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How the West Was Wrong: Misunderstanding Uganda’s Gay Rights Crisis Makes It Worse
Posted on Mar 13, 2014
On the morning after President Yoweri Museveni signed Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, a Ugandan friend of mine posted a celebratory Facebook status extolling his country’s persecution of the LGBT community and condemning the West for trying to impose immorality on a proudly “Christian nation.” The post ended with “we go, we go, we go, we go, Uganda, oyeee, we go,” the refrain of a Ugandan fight song I’ve often heard students chant on football pitches before a match with a major opponent.
My friend is not a bad person. He’s a freelance researcher for social justice groups in his home district; much of his reporting focuses on peace-building initiatives, and he’s one of the few Ugandan men I know who openly espouses feminist ideals. I’d seen hints of homophobia from him before, but never anything this blatant. Granted, it’s been nearly two years since my last stay in Uganda, and in that time my contact with this person has been sporadic. People change. But even so, the belligerence in his statement shocked me; it seemed out of character for him.
Because the time stamp on his status indicated that he had posted only moments earlier and I thought I might still catch him online, I clicked through to his wall and typed out a response. “It makes me sad that someone I respect is propagating hate,” I wrote, then hovered uneasily over the “post” button. Clicking the text again, I nudged the cursor back through the sentence and added a “so much” after my expression of respect. I paused and reread what I had written. Then I deleted my comment and scrolled away.
That was over two weeks ago. In the days since, there have been a lot of deleted sentences. My notebook is filling up with false starts and half-finished thoughts on the matter, but I keep hanging back uncertainly. The question of homosexuality in Uganda is one I generally steer clear of—not because I don’t have an opinion on the issue, but because I often question the wisdom of expressing it. When it comes to Ugandan perceptions of homosexuality, feelings have reached such a fever pitch over the past five years that any Westerner weighing in on the matter is likely only to stir up more anger.
And yet, there are things I feel I should say. I’ve been flustered and angry since the bill passed Uganda’s parliament in December and there is much I’ve been wanting to explain. What I’m realizing now, though, is that it’s not my Ugandan friends I want to address, it’s fellow Westerners. There are historical, cultural and political dimensions to this situation that the Western media have largely overlooked—dimensions that have very real implications for people on the ground and that ought to affect the way we approach this issue. It may not be my place right now to enter a Ugandan discussion on these matters, but perhaps I do have something to add to the Western one.
The last time I waded into this subject in earnest was in 2012. At the time, I had been living in Uganda for about 18 months and had been variously involved with the country for close to seven years. All along, I’d been cautious when approaching the topic of homosexuality. It was a subject I broached only with my closest Ugandan friends, and even then I was careful to tread lightly. Nor was the topic particularly hard to avoid in my day-to-day life. I lived in Gulu, a district in the north of the country that had recently emerged from two decades at the mercy of Joseph Kony’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army. As the employee of a local post-conflict recovery NGO, I was often privy to the concerns of community members, but these never brought me near the terrain of gay rights. Farmers came to our office with fears of food insecurity, with land disputes teetering on the brink of violence; returned child soldiers showed up with reports of harassment and stigmatization. In a community struggling to find its footing after 20 years of trauma and ethnic marginalization, questions of sexual identity understandably took a back seat. Perhaps this is why I was so thrown when the subject did finally surface in my work life one April morning during a local leaders’ workshop convened to discuss youth empowerment in the region.
The workshop was headed up by two local NGOs, one of which was my employer. Though I felt slightly out of place among the local councilors, clergy and village health team officers—a sort of vastly under-qualified intruder in the room—I participated for the simple reason that all my colleagues were participating. And for the first two days I fit in just fine. My trouble came on the third day when we were asked to break into groups and brainstorm a list of the most pressing dangers facing the area’s youth.
I honestly can’t tell you who was in my group or what challenges we came up with; the whole exercise has been obscured by the discussion that ensued. The first to present was a team from the neighboring district of Nwoya. They pinned their notes to the easel at the front of the room so that everyone could follow along, but because I was in the fourth or fifth row of seats, I couldn’t make out the contents until their spokesperson began reading aloud. “For our No. 1 concern,” he said, “we’d like to mention the danger of these foreign NGOs that are coming into the country to turn our children gay.” There was a pause and several dozen heads swiveled ever so slightly in my direction, discreetly angling to gauge the reaction of the only foreigner in the room. I stared into my notepad and waited for the group to move on to the second bullet point. The spokesman, however, seemed determined to elaborate. “You see,” he continued, “these Westerners come to Uganda to try to lure our youth into their lifestyle. This is why we have to root out this disgusting practice while there’s still time.” Grave nods all around. A woman from a different group spoke up to clarify (though it was not entirely clear for whom), saying, “They go into schools and use money and fancy phones to draw students away from the proper path.” Other voices chimed in with further descriptions of this “evil” and the threat posed by the “filth” these “morally bankrupt” organizations brought in from abroad. The discussion had clearly snagged on this topic, and feeling increasingly uncomfortable, I finally raised my hand.
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