The Gays of Africa and Those Who’d Like to See Them Gone
Plus the West's rich history of exporting hate. (Africa pt. 5)
I’ve alluded several times in my previous dispatches to some work I was doing in East Africa that I couldn’t disclose for reasons that would become clear later. Later has arrived, and I’m ready to get into it, because I’m no longer in Uganda where I could’ve faced 20 years in prison for doing so. I don’t know how serious of a threat this ever was. My bigger concern was always that I might draw the wrong type of attention to somebody who didn’t have the protection of an American passport.
Writing this was a labor of love and agony. There are stories in here that I am desperate to get out. I don’t know if there are revelations but I know there are moments that will surprise you as they surprised me. It is quite long, but I’ve always believed in bringing the reader into the frenzy with me come rain or come shine and letting them find their own way out.
At any rate, here it is.
1. Cross-Atlantic Bedfellows
At CPAC this past March, the annual Republican gathering of dead-eyed, sallow-faced men in damp, ill-fitting suits, a particularly yellow pundit named Michael Knowles looked out at an adoring crowd and called for the “eradication of transgenderism from public life entirely.” The clip went viral, and Knowles—who co-hosted a podcast with Senator Ted Cruz until last October—was rightly criticized for his genocidal rant. He responded in typical free speech warrior fashion by threatening to take legal action against those detractors who libeled him. He was not, he claimed, calling for an eradication of a people, rather, of an ideology, a distinction that begs the question—what to do about all those dang transgender people?
That very same week in Uganda, parliament took up a bill that sought to answer the same question, albeit in broader terms that would sweep up the whole LGBT+ community. The bill, which was signed into law in May, calls for life imprisonment for anyone who engages in gay sex. Acts of “aggravated homosexuality,” such as having sex while HIV-positive, are punishable by death. “Promoting homosexuality” can get you 20 years. This should come as no surprise to anybody who pays attention to such matters—being gay is already illegal in 30 African countries—but this bill has taken the criminalization of same sex relations to new heights, and has inspired a fresh wave of violence against LGBT+ people in Uganda.
The chastened Knowles had this to say about the barbaric new law in Uganda: “As far as I’m concerned, haha, the death penalty, haha, is a little, ha, a little harsh. [But] hey, African nations, can you come run for the legislature over here?"
As it turns out, this strange cross-Atlantic bedfellowship makes perfect sense—the same powerful white evangelical zealots in the U.S. that lobby for anti-gay legislation and prop up ghouls like Michael Knowles have been exporting their viable strain of homo-and-transphobia to Africa. This sort of thing, I learned, has been going on for a long, long time.
Also in March, a very busy March, as it were, I met Rachael LeClear, the Executive Director of Safe Place International. The organization supports the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable: LGBT+ asylum seekers and refugees in Africa who have escaped targeted violence in their home countries, often to arrive in new countries where they face more violence, even at the hands of their fellow refugees. SPI’s work is focused on helping them regain control of their lives through career and leadership training.
I helped Rachael with her fundraising pitch. She told me about SPI’s current efforts to train its next generation of leaders, each of whom had graduated from The Dream Academy. Telling their own stories of resilience would play a central role in what they do. Maybe you can see where this is going. One day Rachael asked if I’d like to get more involved. Reader, I said yes.
2. The Community
This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house, work together, and have their lives taped. Find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real. This is The Real World: Nairobi.
It was something like that, with a few key differences. It was more of a cramped apartment than a house. There was a swimming pool but it was shared by other units. There were never any sexy women in there, only screaming children. There was no hot tub, no red shag carpet. The kitchen had a window into the master bathroom. I was a stranger but the other six had known each other for some time. In fact they’d been relying on one another to survive in a society that didn’t want them to exist, so I guess you could say they were already friends before I entered the picture. Also they were all Black, African and queer, while I was none of those things. There was no camera crew—it was all rather discreet, attention was the last thing we wanted.
Somehow, the social component of the whole thing had barely crossed my mind until I arrived at the house in a dreamlike state and met my housemates. I think I became anxious. I think I became overwhelmed.
