One Long Road to Freedom

Disan2By Steve Fulmer, via GLAPN

In so many ways, 22-year-old Disan is a lucky guy. Though born in a poor county, he was raised in a prominent family. His father was a banker, his aunt a member of the Ugandan parliament, his uncle a prominent priest in the Roman Catholic Church. His family belongs to the tribe that has held the Presidency since independence from Great Britain. He attended the best schools and learned to speak English and a half dozen tribal languages fluently. He dressed well, had access to the latest technology and was treated with deference. He expected to finish university and become an attorney.

There was only one problem. Disan realized that he was attracted only to members of his own gender in a nation where colonization and Christian conversion made homosexuality strictly taboo. In fact, a recent law was passed to make it a crime punishable by death, then revised under international pressure to be “only” life in prison.

A devout Roman Catholic, he prayed to be “normal.” In the capital, though, he found others like himself, and soon learned of an organization working for equality. He heard their message and it rang true. In order to associate with his new friends, he moved out of his family home, knowing that this would spell the end of financial support for his university education.

He fell in love with one of the most outspoken leaders in the LGBT movement, a man named Sam, and moved into his home. But Disan was careful to stay “under the radar.” Although his education was interrupted, he was happy.

Then, suddenly, everything changed. His partner found someone else. In his pain, Disan told his uncle, the priest. To his dismay, the priest called the police, who in turn arrested Disan, put him in jail and beat him until he agreed to testify against his former partner, who had become a target of the government under the new law.

The police raided Sam’s home and arrested everyone there. Sam and Disan were paraded before the national press and front page headlines followed. With their primary target in prison, the authorities allowed Disan and the others to leave jail, but they remained under subpoena pending Sam’s trial.

Faced with being socially ostracized and knowing that they’d be forced to testify against Sam, they did what they felt they had to do. They fled their homeland for neighboring Kenya and sought international asylum through the United Nations’ international refugee program.  They lived in a camp under deplorable conditions where they were in constant danger even from other refugees. Disan, fearing that he would be kidnapped by his own family and taken back to Uganda, left the camp and with assistance from foreign friends was able to live in a small apartment. On the bright side, because the government could not present witnesses, the court dropped the charges against Sam.

But the process of seeking asylum took many months. Disan requested status in the United States. The others sought residency in Canada. They were quickly approved and left Disan behind.  Multiple medical screenings were required, then repeated. He was vetted by the FBI and Interpol.  Finally, with letters of support from Portland, Ore., his application was approved. He signed papers agreeing to repay his airfare and flew to Miami. The entry proved to be grueling as well, but he persisted and made it through. On February 15, 2015, he finally found freedom in Portland.

Now, he is the guest of supportive members of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG/Black Chapter), he has a new wardrobe of warm clothes donated by members of The Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. He’s getting temporary assistance and medical care, as well as job coaching through Sponsors Organized to Assist Refugees (SOAR) and the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization (IRCO). He’s never lived in a place where his race is an issue. Now he must learn the ways of this new culture and manage the triple challenges of being black, gay, and foreign in America.

After five months of total silence, he’s been able to contact his family. They remain uncooperative, refusing to forward his passport or his academic transcripts. He’s starting over.

In a time where sexual minority people are rapidly gaining new guarantees of freedom in the United States, it is easy to forget what life was like less than 50 years ago—what life is still like in rural areas or in other States, or in non-accepting communities of faith. Disan’s powerful story of perseverance and resilience under extreme conditions, serves to remind us of how far we still have to go—and of how much courage and determination it will take to succeed in our quest for respect, tolerance and equality.

It will be difficult, but like Disan, we will make it. After all, he’s a lucky guy—and we are lucky to have him in our midst.

                About the author: Steve Fulmer has been a LGBT activist in Portland since the early 1970s.  Among other honors, he was selected as a “Gay Hero” by GLAPN in 2012.