Ahead of the International Day Against Homophobia and the Global Media Forum, leading Ugandan gay rights activist Kasha Nabagesera speaks with DW on the LGBT movement in Uganda and how it compares to elsewhere.
Deutsche Welle: Isn't your line of work as an LGBT activist in Uganda quite dangerous? Isn't Uganda one of the worst places to be homosexual, bi or transgender?
Kasha Nabagesera: Well I wouldn't say it is the worst country. There are headlines around the world calling Uganda the worst place to be gay. I wouldn't say that. Of course we have challenges being in a very homophobic environment. But there are other countries in which it is worse than in Uganda. But of course we have lots of homophobic attacks happening on a daily basis because we have homophobia and draconian laws in our penal code, our constitution. So it is still really a very difficult place for people, especially as activists advocating for change, but also people who are just suspected of being gay are going through a lot.
Other East African countries are portrayed as being less harsh on LGBT people. Is it worse in Uganda?
Well, the thing for us is this: because we make our plight known to the world, people think that it is more harsh here than in our neighboring countries. But there are also problems happening in neighboring countries but maybe activists just aren't as vocal. We do hear cases on a daily basis from Kenya, where people are actually being beaten, threatened to be killed, even in Ruanda, Burundi, there have been these cases. In Uganda, we want the world to know everything that is happening here. That's why we are always in the media - because we want the world to know so they will help us. But maybe it isn't as hostile as it is in Uganda because maybe people prefer to not be aggressively advocating against gay rights in other places.
Where do you think the aggression comes from?
The government has failed to separate the church from the state, so we have so many aggressive, anti-gay religious leaders who also happen to be in the parliament. So they use their conservativeness even in decision-making with policies. So it becomes very difficult, every day people are just religiously preaching in the churches about hatred against the LGBT community. So it makes us work harder than maybe our neighboring countries because they don't have very strong anti-gay movements. Because our government has failed to separate the church and state, we find that there are many conservative fundamentalists in decision-making positions. So they end up mixing their own personal views and values with the policy making. So they become more aggressive, they hold press conferences, they hold protests around the country, they push for very tough laws so that makes us activists work even harder.
So the aggressive anti-gay movement is religiously motivated?
Yes. We are predominantly a Christian religious country. So we have all these fundamentalists. But it got worse when we had some American Evangelicals who came over here and pushed it even further. It made a lot of people panic; they pressed the panic button among our religious leaders, within our society. Even the ordinary Ugandan who before didn't really care about LGBT people started panicking because they said we (LGBT people) have come to take over the country, we have come to abuse their children, infest them with diseases. So there was sort of a panic attack within the general society that led religious leaders and policy makers to become even more aggressive.
Have homosexual and bisexual women historically been treated differently than men? In the US even today there are still laws specifically against anal sex, which implies that female LGBT people might not really be targeted as much. Is generally true for the rest of the world?
Well I think when you look at the history of the Victorian era, where the sodomy laws came from, how they came to be enacted in most of the Commonwealth countries, it is because Queen Victoria did not believe that women would engage in such "ridiculous" behavior. So she didn't really put laws in place targeting women per se.
The organization you founded FARUG, Freedom and Roam Uganda, how has it helped bring the LGBT movement ahead?
Freedom Roam is the oldest organization fighting for LGBT rights but the organization is exclusively LGBT women. We are three women who started it. Because of my background in the women's movement, I felt that we needed a place for lesbian women - at that time, we were not even accepted in the women's movement. So I felt we needed our own space for lesbian women to talk about issues before we can open the doors to wider issues. We talk a lot about health issues. There are a lot of women here who are being forced into marriages, so we do a lot of counseling and also information dissemination because we know that in our community, many people are school dropouts, people who don't have much formal education, so they lack a lot of skills and information. So we train them on how they can be able to live in this hostile environment. We give them information on how to protect themselves - how to deal with arresting officers in the case of an arrest. And we also teach them how to advocate because not all of us are going to be here forever to keep advocating for this work. So we carry out a lot of sensitization, a lot of advocacy training to teach the members how they can advocate for their rights and empower themselves, document their life stories so they can share them with the general public. Because this is a way that they can start influencing the general public. FARUG is for women, but we also have organizations for gay youth, for health issues, for people living with HIV/AIDS, for gay men and all of us come together underSexual Minorities Uganda
, our umbrella, to advocate on a national and international level.
How would you compare the trend in Uganda to world trends at the moment?
I think the trend we are seeing in the West and in the global south countries, for example Brazil and Chile, I think for me it is giving us more hope to continue what we are doing because you were once where we are today. So if people didn't stand up, you wouldn't be where you are today. I think it's time for the LGBT movement, just like it was time for the Black Movement, and the Women's Rights Movement, I think it is now time for LGBT people around the world. And I think that with all that is happening around the world, of course there are advancements but sometimes we also see a backlash, like in North Carolina, because people feel this is being imposed on them (…) But for us as a movement, this is something we can learn from. Of course it is going to be difficult, it is going to be challenging, we are going to lose some people along the way, but at the same time, it reminds us that people who are celebrating pride on the streets around the world, they were also once where we are today. So today you are fighting for same sex marriage and adoption and for us, we are fighting just to be who we are. But at least we have started this movement for the future generation. Of course not everything that works in the West can work in our context, but I am sure there are some things that we can use and build on that to improve our movement.
So there is still a long road ahead undoing this Victorian mindset in society?
Yes, I know that it will not happen overnight. But we are moving fast - faster than many countries in the West. Thirteen years ago I did not expect to be where we are as a movement today in Uganda. So I feel we are on the right track and moving even faster now. And it is the anti-gay movement that is making us gain speed. We never thought we would be able to go to court and sue the government - I thought that would take us 30 years. But it only took us 10. If you look at our neighbors in Kenya, they have already taken to the courts for decriminalization. And what happens in the region affects all of us here in the region.
On a personal note, you became the leader of the leader of the LGBT movement in Uganda at the young age of 19. How was that personally and how were you received by your family?
It is because of my family that I was able to stand up for the movement because I didn't have anything to lose, unlike my peers, who were and still are being disowned by their families, who are being expelled from school. I also kept getting expelled from school, but I saw it as my privilege to speak out for those who could not. And it is because of that support that I got from my family that I decided to do something (…) I told my peers, I need to fight so that not only their parents understand like my parents, but also to make sure that our neighbors, our teachers, our government understands. And so that's how people really started to understand why we needed to start the movement. I said to so many people, "it's ok, I will speak for you because I will not have to sleep on the streets, I will always have a home to go to." And that is how it started, because I had a very supportive network around me with my friends and my family and I wanted to see to it that I am not the only privileged person in the group of my peers.
So as the support network grows, so too will the movement be able to grow.
Oh, the movement has grown tremendously and it is still growing. And that is one of the achievements I can see - to see to it that we feel safe speaking out. There are more and more young people joining the movement. And many others. So the more we speak out, the more we see that we cannot do this work on our own. There are now projects helping in poor areas, there are court cases to stop the hostile environment. Because people are fed up and they are doing what it takes to put a stop to it.
Kasha Nabagesera is the founder of FARUG and Uganda's leading gay rights activist. She will be joining us at the Global Media Forum to speak more about the situation of LGBT people in her country.
Interview conducted by Sarah Berning