Most people who flee Uganda cross the eastern border into Kenya and apply for asylum with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Nairobi. Depending on who you ask, Nairobi is anywhere from just as dangerous as to moderately safer than Uganda for the LGBT+ community. At the very least, the laws in Kenya are less harsh, and the people crossing over have a chance at a fresh start.1 Sort of. While asylum seekers wait for their hearings, they are unable to seek formal employment or exit the country, leaving them with two options for how to live: they can stay at a UN camp, which provides shelter, food and water, or they can take their chances on their own. Kakuma, the 350%-to-capacity refugee camp that most Ugandans in Kenya are sent to, has proven to be decidedly unsafe for LGBT+ people. Reports of beatings, rapes, tent burnings and even murders have surfaced. All of my housemates had gone with option two.2
Of the six of them, only two were official refugees. They’d both lived the purgatorial existence of asylum seekers for over seven years before being granted their hearings and ultimately refugee status, each within the past six months. One of them planned on trying to move to the States. The other just wanted to get a real job. Two others were asylum seekers who had arrived in Nairobi from Uganda within the past year. Of the final two, one had migrated to Nairobi from Eastern Kenya, and one had come to town for the workshop from his home in Uganda. Each of them identified as LGBT+.
The first day is very blurry to me, but I know I overcompensated. I think I asked for each of their thoughts on the protests raging outside. I might have quoted Frantz Fanon. I definitely characterized their own journeys as harrowing. They were looking at me funny, I’m sure. I asked to be taken out for local cuisine but they all wanted pizza and burgers.
On the second day, I tried to dive right into the work I’d been assigned to do: helping each of my housemates explore their lives, and craft the stories that would serve them in their futures as community leaders and activists. I must have come in real hot. The only thing from that day that remains vivid is the way they all looked at me after I finished speaking. Just dumbstruck.
After about three and a half hours of silence, one of them spoke. “Jasper. The memories from our lives can be very painful. It is not so simple as digging them up and packaging them into stories.”
Then I blacked out for some time. All I remember is a distinct feeling that I’d botched the job and lost the confidence of the group. I imagined that they’d collectively decided I was naive, and not worth their time. I began to feel intensely out of place in the house. The social dynamic felt like a weight on my chest. I was very uncomfortable. I had nowhere to escape to. I felt like an alien. I’d signed up for a week of this.
We took a break and agreed to reconvene in an hour. I went into my bedroom and called a friend from back home. She suggested that maybe I should give my housemates a little credit. Perhaps, as people who had been judged and alienated throughout their entire lives, they would not be so quick to cast me out. She encouraged me to open up to them about what I was feeling.
I had nothing to lose, so I returned to the group and laid it all out on the table.
Finally somebody spoke. “You mzungus are so dramatic.” Everybody laughed. I exhaled.
“But thank you for telling us.”
And then the craziest thing happened—they cut me some slack. We closed our notebooks and began to hang out. They asked me questions about myself. They asked me questions about New York. They made an effort to get to know me. We went out for a walk. We broke bread. They dug up some of my old writing. They wanted to see pictures of my dog. They wanted to see pictures of every woman I’d ever dated. One of them stole my hat and began wearing it around the house. I was told I would get it back if I took a shower. Apparently I was due. They asked me why the whites always wore such dirty shoes. They let me in on their inside jokes. I showered and I didn’t get my hat back.
In those first few days, I discovered something profound about these asylum seekers and refugees, some of whom had escaped horrific persecution and violence: they were normal people. I’m not sure what I expected, but not that.
The work started. I ran through some writing prompts. They began to share more about themselves. We held a proper workshop. They engaged seriously with one another’s work. By the middle of day three, each person had landed on a personal narrative writing project to work on.
We had a lot of time on our hands. One can only write for so long. We drank beer and wine and watched shitty tv. Seven straight episodes of Hijack. First class passenger Idris Elba talked the hijackers out of their silly decision. They landed the plane safely. We couldn’t believe it. Some of them drank Smirnoff Ice. I told them that was not okay where I’m from. I told them about getting Iced and they thought it sounded great. They wanted to get Iced. We went bowling. They were all terrible. Some of the worst bowlers I’ve ever seen, one of them bowled a 17. And much more concerned with the little dancing twirl after each roll. They danced even after throwing the ball straight into the gutter. Unheard of. The dance is a celebration. What are you celebrating? Excellent dancers though. There’s a rhythm here that is missing back home. We went to the club and danced to Afrobeats until morning. We went off into our corners and wrote.
On our last day together, we visited a safe house for LGBT+ asylum seekers that had arrived from Uganda more recently. From the outside it was nondescript. A worn down three-story house the color of an old lemon. No markings. The lawn hadn’t been mowed since the turn of the century. Inside, it was alive. Lots of people lived there. Maybe twenty. Somebody was cooking steak for breakfast. The sizzle was audible from outside. Posters of handsome gays lined the walls. There was Lil Nas X. There was George Michael. It was very loud. People had fun in there. But the trauma was fresh. You could feel it.
