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 8:00 AM ET

Throughout our week and a half traveling through both large cities and remote villages in Uganda, we asked many people what they thought of the bill. At first I was hesitant, unsure if mentioning homosexuality was a crime in itself. But as we spoke to more and more people, including teachers, taxi drivers, and workers with nongovernmental organizations, it became clear that most of them didn’t feel any negativity toward gays. They kept saying that homosexuality was against their culture and the family unit and it wasn’t something supported in Uganda. It seemed as if they were scared to admit that they were OK with it, because if they were found out, they’d be violating a cultural code and would likely be shunned by their communities.

It was hard at times, not because I ever felt threatened, but because I had to hold myself back. The majority of Ugandans wouldn’t suspect that two women traveling together, sans husbands, would be lesbians. Most people thought it was sad that we weren’t married and offered to wed us (in exchange for visas, of course). But this was my vacation, and I wanted to be able to hold my girlfriend’s hand or kiss her on the street if I had an impulse, but I had to put up a wall, and in doing so, for a very brief moment, I must have felt how so many gay Ugandans feel every single day. It was disheartening, and at the same time I was grateful that I could easily hop on a plane, go back home, and tear down that wall.

It was a nice release, one I didn’t even realize I needed, when I was able to be honest with someone about our relationship for the first time during the trip. On our last day in Kampala we met with Frank Mugisha, current director of SMUG and recipient of the 2011 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. We met Frank and his personal assistant, Richard, in a mall about 20 minutes outside the city. They didn’t want us to see SMUG’s office for fear of people discovering its location. They were cautious about whom they spoke with and where they held meetings and even securing the interview took several attempts. As “out” as they seemed, it was obvious that they weren’t free.

During our talk I asked Frank how he felt when he saw places like Canada and the United States and other European countries with such liberal gay rights laws.

“I'm envious of your country and others — it seems like heaven,” he said. “I look at other countries and think why can't we be like that? But I know they worked hard for their freedom and it takes work.” As my girlfriend and I sat for an hour listening to Frank’s stories about temporarily having to flee Uganda and move to Kenya, his mission to combat the bill no matter how challenging, and the help and security he tries to give the LGBT community, we saw that his commitment to the cause was evidently unwavering.

“For me, my sacrifice is all the way. I'd sacrifice everything including my life until I see that I'm creating a change,” he said

The next day as we continued our trip toward the slightly more “liberal” Tanzania, I felt both sad and invigorated. Frank’s vision of a more inclusive and accepting country and world was infectious. I just hoped these changes he was working so hard to create would come to fruition within his lifetime. It was a question both my girlfriend and I asked ourselves as we crossed the border into Tanzania, where I didn’t have to worry as much about holding her hand.

SAM MEDNICK, a Toronto native, has worked and lived all over the world, including Fiji, Argentina, Ireland, Africa, Lebanon and the Philippines. She now lives in Barcelona and works as the local correspondent for the Travel Media Group at USA Today. In addition to her journalistic work, Sam has her own life and business coaching company, where she specializes in helping people with time management and motivational coaching as well as small business and transitional coaching. Before embarking on her coaching career, Sam worked in Ghana as a foreign correspondent for a Canadian nongovernmental organization (Journalists for Human Rights) and was the executive radio producer for an internationally syndicated lifestyle show based in New York City. See Sam’s coaching philosophies at BlueprintCoaching.ca.

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