About two weeks ago, Lonely Planet, one of the world’s leading guidebooks for travelers, nominated Uganda one of 2010’s top travel destinations in the world. Naturally, some gay rights activists across the globe perceived this nomination as inappropriate, insensitive, and misinformed. Their argument is: Uganda is currently one of the world’s dangerous places to be gay after a bill was introduced in 2009 to further criminalize homosexuality and, in some instances, condemn LGBT citizens to death.
My argument is: Whereas travel boycotts and threats to cut aid may be good procedures to remind governments that they’re not going to get a free pass for their horrific record of human rights, the trend for human rights enforcement has and is changing. In Uganda, this trend tends to lean toward allowing voices of civil society to be heard while also working on creating an environment for debate and dialogue. As the Civil Society Coalition for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, we are witnessing a slow but promising process of change. It is important that we allow that process to continue. We need to expend our energies toward supporting and strengthening this work and allowing local activists to be the voice of their own movement. We need to understand that we cannot determine the future of our country basing on a one-dimensional approach of being alarmed only when LGBT rights are threatened.
In the comments section of the Lonely Planet article, someone comments: “Do gay Americans “stand a pretty good chance of being killed” while here [in Uganda]?”
In the interview following, I speak to Daily Monitor’s Raymond Mpubani who contacted me from Kampala on the controversy surrounding Lonely Planet’s recommendation and what my opinion, as a Ugandan gay rights activist, is.
RM: If you look at the comments on the Lonely Planet article, our reputation is now tied to Bahati’s bill; people are wondering how Lonely Planet could recommend such a bigoted country. As a Ugandan gay activist, what do you think about this? Is it an over-reaction, or do they have a point? Should Uganda be boycotted by tourists? Is that what Uganda is?
Kalendenator: I don’t think any of the people making [those remarks] understand the beauty of our country regardless [of ongoing persecution of LGBT persons.] What such people want to do is put gay rights ahead of other human rights. In my opinion, they are the reason African countries are still overly homophobic. If people want Uganda to be boycotted because of homophobia then they should make the same noise when opposition leaders and journalists have their rights abused by the state.
RM: What do you think is the future for Gay Activism and Gay Rights in Uganda?
Kalendenator: When we began our movement about ten years ago, our goal was not to demand for special treatment. We are demanding for the same rights that every Ugandan citizen enjoys. In future when my children enroll in school I don’t want them to be bullied simply because their mother is a gay rights activist. I want to apply for a job and know that I will be evaluated not on the basis of my sexual orientation but on [whether I have the required job qualifications]. This was our vision and it is the environment that we want to create in Uganda.
The future for gay rights in Uganda is definitely decriminalization of homosexuality. To rid ourselves of the laws that our colonial masters imposed on us. Of course the biggest threat to change is fear and ignorance. We cannot claim to be a forward-moving nation in an environment where people are still as ignorant as to believe that homosexuality is a sexually transmitted disease and that gays should be hanged. As [a student of social justice movements], I believe things will have to get worse before they can get better.
Interview as requested by an African MA International Journalism student at City University, London.
1. What is your view about the representation of gay issues in African media?
Media reporting on LGBT issues in Uganda has changed compared to what it was about ten years ago when the movement started. There is a new breed of journalists who are coming to understand these issues because of the manner in which we have engaged them. For instance, The Daily Monitor, The East African, Nation, The Independent, and The Obsever, are some of the newspapers in East Africa whose reporting on LGBT issues is not influenced by personal prejudice toward homosexuality but clear understanding of what sexuality is. Even with these, there is still more work to be done. The Uganda government newspaper, The New Vision, seems to take a “neither for nor against” stance on homosexuality which in my opinion is as dangerous as the tabloids because it closes up spaces for dialogue. Most of what we know as press homophobia is promoted by tabloids which in my opinion make sales out of sensationalism even on other issues not related to sexuality.
There are online LGBT media resources such as Behind the Mask (South Africa) but these are not mainstream and their readership is mainly limited to LGBTs and their allies.