It was a beautiful thing to watch my housemates work the room, and then co-lead a writing workshop with me. They were, I realized, heroes, in this tightly-knit community in Nairobi.
Back at our house that evening, we all shared our work for the final time. I read a draft of De(con)struction in Kenya. Three of the housemates told stories from their lives. Two had gone rogue and written short stories, their first ever. One had prepared a speech to the UN on orphans in Uganda. He’d been one himself. The writing was so raw and honest. All of their voices came through. It was remarkable. What a night. Afterwards we got drunk and sang karaoke. I did not have control of the selection. They are stuck in the aughts, these ones. Somewhere, there is video.
3. Their Stories
Between the Nairobi six, the group from the safe house, and later, fourteen Zimbabweans I’d live and work with for three days in Harare, I heard dozens and dozens of firsthand accounts of life as an LGBT+ person in East and Southern Africa.
I was torn on whether to share these stories as part of the piece. I’m writing for a mostly (if not entirely) sympathetic audience, so I doubt they’re necessary to motivate people to ‘support the cause,’ whatever that means. They will make it more real, but some of the stories are actually so awful that I’m afraid they’ll cause people to look away (I’ve ‘sectioned off’ the really bad ones so you can skip them if you prefer).
I decided to include them for a few reasons. First, because several of the storytellers asked me to. They want their stories out in the world. Second, though it’s obvious to say that ‘no two stories are the same,’ I found the tonal range to be surprising, and I think it may be helpful in whittling way at the generalizations people make about refugees and asylum seekers. And finally, from a purely self-serving perspective, I’m sharing these stories because they’re currently churning around inside of me and I don’t know what else to do with them. They have to go somewhere. Some of them are really not sitting well. Some are actually hurting me. Maybe you can absorb some and grant me a bit of relief.3
I heard stories of perseverance.
A 26-year-old man had lost both of his parents when he was young and was sent to rural Uganda to live with relatives he’d never met. After a neighbor outed him as gay, his cousin beat him so severely that he spent a week in the hospital. When he woke up he was told that his cousin would kill him if he came home. He escaped to Nairobi where he lived on the street and worked as a sex worker for two years. Eventually he was taken in by older members of the community. They helped him work through his trauma and rebuild his life. Today he combs the streets outside the UN looking for new asylum seekers who might need help. He serves as a mentor to countless others. That much was clear from the reactions in the room.
A 73-year-old man had lived his entire life in the closet. His first true love affair was during the Rhodesian Bush War in the 1970s, but only after a chance encounter with an activist in Harare nearly 50 years later did he begin the process of coming out. While telling us his story, he disclosed that it was the first time he’d shared it with anyone outside of a handful of secret lovers. He had traveled five hours by bus to get to the workshop by our start time at 10am. He wore a full suit with a straw hat. When he told us he couldn’t fully accept himself, the group embraced him. Physically. They used sheer force. He never stood a chance. He walked out of there a little bit different than he’d come in. A little bit lighter. He told me as much. He put his hand on my shoulder and whispered something very kind to me. Later my housemates told me that what he’d actually done was a secret trick that would turn me gay. I asked him over text and he said it was true. He texts like a grandpa.
I heard stories of pure horror.
Major, major trigger warning: intense, deeply upsetting sexual violence is described in these next two paragraphs. You can skip them without losing the plot. I am leaving a few dots on either side of them so you can easily scroll right past them.
A 45-year-old man was caught with his male lover by his brother on Christmas in Northern Uganda. The brother yelled and his parents and other brother and even the neighbors came in and beat them with sticks and threw stones at them while they were still naked. His sister gave him some money so he and his lover could escape to Kenya. They wound up at Kakuma where his lover blackmailed him for the money from his sister. He called his bluff. His lover called the police and he was arrested on suspicion of sodomy. He was never charged with a crime, though he spent over a year in one of the country’s toughest prisons where he was repeatedly sodomized and gang raped. He has been free for several years but he has periodic spells of nightmares that debilitate him for days at a time. He said the worst part is still the heartbreak, though. They’d been together for many years. He looked like he was straight out of a J. Crew ad. His dream is to get married and have a big family.
