My life as a gay Ugandan

My life as a gay Ugandan
Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera is open about her lesbian identity, and she's over the years faced increased threats in Uganda because of intense hostility towards LGBT people. Courtesy Photo

In January 2011 a judge ruled in favour of a group of gay individuals stating that all Ugandans, regardless of their sexual orientation, have a right to privacy and dignity. One of the plaintiffs recounts her story.

On the 4th of October, I woke up as usual, with my niece sleeping near me. She was put in my bed every morning so that when I awoke, the first thing I see is her smiling face. I was flying to Geneva that evening for a Human Rights conference where one of the topics of discussion would be Uganda’s proposed anti-homosexuality bill.

Everything seemed normal about that morning, until I checked my e-mail. In addition to the normal e-mails, I found one from a man named Josh Kron, a reporter from the New York Times, in New York. The subject was: “Is it true?”

The body of the e-mail consisted of a few simple questions asking whether or not a Ugandan tabloid called The Rolling Stone had written about me, naming me as a lesbian. I had never even heard of the The Rolling Stone and wrote him back to tell him I wasn’t aware of ever having spoken with such a publication.

Shortly afterwards, Frank Mugisha, a friend of mine, who had also been listed by the tabloid as a gay Ugandan, sent me an e-mail with a scanned copy of the tabloid newspaper. There it was: my picture, my name, and the headline: “100 PICTURES OF UGANDA’S TOP HOMOS.” Beneath the headline were the words, “Hang Them!”

I panicked. But the full article was worse. When I read it, my heart almost stopped. The article claimed that I threw parties and orgies for homosexuals at my house and that I wanted to brainwash children into being homosexual. They even quoted me as saying, “We are targeting those as young as 12 years old, as they are easy to persuade to join gay groups.”

I have never said such a thing, I have never even thought such a thing – and if someone was throwing homosexual orgies at my house, they never invited me. But I couldn’t do anything right then, I had to fly to Geneva, where as a leading voice of the human rights movement for sexual minorities in Uganda, I was presenting a report on Uganda to a UN committee.

But every time I checked my e-mail, I found more and more requests for a comment from reporters about my supposed quote. I didn’t know how to respond. I had never faced a lie so ugly and so huge. I had never imagined a call for me to be hanged. And I had reason to fear, because in addition to their lies, Rolling Stone had published my home address and workplace. Anyone who decided that he should take Rolling Stone’s advice to hang me knew exactly where I could be found.

When I got a full copy of the paper that night, I passed it around, and began to shout, “Enough is enough! These guys can’t get away with this!” But for the next two weeks, I felt too scared to do anything. I was afraid that if I spoke up, someone would hurt me.

The following week, Rolling Stone printed more photos, and I knew that if I didn’t do something to stop them, eventually, someone would get hurt. All the news I got from home was terrible. People who had their photo published had been attacked, had rocks thrown at them, and some had to leave their homes.

They were too afraid to even file police reports. I decided I had to stand up for them. I was a known human rights defender, I could risk my name. I contacted many people around the world who supported me and pledged to help me throughout the whole process of suing the Rolling Stone.

Coming back in November, I talked to my colleagues David Kato and Pepe Onziema, and learned that they were also planning to sue, so we teamed up to lodge a case against The Rolling Stone.

We sued them on grounds that should be important to all Ugandans, whether gay or straight: Our right to privacy and the safety we all have against incitements to violence. Let me be clear: I have never at any one time in my affidavit denied my sexual orientation. Our issue concerned the rights that Ugandans should have to be protected from the incitement of violence and violation of our privacy. No one should ever wake up and see a call for violence and his home address published in a newspaper.

During the case, I spent all the little money I had to have safe transport, and stopped moving to my local open places because of fear of what could happen to me in case someone identified me. Because of my human rights work defending sexual minorities, it’s always my face that is flashed on TV every time someone talks about homosexuality.