The visibility of LGBT movements on the continent has a significant contribution to how media portray LGBT people but on the other hand I also believe that African gay rights activists still have to work on their narrative. By emphasizing negative stories, we diminish the media’s ability to see us as human beings who simply deserve to have the same rights as everyone else. Rather than promoting the thinking that “Uganda is one of the worst places to be gay” we need to change our narrative by telling stories that acknowledge the goodness of our countries; how we manage to survive amidst oppression. For me, these are more inspiring stories to read than dwelling on negativity all the time. We need to become part of other freedom struggles such that we don’t isolate ourselves as a special kind of minority demanding for special rights.
The question that keeps haunting me is: Why are African LGBT movements not addressing issues such as child sacrifice and child abuse, when we clearly know that the anti-gay movement is demonizing us as enemies of children?
I once gave an interview to the Daily Monitor (the paper I used to write for) and it completely changed some people’s attitude toward homosexual relationships. One of my friends who is also a journalist told me that an anti-gay pastor called the newsroom after reading the article and said, “I didn’t know homosexuals fall in love!” It’s a story that touched many lives.
Such stories humanize our struggle and it is our duty as LGBT leaders to sell this idea to journalists. If people begin to see us as real people with real responsible lives to live, their perceptions of us will change. But we can’t change these perceptions if we don’t tell our stories but instead let the media tell it as they wish.
3. Do you think that the representation of homosexuals in African media is a contributing to homophobia in the continent?
Anything that is reported from the media definitely has an effect on society. People will believe a story not because they know the facts but because they have read what someone has written. It works for celebrity gossip in the same way it works for stories on homosexuality. When tabloids and anti-gay pastors portray us as rich young activists receiving big donations from the West and using those donations to “recruit” children into homosexuality, they are practically telling people to raid our houses, break into our offices (as has happened many times this year), or even murder us (as happened to activist David Kato). For whatever reason people incite violence against LGBT persons, it is deeply rooted in homophobia and the media is in part responsible.
When I talk about media reporting on LGBT issues I tend to dwell on criticizing our movement for lacking an aggressive media strategy that would for instance train journalists and help them understand these issues better than dwelling on the weakness of the media. Still, very few of our journalists do research on issues on which they report. So, it is not just a problem with how they report on LGBT issues. They are clearly misinformed on several other issues, especially those which society considers controversial.
4. Some have argued that homosexuality is alien to Africa and that it is a case of orientalism in trying to make Africans see things from the Western perspective. What do you think?
The remnant of colonialism is that it robbed Africans of the power to write our own history. Homosexuality existed in pre-colonial Africa. I have personally spoken to officials in the Buganda Kingdom and they say same-sex relations have always exist for instance among the royal clan! This knowledge was erased from our school curriculum for a reason- so Christianity would be promoted without questioning. In my opinion, Western religion is the biggest enemy of African culture.
When Africans brand homosexuality a Western imposition, they rob themselves of initiative. It is as if they are saying that one cannot be African without the influence of the White People!
5. Personally, what are the challenges you have encountered as a gay activist in Uganda?
My biggest challenge, before I came to the U.S for graduate study, was safety. Yes it was difficult for me to stay in the media as an openly lesbian activist, I was in many ways abandoned by my family, I was on many occasions verbally insulted on the streets, but nothing got to me as worrying for safety. When I was arrested with two of my colleagues in 2008, I came to believe that the worst could happen. The day I realized that it had become difficult to have a choice on where to rent a house is when it dawned on me that I had given up my life as a sacrifice for freedom. I feared for random disappearance and even rape after a mob of motorcyclists threatened to teach me how to be “a woman” on my way back home at 11pm in the night.
I think that for most activists working in environments where their safety it constantly threatened, their biggest fear is if they will live to see tomorrow. That is why most radical activists fight each day as if it is their last day to make a difference.
6. How big is the gay community in Uganda?
The community has grown since I left Uganda about 15 months ago. We have more organizations established which means that we have more of us finding confidence to be part of the community. Finding fellow lesbians eight years ago helped me gain confidence so I believe it helps other people too when they realize that they are not alone. I don’t know how many we are and it is difficult to tell because most people are still closeted. What I know is that the anti-homosexuality bill and the murder of David Kato have created a kind of urgency that emerges among oppressed people when they understand that they will never be free in silence.