A 21-year-old trans woman was arrested without charge while studying medicine in Western Uganda. She’d come from a traditional family and her parents had not known she was trans. She was still a son to them. When they bailed her out of jail one month later, she thought she’d been rescued. They were eerily silent in the car. Once they returned home, her mother hurried upstairs. Her father picked up a kitchen knife and held her down while she screamed and begged him to let her go. He claimed that this was what she wanted, and then castrated her. She was thrown out of the house and left to bleed out. She somehow made it to the hospital where she was refused treatment because her father had outed her in the local paper for bringing shame to the whole community. She closed her eyes and waited to die, but a nurse found her the next morning and helped her. She took a bus to Nairobi where she was picked up and brought to the safe house where she still lives. This had happened about a year ago. Recently a family member spotted her in a Facebook photo taken at a memorial service for an asylum seeker that had died by suicide. He’d been looking for her. He saved the photo and was now posting it online nearly daily, asking for tips. She is being hunted. She has severe untreated medical issues and not a dollar to her name. She didn’t blink while she told the story. She looked at the floor. Her face never changed. She went into a sort of trance. She had short hair. She wore grey sweatpants and a blue tee shirt. She was small and looked more like a teenager to me, but her clothes were still too small for her. The story made me physically ill, something I’ve never experienced before.4 I had to excuse myself to take a walk. It is just so unimaginable, I still don’t want to believe it’s true. How could parents do that to their child? I don’t understand. How could they? When I came back she was holding court in the safe house, this time telling a story about the fake same sex wedding she and her friends had thrown which had led to her arrest. She was really hamming it up. Everybody was laughing. Very funny story.
If you need some sort of a release after reading this, consider donating to Safe Place International.
A nearby safe house had been recently raided by the police. Several residents were beaten up. They were lined against the wall and made to identify their genders, one at a time. The trans people were all defiant. Then they were forced to drop their pants and reveal their genitals. Those who had been “confused” were sent to mental hospitals.
I heard stories of unconditional love.
The family of a 25-year-old trans man had stood by him every step of the way. He’d come home devastated one day when an endocrinologist had informed him he’d need a signed letter from his priest saying he’d ‘made peace with god’ in order to begin hormone therapy. His mother then joined him in his search to help him find the right doctor. He’s now one year into his medical transition and as happy as he’s ever been.
A 30-year-old gay woman had come out to her family at 25. They were worried and confused at first, but their love never wavered. They were patient with each other. Eventually they reached a place of complete acceptance. The story was indistinguishable from one I might hear in New York.
For the most part, the LGBT+ people I spoke to were very thoughtful about why some of their friends and family might have struggled to accept them, or even abandoned them. They contextualized the homophobia they’d faced against the cultures they’d come from. I sensed very little bitterness, only grace, patience, and steadfast good will. And I was a beneficiary of this myself. I know that I was ignorant at times. I fucked up their pronouns. They were nothing but kind to me.
Most of the frustration that I encountered was directed towards the broken refugee policies. Many people had been waiting for years and years to be granted official status, and simply wished that the system would work the way it’s supposed to.
Those who dreamed of moving to the West did so with clear eyes. “I love my country,” one of them said, referring to Uganda. This was the J. Crew guy, actually. “But our culture is not where it needs to be for me to live there safely. Neither is Kenya’s. I don’t believe that the U.S. is the land of milk and honey. It’s no better or worse than countries in Africa. I might move there and be killed by a gun. Plus I know plenty of whites, you’re not so interesting. But at this moment in time, it’s just more tolerant of people like me.”
In virtually every story I heard, one thing always shined through: the power of community. The elders looked out for the younger ones. Those with money supported those with none. The strong defended the weak. Strangers lifted strangers. The love and kindness I witnessed was unlike anything I’d ever seen. This was, I realized, how they survived.
4. Meet the Homophobes
During my time roaming with the gays, I may have witnessed a few menacing looks. One or two servers being rude. Maybe a stiff shoulder at the club. For a second I thought I was followed after meeting with an activist, but I’m sure I was just being paranoid. In general, people acted decent towards us. It was jarring to speak with the outside world about LGBT+ issues once I left to travel on my own.
In some cases, people I’ve met have been very accepting of the LGBT+ community. Others have shown (or feigned) a deep ignorance, as if it had never occurred to them that there’s anything at all to talk about regarding the gays.
Many, unfortunately, have shown some degree of explicit homophobia. Seemingly good, decent people that I’d come to really like. It’s just the norm.
Here’s a reconstruction of a typical conversation I’ve had—composited and paraphrased—with a man or woman around my age in Kenya or Uganda.
“How do you feel about LGBT+ people in your country?”
A flash of frustration on their face followed by a deep breath.
“This was never an issue until the West started forcing us to talk about it.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just not a priority for our nation. We have more pressing issues to deal with.”
