My journey to the Episcopal Divinity School began in the most unlikely way. I had been nominated by the United States embassy in Kampala to attend the International Visitor Leadership Program. While I was smitten to stand on the shoulders of world leaders who are alumni to this program, my leadership was put to test as I now understood the weight I was carrying on mine shoulders. At that time, I was volunteering as one of the spokespersons for the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, a position that greatly improved my leadership capabilities and launched my activism to a wider audience.
It was during this program that I was introduced to the contribution of faith leaders and communities in the struggle for LGBT rights in the U.S. Coming from Africa, I had always looked at the Church and, even faith leaders, with great suspicion and fear.
I was born and raised in the evangelical tradition. My mother, a mission evangelist, traveled to different parts of the country with our choir and team of evangelists to minister at crusades and churches. If there is any story that I can pull out from my childhood, it is the story of growing up as a “pastor’s’ kid. At a time when the Pentecostal movement was growing in Uganda, I silently observed my family’s enthusiasm for preaching the gospel often with admiration and sometimes with suspicion. It is a family legacy that I am proud of and yet, one that gave me a painful childhood.
Even if I was encouraged to take roles in our daily evening church service, my leadership and voice were in many ways suppressed for the lack of self-esteem. There was never a time for me to bond with my mother because she was always consumed by ministry. Every conversation in our home was God-centered and there was hardly time for me to share my deepest feelings, let alone my personal interests. Because of this, I have come to understand why many church-raised children grow up to reject the very religious values that they were raised in. I know of many pastor’s kids who still struggle to find themselves in the confusion of wanting to please their parents and having the freedom to choose their own path. I grew up with the same confusion. For me, it was the personal struggle of feeling a betrayal on my part for not fitting in into my family’s expectations of church ministry and heterosexuality. Knowing that I was being “set up” to become some sort of ‘church fanatic,’ I rejected every Christian teaching that had been drummed into me and decided to find God on my own. As I found out, this God whom I wanted to find was a hateful God, at least for people who identify as gay.
While attending the International Visitor Leadership Program, I encountered several progressive leaders who changed my long-held perception of the Church. In one of my meetings with some members of the US congress, I had a conversation with US Congressman John Lewis who talked to me mostly about nonviolence and how to ‘be safe’ while in the struggle, but also about the role of faith in the civil rights movement. I came to understand that religion has been used and misused; wrongfully applied and rightfully applied; negatively represented, and positively represented.
Coming to a theological seminary happened in the most unlikely way. I was preparing to board a plane back to Uganda after completing my US tour, when an encounter with Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma introduced me to the Episcopal Divinity School. Still suspicious if this was the right place for me, considering my rebellion against certain “Bible teachings,” I wondered if I would fit in. Even then, I longed to know that God loves me unconditionally. My unenlightened understanding of theological schools was the assumption that they teach students to become pastors. I was afraid of this because truthfully I have never felt called for church ministry.
However, what is surprising about my past fear of preaching and suspicion of the church is that my understanding of preaching has broadened beyond church pulpits. I regard public speaking events to which I am often invited to speak about LGBT rights as my way of preaching anti-oppression. I have come to understand that God’s calling to take the gospel to the ends of the world is not restricted to the church. It is a calling that is existent in what every human being does to make the world a better place. If there is any contribution that I can make to building God’s kingdom, it is being part of the struggle for justice and the end of oppression in all its forms.
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.
There have been moments in my life when I have come so close to winning and seen opportunity pass me by- a few inches out of reach. Missed opportunities are those moments when either we fail to act or come so close to winning but fail to earn our hard work. As human beings, we are part of a winning culture, an obsession for success that obstructs our ability to see the goodness in failing. People become frustrated when all they see around them are missed opportunities; failure. There is raving impatience when people don’t see change where they think it should be happening. People get tired of being treated to the same cocktail and, as social justice activists say, the status quo. Yet, If getting a straight win every time we work at something is all there is to live for, then our lives would be uneventful.
A few hours ago, the Uganda national soccer team failed to end the 34-year drought to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations in a game that ended 0-0 between the Uganda Cranes and the Harambe Stars of Kenya. We came so close, opportunities were created both on and off the pitch, but failed to register a win. As a friend wrote after the game, the politicians who turned out at Mandela National Stadium in support of the Uganda Cranes today brought us their bad luck. What were they cheering when they have failed the biggest national team – the voters?
