, and Ugandan.
But, we are both gay and Ugandan without a doubt. And, we are survivors, which must count for something, right?
February 22, 2011
1. See: http://www.aidsmap.com/page/1430548/ for more information.
2. The full text of Bill No. 18, "Anti-Homosexuality 2009," can be found here.