[This, I’ll note, is a perfect echo of what the presidents of both Kenya and Uganda tend to say when they are asked about LGBT+ rights.]
“Okay. But the gays that are living here, how do you feel about them?”
A long pause. A look of discomfort. And then:
“It’s not okay in our culture.”
“It’s just alien to African culture. It didn’t exist here until the West brought it over.”
“All cultures change. What makes it not okay?”
“It’s just wrong. It says so in the Bible.”5
“What specifically is wrong with it?”
“What specifically is wrong with incest? It is unnatural.”
“So what should happen to the gays?”
“Nothing. They can do whatever they want in the privacy of their own homes.”
“So you wish no harm upon the gays?”
“I wish harm on no one. Just keep it away from the children.”
“What does this mean, ‘keep it away from the children’?”
“Men should not kiss their boyfriends in public.”
“Can they hold hands?”
“Don’t speak to children about this LGBT stuff. Don’t teach it in schools. Just keep it away.”
“What do you think will happen if a child learns about gays?”
“The issue is that they will be recruited.”
“Recruited by who?”
“The homosexuals. There is a very powerful institution.”
“What is their agenda?”
“They are actively trying to recruit our children to homosexuality in an effort to destroy our culture.”
“How do you know this?”
“Everybody knows this. It’s a fact.”6
Each conversation had its own twists and turns. With Joseph, my kind, intelligent safari guide, it went something like this:
“It is just not allowed in our culture. As a visitor here, you should accept that.”
“Okay. Would you feel comfortable taking a gay couple on a safari?”
“No. I don’t think so. I wouldn’t even know how to handle it.”
“Hm. I think you’d have to start by picking them up in your van.”
“Ensuring they’d eaten a hearty breakfast.”
“And then—now listen closely, this is very important—finding the big animals to show them.”
He laughed. “Okay. Point taken.”
I had a riveting debate over dinner in Nairobi with a group of local twenty and thirty-something men. After we’d reached the just keep it in your own home part of the dance, I tried to force them to pinpoint the exact moment at which somebody brings their gayness into the public arena.
“Okay, so they can’t hold hands.7 What about wearing a pink shirt?”
“I wear pink shirts. No problem with that.”
“What about dancing to Beyonce at a gas station?”
“Dancing is fine.”
“What if they look really gay while they’re dancing?”
Hemming and hawing.
There is no exact moment, of course, that’s the whole point—the just keep it in your own home argument is a slippery slope to violence. I told them about the O'Shae Sibley murder in Brooklyn. It had happened a day or two earlier. They didn’t like it. I told them about how the hyper-sexualization of Blacks in Jim Crow America could lead to an innocent man being lynched for smiling at a white woman. They struggled with this one. For people who claimed to wish harm on no one—and I fully believed them that they felt this way—these guys were completely ignorant to the extent of harassment and violence that LGBT+ people faced in their own backyard. I told them a few stories that I’d heard, and they looked troubled.
“If your top priority is making sure children aren’t turned gay,” I said, “perhaps preventing gays from being beaten could be a close second?” They tentatively agreed.
I also assured them that I knew plenty of queer people, and that none of them had ever tried to turn me gay or trans. They seemed genuinely surprised and relieved to hear this, but they fell back to the It’s unnatural argument. So I interrogated them about their own sexual proclivities. That was a fun one. It turned out that not everyone had been sticking to what’s completely natural. Some of them had been sticking it in all sorts of unnatural places, actually.
The most compelling moment, though, came when we stared together into the inevitability of the future. Not a single one of them was under any illusion that gays in Africa were going away, nor were they interested in being run over by the freight train of history.
“Look,” one of them said. “One day I’m going to have a cousin that comes out as gay. Or maybe my future wife will have a gay brother. It’s going to happen. I won’t like it, but what am I going to do? Cut them out of my life? No, I don’t think so.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” I said. “And what if I was to tell you right now that I'm actually gay?”
“Well,” he said. “Before I made any sort of a decision, I’d definitely finish my meal.”
LGBT+ issues in East Africa are inexorably linked with the influence of the West. Here are the basic categories of sentiment I’ve heard from those who struggle with them:
“This is all very new to us. The West must allow us to move at our own pace as we learn about LGBT+ issues.”
“Homosexuality may have always existed here, but the West has made it into an issue by forcing us to talk about it.”
“The West has brought homosexuality to Africa by trying to impose its cultural values on us.”
“The gay institution, based out of the West, has an evil agenda of trying to recruit children to homosexuality.”
