A Chat with an Activist from Uganda

Uganda Photo 2By Belinda Carroll, PQ Monthly

If you know anything about me, you know I get pretty passionate about human rights, LGBTQ issues, and baby goats. With all of the heady legal marryin’ that’s been happening, it’s easy to think that the basic fight is over, or at least we can have a mimosa brunch without it also serving as a fundraiser. As a person who lives and breathes in the LGBTQ community, has an accepting family and in-laws, and works as an openly queer comic, I am largely in a gay bubble.

This is why when I was messaged by a gay male Ugandan who friended me on Facebook—he loves comedy and wants more gay stand-up comedy in his country, I wanted to know everything about his life. We began to talk regularly and I realized that a lot of us don’t understand the real situation happening in Uganda.
There are an estimated 500,000 people living in Uganda who are LGBT, and are currently under daily attack by their own government. For a country with a population of 30.7 Million (about the size of California), this is outrageous.
The crimes against LGBT folks in Uganda are manifest in the proposed laws that expand the standing law, Section 145, which says in part, “that any ‘unnatural act’ between two consenting adult men can be punished with up to 7 years in prison.” The proposed bill that would increase these penalties was nicknamed “Kill the Gays” because it would make punishments “up to the death penalty for multiple offences”. The bill was passed into law briefly, but was eventually rescinded. The law is not fully dead; lawmakers have promised to pass a ‘less harsh’ version of the law, and it hangs over every LGBT person living in Uganda.
I became aware of the Ugandan situation in 2009, when Human Rights Watch interviewed a very brave Ugandan by the name of David Kato, of Sexual Minorities Uganda. The language of the new law, “would forbid the “promotion of homosexuality” including publishing information or providing funds, premises for activities, or other resources. Conviction could result in up to seven years in prison.” That sounded really familiar to me. Specifically, it was nearly a verbatim quote from a proposed measure in Oregon from 1992, Measure 9, which read in part: “All governments in Oregon may not use their monies or properties to promote, encourage or facilitate homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism or masochism. All levels of government, including public education systems, must assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse and they are to be discouraged and avoided.”
Once I looked into the new law, I found out that the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, had a very close advisor that made me remember every excruciating minute of high school when (the failed) Measure 9 was being fought in Oregon. Scott Lively, for those who don’t know, was the second in command of the Oregons Citizen’s Alliance (OCA), a Focus-on-the-Family-type group and he wrote a charming little book titled, “The Pink Swastika, Homosexuality and the Nazi Party.”  If you’re thinking, “Boy, I sure hope he uses the S on the cover and makes it a swastika,” you’re in luck. I’ve seen actual Nazi propaganda that was more subtle than his book.
For those who haven’t read the tome that Lively wasted precious natural resources to write, let me sum it up. Do you have a really racist uncle who drinks a lot? Is he part-holocaust denier and part-closeted homosexual who thinks by yelling, calling people names, and making sure “those people pay for their sins,” he can make his own feelings go away? Well, it’s just like that, only Yoweri Museveni decided to enact dangerous laws based on Lively’s rants.
Uganda Photo 1            The problems in Uganda are complicated and widespread—including extreme poverty (the average Ugandan makes $510 dollars a year, according to WHO, and $600 a year according to my interview subject), limited access to education (half of school age students live 5km from the nearest school and most people are on foot), skyrocketing HIV rates, and an ongoing conflict with Rwanda. Add that to the fact that according to a 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project poll, 96% of Ugandans say they agree with punishing homosexuality, it makes for a very hostile and dangerous environment for all LGBT Ugandans.
I don’t mean to get all Lisa Ling on you; because I’m a comedian, not a serious journalist, but when I began talking to Baguma Berges Ronnie (he gave PQ permission to use his full name), a 38 year-old community health trainee, what started as curiosity on my part developed into a real concern for him and his people. Baguma is a member of the Gay Rights Activist Club, an underground resistance group committed to reversing these laws and gaining basic human rights for all Ugandans.
Through email, and Facebook messaging, I spoke with Baguma over the course of two months. Communication was difficult at times, as for him things like Internet access and Skype are hard to come by and prohibitively expensive when they exist. Nevermind the 12-hour time difference that had me chatting at 2AM, 1PM his time.  At one point I received a Facebook message that his Yahoo account had been compromised, and we lost contact.  Luckily, he fixed it and we got the interview done. He is risking a lot by even talking to an American writer, and when we talked about how to send PQ Monthly to him and his club, I learned a lot about disguising reading material to get by his government.
            PQ: I just want to say, I really appreciate your bravery in talking with me. I know it is very dangerous. You have my word that I will do all I can from the States. I don’t know what that will look like beyond the article, but I really would like to help prevent this very dangerous and deadly law passing again.
            Baguma: Thank you for taking interest!
            PQ: What is day to day LGBTQ Life like in Uganda?
            Baguma: Well concerning day to day life in Kampala for LGBTQ people, it is not smooth, as there are many disguised security operatives on the lookout for LGBTQ people and even the locals mostly don’t want to mingle with gay people, a thing which makes LGBTQ people choose to have their discrete places like bars like in Ntinda, one of Kampala’s affluent suburbs.
            PQ: You have an organization, called the Gay Rights Activist Club, what are the goals for the club? What would you like to see?
            Baguma: Concerning goals for the club, GRAC, Gay Rights Activist Club, we are here to promote the rights of gays, fight homophobia, create sustainability, and provide basics like: shelter, food, and medical care for Ugandans.
            PQ: I can imagine that people who aren’t LGBTQ have a hard time because even if they are accepting they are required by law to report homosexual activity, right?
            Baguma: Yes. One interesting story here: A parent found her daughter engaged with a fellow girl in sex, a thing which shocked the parent thus leading her to faint and become unconsciousness. When asked about the incident, the girl replied, “Nobody would ever separate me from my girlfriend.” It is reported that the girls who are both 17, are in secondary school and have been practicing lesbianism for a long time.
            PQ Note: The girls were not jailed but were reportedly a part of the 22 girls expelled from their secondary school for lesbianism.
            PQ Monthly: Is it hard to find employment as a gay person in Kampala?
            Baguma: I feel it vital to tell you about gay prostitutes who are mostly found in affluent suburbs of Kampala, and their clients are mostly whites and Asian executives. Places for gays to pick up include; Buziga, Ntinda, Wandegeya, where there are cozy bars.
            PQ: So do you feel that gays turn to prostitution because it’s harder to find a job?
            Baguma: Well, most gays are in prostitution because of the hard economic situation and high level of unemployment here.
            PQ: What would happen to you if you were caught talking to an American journalist?
            Baguma: Of course security operatives would nose in and find out what information I was giving out and I’d probably be nabbed.
            PQ: What are the names for gay in your primary language?
            Baguma: The common slang word is bisiyaga and the Swahili word is mashoga.

PQ: Any last words for our readers?
Baguma: Last but not least, I would like the people in the US to back us in our fight for gay rights. But I would like to extend my appreciation to all US people for all their unending support and may God bless you all.
PQ: Thank you for your time and courage.

            If you’d like to contact Baguma Ronnie directly he can be reached at: bag42004@yahoo.com