In November, the judge placed an injunction against The Rolling Stone that prohibited them from publishing any more photos of people. But, in December, the court case grew very ugly. The court proceedings were postponed five times, and each time incurred expenses and allowed for many ugly acts of harassment outside the court.

Once, the anti-gay pastor Solomon Male ambushed me outside the court to engage in a very ugly public argument with me about Pastor Kayanja and how we (homosexuals) had taken over all government posts and cannot be touched – which is ridiculous, as I had just been pushed around by court security not five minutes before.

Finally, on January 3, 2011, the judge offered his ruling in our favour. The ruling was virtually ignored by the local press, but the international media covered it extensively because of its far reaching implications for Ugandans.

The ruling clarified an important nuance of the law: while certain homosexual acts may still be illegal (a penal code act which we are currently fighting), maintaining a homosexual identity is not.

In Uganda, a person is free to identify themselves however they please, and cannot be persecuted for it. Therefore, a newspaper like The Rolling Stone cannot incite violence against innocent citizens, and cannot invade their privacy.

On my own behalf, and on behalf of my two fellow plaintiffs – David Kato and Pepe Onziema – as well as the entire LGBT community of Uganda, we would like to welcome the verdict of this case. It has taken courage and bravery to stand up for justice. The support from the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, from our families, and from allies near and far cannot go unnoticed.

This verdict has shown that indeed, justice is possible in this world and more so in this country. Coming from a marginalized community, many people have taken advantage of our oppression to satisfy their political, economic, and social greed and bigotry.

We are victims of oppression in so many ways. And for being just who we are, many have turned us into targets of oppression. But we refuse to be silent. The stories of people fighting against injustice have always been about a minority, because social justice struggles are fought by a minority for a majority.

The court verdict reminded us all that Uganda is no place for hatred and impunity. Irresponsible journalism has no place in this country. The Rolling Stone tabloid and its editors may not have anticipated that they would be victims of their own actions but we would never wish for or call for them to be “hanged.” A media that is based on untruthfulness is an enemy of the nation. Let this be the beginning of responsible journalism for justice and equality.

On December 10, 2010, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called on all countries to decriminalize homosexuality during his key Human Rights Day address. Mr. Ban Ki Moon said the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on December. 10, 1948, “is not called the ‘partial’ declaration of human rights. It is not the ‘sometimes’ declaration of human rights. It is the universal declaration, guaranteeing all human beings their basic human rights – without exception.”

But one verdict does not mean that we have won the struggle. We still have a lot of sensitizing to do, especially to the people in rural areas, before people fully understand just how big a lie The Rolling Stone published. We have to know that we are all different in many ways and that we cannot all be the same.

My hope is that we can learn to live together in this beautiful country of ours without stigma and discrimination but with respect and tolerance.

Again, I would like to thank all those who continue to walk the journey to freedom with us. You are the true heroes and sheroes. Let justice reign.

Kasha Jacqueline is the founder and Executive Director of Freedom and Roam Uganda, the country’s only exclusively Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender women’s rights organization, founded in 2003.

Editor’s Note:

Soon after the verdict against the publishers of Rolling Stone was announced, we at the Kampala Dispatch approached the plaintiffs from the gay and lesbian community to offer a commentary in the pages of our magazine.

One of the plaintiffs, Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, offered to write about her experiences. In order to offer both sides of the debate over homosexual rights in Uganda, we tried for two weeks to contact via telephone and sms both MP David Bahati and Ethics and Integrity Minister James Nsaba Buturo but were unsuccessful.

Our editorial team decided that we would still publish the commentary from Jacqueline because we feel that all issues regarding the people of this country, no matter how uncomfortable they may make some, must be discussed in an open and equal forum.

Then right as we were going to press on January 27, we were hit by the news that David Kato, one of the plaintiffs in the case was brutally murdered at his home in Mukono. As of press time it is unclear whether this murder was because of his sexual orientation. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the friends and family of David Kato.