On the first one, my initial instinct is always to respond, “Easy to say when you don’t have skin in the game.” But then I’m reminded that the argument is made on the grounds of practicality, rather than morality. It’s like what Shaka said to me during the first week of my trip: “It’s not that [the West has] no right [to intervene on human rights issues]. Or that we don’t want your help. But if you come in without a proper understanding of our culture, you will end up making things worse.”
The fourth one is a vicious lie that has existed for a long time. Its history in Uganda, though, according to the activist Frank Mugisha, has only been traced to 2009 when the Massachusetts-based, gay-obsessed Evangelical Pastor Scott Lively visited the country to give a series of speeches discussing the “evil institution” of homosexuality” that seeks to “prey upon” and recruit Ugandan children in a bid to “defeat the marriage-based society.”
A gay woman I met in Zimbabwe addressed this myth. “These people forget that we don’t even have the privilege of being gay in public. I don’t know how they expect us to recruit.”
The second and third ones, to me, are much more interesting, because, in some ways, they are true. The French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that Western bourgeois society’s obsessive discourse around sexuality had generated a set of ‘sexual perversions’ out of whole cloth. In other words, same-sex relations had existed since the dawn of man, but hadn’t been considered out of the ordinary, or ‘gay’ in many societies until the so-called experts began to label them as such. There’s significant evidence to suggest that many African cultures were far more tolerant of sexual and gender fluidity—and that in some cases, gender nonconforming people were even revered—before the European colonizers arrived with their manufactured perversions and anti-sodomy laws, both of which were intensified by the invasion of Christian proselytizers who treated the natives as ‘canon fodder.’ Even Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni had this to say in 2012: “Homosexuals in small numbers have always existed in our part of Black Africa. They were never prosecuted. They were never discriminated.”
One must marvel at the gift that keeps on giving: the great civilizing force of the West.
5. The Activist
From Kenya, I went to Kampala, the capital of Uganda. The plan had been to meet with SPI’s LGBT+ community there, but ultimately it was deemed unsafe—not for me, but for the people that I might inadvertently out. I was put in touch with an activist, though, who was willing to meet with me in a secure location. David.
David’s a 42-year-old gay man who has lived in Uganda for his entire life. That’s not his real name. He was actually fine with going on the record—he’s been a public figure for years—but I’m going to call him David out of an abundance of caution. He has a long term partner who he does not hold hands with on the street. I asked if he feels safe in Uganda.
“No,” he said. “Of course not. That’s not possible here. You just try to minimize danger.”
“So why do you stay?”
“Because somebody needs to.”
He seemed very tired. But when he got going he really got going. I asked for a rundown of Uganda’s history of homophobia.
He began the story in 2009, when Pastor Scott Lively met with key members of the Ugandan government to share his fantastical stories about the sinister Gay World Order. Immediately following these meetings, the Anti Homosexuality Bill was introduced. Some of its language was cribbed directly from Lively’s speeches.
In 2010, as the bill made its way through Parliament, stochastic violence began to rise. A local magazine published the photos, names and addresses of the nation's “top 100 gays and lesbians” under the headline, Hang Them. An activist on the list, Sexual Minorities Uganda leader David Kato, was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in his home shortly after. The magazine’s publisher claimed that Kato had brought death upon himself by bringing shame to his country. He did condemn the killing, though: “When we called for hanging of gay people, we meant after they have gone through the legal process. I did not call for them to be killed in cold blood like he was.” Thanks for clarifying.
Kato’s murder brought international attention to the increasingly dangerous situation for gays in Uganda. Powerful nations began to apply pressure, creating major obstacles for the passage of the bill.
Things settled down for a while. Progress was made on the legal and cultural front. Court cases were won, allies were built in key institutions, safety and medical care for the LGBT+ community was improved. For the most part, the gays lived in peace. David played a central role. He smiled as he talked about this.
The run-up to the 2016 General Election changed all this. The challenger attempted to outflank the incumbent on the homophobia front. Anti-gay rhetoric was dialed up across the board. There was another spike in violence. In 2014, the President signed the Anti Homosexuality Bill into law, though it was later struck down on a technicality.
Things settled again. More progress was made. An underground gay scene reemerged, and then a contentious election for National Speaker in 2021 turned the heat up. It’s all rather predictable. The challenger accused the incumbent of not doing enough to protect the 2014 law. The two candidates attempted to out-homophobe each other. This climate led to the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023.