Adding to my very gloomy week, I heard some of the most heart-breaking stories this week. A friend told of a story that made me wonder if we care enough about our country to make it a better place. On her trip to Lira in northern Uganda this ending summer, she visited a school where girls are dropping out of school because they have no sanitary towels. According to my friend, they visited a classroom that looked like a family of thirty sons and one daughter. A school teacher explained that the reason they are seeing more girls drop out is because after their first experience with menstruation, girls feel embarrassed to come back to school because they can’t afford to buy sanitary towels to make them comfortable for social interaction. As a result, they opt for early marriage, usually to older men. Stories like these break my heart not only for the love that I have for children but for how inexcusable it is that children should drop out of school for reasons such as not having sanitary towels. If members of Parliament in regions where these stories are happening care about improving access to education for ALL, then there should be ways of addressing the unique needs of the girl child to help her stay in school.
As my sad week comes to an end, I cannot hide my anger for the eviction of Uganda’s first openly gay and straight-friendly bar, Sappho Island, which was closed early this week after the owner of the building said she doesn’t need “strange people” on her property anymore. Until LGBT Ugandans are shown where to rent and not to rent, Sappho Island’s eviction remains a hate crime. It could even be illegal if no proper contractual eviction procedures were observed in this case.
Adding to my week-long sad news, I’ve just been reminded that tomorrow October 9, is Uganda’s 49th Independence Day “celebration” since the end of British colonial tyranny that lasted almost eight decades.
As I reflect on the events of this week, Independence Day remembrance comes at a time when we have a lot of progress to be proud of but little has be been done to save the nation from political and economic oppression. One wonders what Independence means in a country where civil servants embezzle public funds and go unpunished except if you are a Gilbert Bukenya by tribe! In its current state of poverty, high unemployment rates, corruption, Uganda as a British protectorate has little difference from the Uganda after Independence. We may be “running our own affairs” but even then, a few people run the country and at their own pace.
I saw the entire nation throw their weight behind the Uganda Cranes today. My facebook wall was jammed with all sorts of posts from people living in Uganda and as far as New Zealand as show of support for the national team. Too bad we didn’t qualify but then we should be reminded that as a nation we are failing at many other things. In fact, Ugandans are getting so used to failure and losing hope in their leaders that even when they support the national soccer team, they lose hope half-way through the game. No wonder I read some people resorting to prayer as the only thing they hoped could make our boys score.
Sometimes prayer is not enough. Sometimes you need to get yourself out of praying mode and fix what needs to be fixed before you can start seeing positive results. The Federation of Uganda Football Association needs to be fixed but so is our country. Let us turn out in large numbers in our Black, Yellow, Red jerseys and blow our Vuvuzellas in the name of social justice. As a game of soccer can unite an entire nation in support of a team of eleven men, we can join our social justice activists; those few people who still remain true to their commitment to social justice, and cheer them on. Better still, let’s blow our Vuvuzelas as our cry for independence from people who want to run our country at the expense of the nation’s democracy and freedom of rights. Independence is not independent until every citizen is free from political, economic, and social tyranny. We cannot wait on politicians to create change. We need to take over our country and, as Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda says, Uganda does not need politicians but social movements.
It is not only wrong to be silent in the face of oppression. It is immoral.
The subject of bullying is one that I identify with. Not because I was bullied in childhood for being gay but because in many ways I never felt good about myself. As a teenager, there were days when I looked in the mirror and didn’t feel good enough. I had lots of doubt and insecurities. I guess this comes from years and years of being told by people that you don’t measure up to expectations. In fact, it’s only about three years ago that I hit the road to recovery. In my previous note, I wrote about the perfectionism that my mom’s family drummed into me. Still, even when I tried, I didn’t measure up.
For me, it was more about being encouraged to do things I didn’t love than being encouraged to do what I loved. The Bible, which I began learning to read at age 7, is still a difficult book to read if not problematic at times. I was never good at maths. Not even years of coaching in primary school made me perform better. In a way, something that I didn’t like was imposed on me- forcefully because if you didn’t perform well in maths, you were not smart enough. The closest I ever performed well in a maths exam was a Credit 5 and that was after being taken to boarding school where I was subjected to rigorous maths coaching which to me, seemed like brain damage.
