Op-ed: Wanting to Hold Hands in Uganda

A lesbian couple went to Uganda to understand what gay life is truly like.

BY Sam Mednick

January 31 2014 9:00 AM ET

A few days before our trip to Uganda, I received a comical yet stern email from my father telling me not to hold hands with my girlfriend in public. “I’ve got better things to do in my remaining years than go visit you in a grungy jail in Uganda,” he joked, yet proceeded to tell me how serious he was.

Uganda’s Parliament had just passed its antigay bill, which proposed life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality.” Anyone with HIV or anyone considered a “serial offender” who engaged in gay sex, even if it was consensual or protected, could be sent to jail. The bill, which had not yet by signed by the president, also included prison time for those who reached out to LGBT people, and tourists weren’t exempt from punishment.

I assured my father that my girlfriend was not a fan of public displays of affection (much to my dismay) and that he had nothing to worry about, as we’d be traveling as “friends.”

It was a strange feeling. Parliament had passed a bill going against not only something I strongly believed in but something I embodied, something I was. Even though we’d been saving and planning for more than a year, I started to wonder if going to Uganda and abiding by “their rules” meant I was condoning the bill.

On the other hand, I told myself that by not going, I was letting this nonsensical legislation stand in my way and somehow I was letting them win. It had been my girlfriend’s dream to see the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat, and East Africa always held great intrigue for me, especially Uganda. And so instead of being deterred, the two of us were motivated to do some digging and speak with as many people as possible while we were on the ground. We wanted to understand how regular Ugandans truly felt.

Having recently watched the documentary Call Me Kuchu about gays in Uganda, we started by tracking down the late David Kato’s mother. Kato, Uganda’s first openly gay man, led the gay rights movement in East Africa and was one of the founding members of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) as well as a prominent international figure before he was killed in 2011. His mother had a brief cameo in the movie, and in light of the bill we wanted to get her reaction.

On our second day into the trip, we hopped in a taxi and managed to find (with much help along the way) David’s hometown, the tiny village of Nakawala, over an hour outside of Kampala. When we arrived at the house, Lidia and Lilian, David’s mother and niece, came to greet us. It was eerily comfortable, as if they were expecting us, but as it turns out they just wanted us off the road and out of sight.

“We don’t like speaking to white people anymore,” David’s niece Lilian explained as we sat on the couch in their two-room clay hut. “They [her fellow villagers] think that because David’s mother sees white people that she supports gays, so the village has isolated her.”

After the documentary, plenty of white people came to pay their respects to the family. But in Uganda, as we quickly learned, if you’re friends with whites, they think you support homosexuality and are in fact bringing “it” into the country. This mentality is especially prevalent in the villages.

What I found most shocking about visiting the Katos was their antigay point of view. Perhaps I was naive to think that they’d be gay-supportive just because of who David was and the work that he did. But much to my surprise, Lidia had no idea (so she said) that her son was gay, nor did she realize how major an international figure he was until the funeral. “I’m happy he was such a good person and I support his advocacy work. I just don’t support the fact that he was gay,” she explained as she stared longingly at the picture of him on the wall wearing a shirt with the rainbow flag on it.

Yet, despite her antigay feelings, Lidia still opposed the bill. She said it’s unfair because it implicates those who might not be gay but who just want to help. Lilian agreed but felt that life imprisonment was too harsh of a sentence and explained that two years in jail was a more “just” punishment. Our taxi driver, Deo, who we’d “forced” to stay with us for fear of being stranded in the village, chimed into the conversation saying that five months was enough time in prison. He likened being gay to drinking in that “you’re the only one who can decide when to stop.”

It’s strange how sometimes the more you talk about something, even as obscene as jail time for homosexuality, it somehow becomes “normal” in the context of who you’re with. Five months in prison sounded better than two years and two years was way better than a lifetime. Lidia, Lilian and Deo were able to bring a rationale to their beliefs, one that seemed utterly insane to me, yet in their presence was somehow acceptable. I kept wondering what they’d do if I told them my “photographer” was more than a work colleague, more than a friend.

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