I asked David to explain to me why homophobia is so persistent here. He brought the cycle he’d described into relief. As elections approach, politicians pander to the largely homophobic population in a cynical bid to win votes. It’s an easy way to rile people up. Cultural institutions must follow suit in order to maintain their government funding, so the media, schools, churches, etc. ratchet up their homophobia. It rubs off on the people, politicians pander, rinse and repeat. Government corruption also plays a huge role. Politicians fan the flames of culture wars to distract from their rampant malfeasance. What a concept.
“You can see clear evidence for this cycle in the trends around anti-gay violence,” David said. “There’s always a spike around big elections. And then it settles. It’s proof that homophobia is not as ingrained in the masses as some might think it is. It’s quite contingent, actually.”
I told him I’d heard individual stories of homophobia in Uganda, but asked him to describe it from a bird’s eye view.
Overall, people in rural areas and the poor are affected most. Wealth insulates, of course.
Blackmail is rampant from bad actors who infiltrate LGBT+ communities. It’s a growing problem.
Physical violence typically comes from non-state actors—family, neighbors, etc. Trans people are most vulnerable to this, though all queer people are at risk. Often it’s retribution for the ‘shame’ they have brought. David has been attacked numerous times. Both his home and office have been vandalized. With gay women, there is ‘corrective rape.’
From the state, it’s more subtle. During the bad times, leaders of LGBT+ organizations are targeted and arrested. No charges are ever brought, but even a month in prison can cause disruptions to their work and lives that can be difficult to recover from. NGOs lose their permits and are discredited. Tenants are evicted by homophobic or skittish landlords. People lose access to medical care. The death rate from AIDS increases. The support system for LGBT+ people falls apart.
I asked him what needs to be done.
“My top priority is always keeping LGBT+ people safe from physical violence,” he said. “And after that it’s ensuring access to good medical care. It’s about consistent advocacy, and building allies in high places.”
“And how about the West? What can we do to help?”
“Your governments should take a holistic approach to human rights diplomacy in Africa, rather one focused purely on LGBT+ rights. Those coercive policies often backfire. They alienate ordinary citizens, and the economic consequences are felt by our communities too.”8
He went on. “Continue to publicize our stories, and please, please, allow your countries to be safe havens for people fleeing violence. ”
I asked if he had hope.
“Yes,” he said. “The young are more tolerant. Our list of allies is growing. And despite the Anti-Homosexuality Act, we continue making significant progress working within the law. We’re going to challenge it in court, but make sure people know we’re getting things done regardless.”
6. And the Rest
And then, of course, there are the allies.
A Kenyan literature teacher at my Airbnb in Mombasa compared gay rights in Africa to female genital mutilation: “FGM is so deeply ingrained in certain tribes,” she said. “It would have been impossible to expect an overnight change. But steady progress has been made through ongoing educational efforts. We’re on the same path for gay rights.”
An Ethiopian academic who occupied the third room agreed, but added: “For me, the human rights element transcends all. There’s no time to wait.”
An employee at a disability rights organization in Kampala told me that he goes out of his way to make sure the LGBT+ people in the disabled community are looked after. “They are some of the most vulnerable people in Uganda,” he told me. “We watch out for them.”
A server at a restaurant in Harare complimented the rainbow pride pin tucked into someone’s blouse, and then she brought us extra chicken.
My favorite Kenyan artist Chelenge had nothing but love for LGBT+ people. I told her about my work and she asked if I could get the whole Nairobi crew to come stay at her compound in the bush.
Sometimes it’s more like pure, uncritical tolerance and decency.
A bar owner outside Nairobi told me that the local gays know that they’re safe at his spot. “As long as they’re buying drinks,” he said.
A stylish club-goer in Kampala (and my best friend for a night) told me this about the new law: “We don’t give a shit about that law. Gays are fine with us.”
A grade school teacher from rural Uganda at a bar in Entebbe said, “I don’t know what to make of these boys that dress like girls, girls that dress like boys. But I don’t mind. Whatever makes them happy.”
I don’t believe I’ve met the type of violent homophobe that I’d heard about in the survivor stories, so I won’t weigh in on what might be in their hearts. Clearly there is something very dark there.
But even among the most openly homophobic people I’ve spoken with in East Africa, I’ve not sensed that it comes from a place of true hate. I think it comes from someplace else. Like a cultural divide too wide to cross just yet. And a fundamental misunderstanding of the LGBT+ community.