The week of October 3rd is anti-bullying week. Last year, Tyler Clementi jumped off from the George Washington Bridge after pictures of him kissing another boy were posted on the internet by his roommate. Tyler’s story moved me closer to the anti-bullying cause so much that it reminded me of one of the stories that inspired the choice to become an intentional LGBT activist. Many teenagers and even grown up gay people as is the case in my country, have taken their lives.
Paula Rwomushana was a student at St. Joseph’s Girls school, Nsambya, where I did my A-levels. I didn’t know her but I could easily relate with the bullying of lesbians that I witnessed and have read about in many of our schools. Like Tyler, Paula committed suicide because she was made to feel ashamed and afraid of herself.
We live a high-tech world of facebook, twitter, blogs, and the visible faces of human rights activism. This means that people are more likely to know how to get a sense of belonging because they can identify with someone else in their situation. Even then, many LGBT people don’t know who to talk to while in their most lonely places.
To all kids and adults out there who are caught up with insecurities and hurt:
I have been in the same place. I have walked this journey of self-acceptance. Even as an adult, I used to get picked on by anti-gay slanderers. The people who hate you don’t deserve you. Learn to love yourself and know that you’re God’s unique creation. As you grow older, you will look back on all those moments when you felt less of yourself and see that there was always someone who loved you. Remember that by being proud of who you are, you don’t only change your world; you make the world a better place for other people like you.
I am still here because I never gave up. Don’t give up. We need you. It gets better.
Have a wonderful anti-bullying week.
Every single achievement that I have encountered in my life has been uncomfortable that now I am addicted to being uncomfortable. If it is not scary, I don’t want to do it. If it is not edgy and half-crazy I am not interested in it. But if it is something that makes me stay up in the night and makes me less popular, then I am going to do it.
This year, three colleagues have been recognized, applauded, and rewarded for their indelible contribution to human rights. That’s three awards for three members of our coalition in less than a year! For me, these three individuals have given me an opportunity to look back on the story of Self, story of Us, and story of Now.
Many people ask what drew me to activism. My answer is that we are all called to something. The difference is that some of us don’t venture out of our comfortable places. But isn’t it obvious that if you belong to a certain minority group you will want to serve your community in some way? Not so obvious.
A couple of years ago when we first began organizing, the community was more of a solitary place than a social movement. Now it is impossible to look back on any of those experiences and fail to recognize that so much has changed. I remember meetings we held every Tuesday night at a local gay-friendly bar in Ntinda, a Kampala suburb. Most of us felt that we were called to this cause but none of us imagined what it would take to sustain ourselves in the vision. Even the “recklessly courageous” person that I have been described as often revealed a big coward. Now I know that it was hope that motivated me to lead.
It is because of this that I think of the Human Rights First Award, the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award as medals of hope. This hope, the hope that things do get better, requires that we forsake our comfort in order to obtain our freedom. The reason most people have not found their purpose is because they will not pay the price for their destiny. It’s either you go back to where you came from and live comfortable or want change bad enough to get out of your comfort zone.
As I think of activists Julius Kaggwa, Kasha Jacqueline, and Frank Mugisha who, through their leadership, have given our community hope, I am reminded that our stories are not written in stone. We are constantly evolving.
I think of the daily struggles they endure and the courage that often outruns their resources. In recognition of the fact that funding for LGBT organizations in Uganda has increased over the last two years partly because of the anti-homosexuality bill which has elevated the plight of sexual minorities, there is still a lot of work to done in as far as funding LGBT human rights work in Africa is concerned. A lot of what happens in human rights cannot happen without funding. African LGBT movements are not an exception to this fact.
With most LGBT organizations in Uganda operating on annual operating budgets of less than $10,000, I can only wish that these medals of hope will lift LGBT communities from the periphery of under-funded social justice struggles. If these medals are going to create ripples of change within the movement, then we have to address the funding challenge. That human rights defenders should continue to put their lives on the line for a just cause is enough to grant them the privilege of working with ample resources that will help them touch lives. To acknowledge this challenge is to recognize its urgency.