I agree with David’s outlook. I’m certainly not an expert on these matters, but from my brief immersion into this world, I do have a sense that things might get better with time. The ordinary people here are just too nice. I wish they’d be more vocal, but they’re up against a lot. In Uganda, they’re up against the law. But I think they’ll get there. The old guard will die off, and maybe they’ll take their shitty laws with them. The young people are branching out. The gays are not so complicated that they can’t be demystified. The future is coming, and I think the people will adapt.9
7. Angle of Deflection
I went out for a walk to try to think of a good ending to this piece. I am in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, by the way. The view is stupefying. You don’t fully believe your eyes. All of this has been here the whole time?
Nothing came to me. Endings are difficult. But it might have been the thunderous noise. The noise is all-encompassing. It overtakes you. And I am so exhausted. Physically, mentally and emotionally. Just completely spent.
But there was something else on my mind. I had just said goodbye to my writing group in Harare. I’ll have to get into that whole experience some other time. But the send-off. They did this very sentimental thing where they seated me in a chair and had me close my eyes and one at a time they put their hands on my shoulders and whispered words of gratitude in my ear. Fourteen people did this. It was 1am. And very intimate. A little saccharine for my taste but when I went into my bedroom I started to cry. And I really don’t cry, it’s been ages. I don’t know exactly what it was but I just had this feeling that it was a very special moment in my life.
Then the next morning on my way out I was asked the same question that I’ve been asked time and time again on my trip: “So when are you coming back?” They ask in earnest. But there’s a suggestive tone. How many ‘good people’ just like me have passed through and then never looked back?
I took a cue from my friends in Nairobi. I cut myself some slack. I put my notebook away and sat down in the coarse grass. I tried to put those troubling thoughts out of my head.
The sun came out from behind a cloud. Its rays lit up the sky and reflected off the falls. For a moment it was blinding. I covered my eyes and waited for them to adjust.
How easy it is to just find a clean ending and jet.
I opened my fingers just a crack. The heavens shined down. The light met the blanket of mist floating above the Zambezi River. It scattered across one trillion tiny droplets of water. The wind changed and I felt the cool spray on my forehead. I pulled my hand away and I sat up straight.
And here is what I saw.
The activist I spoke with fears that Kenya, which is considering a new anti-gay bill of its own, will soon be just as bad as if not worse than Uganda.
Though the final two I will mention are not technically asylum seekers or refugees.
I hope it goes without saying, but these are my own paraphrased sketches of the much more eloquent stories that were actually told. I was granted permission to share each of these, though I have scrambled the details regardless.
I’ve had a few occasions as a writing coach in which I’ve had to pull a student back from an emotional ledge because I was just not qualified to participate in what the session was veering into. This particular experience was something else entirely. In fact, there was no coaching element at all. She didn’t share the story as part of the workshop. She pulled me into a hallway between sessions and unloaded it on me. Maybe she just needed to tell someone. Or she thought I could help her. Afterwards I realized it was because she wanted me to publish it. I was very hesitant to do so for the reasons I’ve already detailed. Ultimately I decided to include it here on the advice of the community elders who believe it’s important that even the most upsetting of their stories be shared.
As for her well-being—fortunately she is surrounded by a community that will support her, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel uneasy about my part in causing her to relive this trauma.
I have been ill-equipped to engage in the debate on religious grounds, but I just met a devout Christian lesbian in Zimbabwe who prepared me for next time. It’s probably the same approach one takes in America. The textual argument can be deconstructed fairly quickly by pointing out that the verses they cite are cherry-picked and not read in full. Also, God is love. He gave up Jesus for the gays too. So their hate is invalid.
If you’ve ever argued with a Trump supporter about the 2020 election then you’ll know what it’s like to dive into this one.
Ironically, I have found men to be very touchy with one another in Kenya and Uganda. Sometimes they even hold hands. One guy suggested that that this was the case because it would be so preposterous to be gay in public that nobody would even suspect it.
While writing this, a friend from Kampala texted me that the World Bank had just halted lending to Uganda over the new law. Too early to say what effect it might have, but the foreign minister’s response is, in my opinion, pretty spot on: "There are many Middle East countries who do not tolerate homosexuals, they actually hang and execute homosexuals, in the United States of America many states have passed laws that are either against or restrict activities of homosexuality ... so why pick on Uganda? The World Bank has been put under pressure by the usual imperialists."
I would like to comment on the need for a global movement of resistance to take on the global forces of oppression, but I will leave that sort of strategy talk to the activists. Though I will to point you to this piece I wrote last year about a group of cowboys tucked away in a small town in Montana, and what we are up against in the fight for tolerance in America.