For it is not about the outcome of the struggle. It is the process of the struggle that is fulfilling. For instance, whether the kill the gays bill becomes law or not, we have already won. Stories of Julius, Kasha, and Frank help us see this victory ever better. Change can come from the most unlikely, uncomfortable places. The three awards are so much about significance than they are about prophets being without honor in their homeland.
For the last two years since the introduction of the anti-homosexuality bill, I have argued that the anti-gay movement in Uganda is bigger than the individuals gay activists have singled out as the crusaders of the anti-gay agenda in Uganda. By fighting frivolous figures such as David Bahati, gay activists have gone out of sight of the underlying motives behind the bill and the intentions it seeks to satisfy. One such intention is Christian fundamentalism which is unmistakeably at the heart of the anti-gay agenda.
Following leaked diplomatic cables citing the role of Uganda First Lady Janet Museveni in sustaining the anti-homosexuality bill, it is worthwhile paying attention to the breadth of what drives this bill.
The Sunday Monitor reports that a leaked cable between Senior Presidential Adviser John Nagenda and a US embassy political officer mentions Mrs. Museveni having special interest in the Kill the Gays bill. Nagenda is quoted to have described Mrs. Museveni as ‘a very extreme woman.” Not surprising. Mrs. Museveni is known to have strong ties to US evangelicals and the Pentecostal movement in Uganda. She is also known for moral-lecturing at national youth conferences where she speaks of the dangers of the secular world and urges the youth to embrace “spiritual growth.” Her legacy of making a difference in the lives of Ugandan children is a virtue of her well-meaning intentions to give them a worthwhile future. She has also supported national campaigns to encourage abstinence among the youth. All her good intentions observed, it is important to put the legacy of the First Lady into perspective if tracing the long trajectory of the Christian Right will make sense of the the motives that drive anti-gay campaigners to frenzy over a bill that is out-rightly unconstitutional, descriptively redundant, and regrettably diversionary.
The globalization of the Christian Right is emerging at a time when most Ugandans, including highly placed politicians, are looking to religious leaders for answers to problems facing the country. The objective of protecting the African traditional family as mentioned in the preamble of the bill digs deep into the conservative agenda that the legislation seeks to promote.
The growing movement of evangelicals in Africa has ushered in a new era of Eurocentric thoughts and beliefs on family, sex, and marriage. Same-sex relationships are condemned because “they are not in line with God’s purpose for procreation,” an idea that the evangelical tradition shares with traditional African culture except for different reasons. While African culture espouses sex for procreation as a way of continuing family lineage, the evangelical tradition espouses procreation on the basis that non-child bearing sexual relationships are against God’s intention for marriage.
As American evangelicals bring their theology of “sexual uprightness” to Africa they meet a people who are not only threatened by the promotion of human rights (which in Africa could pass as the “return” of colonialism) but are strongly attached to continuation of family lineage through child bearing. On a continent where people are still threatened by human rights, adverse anti-gay sentiments are becoming more visible and it is almost difficult to eliminate them because of the theology through which they are propagated.
The arguments against separation of church and state have birthed a sexual revolution that has led to the rise of anti-gay movements in Africa. It is a major cultural shift between African tradition and its “live and let live” stance on non-heterosexual relationships and western-bred evangelical theology which places procreation at the center of human sexual relationships.
Most Christian fundamentalists believe that states would not function well unless they sought guidance from a higher power. From Francis Schaeffer to Janet Museveni, the long trajectory of the Christian Right is proof that the “gays are a threat to state power” mindset has always informed their politics and theology.
President Museveni has assured donors that he has the anti-homosexuality bill under control. His adviser Nagenda even urged diplomats to not to publicize the bill as this would spark off more anti-gay sentiments in the country. However, based on the weight of advocacy that has been done by human rights activists to ensure that a bill which could have become law two years ago is still lurking in parliament and has been opposed by cabinet, we cannot keep silent and put our trust in the words of a leader of state who appears as an ally at donor tables but speaks so violently of LGBT rights whenever he wants to use it as a strategy to remain popular especially among religious groups.
Hopefully, President Museveni will step up his promise to “handle” the bill. We will not allow the future of LGBT rights and human rights in general to be determined by the First Lady and her evangelical cohorts.