Prominent Ugandan Activist Requests U.S. Asylum, Citing 'Jail the Gays' Law

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com May 07 2014 4:22 PM ET

A prominent LGBT activist in Uganda who was featured in the award-winning documentary Call Me Kuchu will seek asylum in the United States, according to Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the legal group representing the 41-year-old gay man. 

John Abdallah Wambere, affectionately known as "Long Jones," has filed an application for asylum in the U.S., citing Uganda's draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act, which prescribes life imprisonment for many LGBT people and was signed into law by Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni February 24. 

"It is not safe for John to return to Uganda," states GLAD in its announcement of the asylum application. "Even before the bill was signed, John was outed as gay by newspapers, harassed by strangers, evicted from his home, beaten up, and received death threats from anonymous phone calls. Now he also faces life imprisonment should he return."

Wambere is a lifelong activist for LGBT Ugandans and cofounded Spectrum Uganda Initiatives in 2000, one of the few surviving Ugandan LGBT organizations that seeks to provide safety, education, and legal assistance to beleaguered LGBT Ugandans and those who are HIV-positive. He acknowledged the difficult decision to seek asylum when he has friends and loved ones who are still in grave danger as out LGBT people in Uganda. 

"This has been a very, very difficult decision for me," said Wambere in a statement to the media. "I have devoted my life to working for LGBTI people in Uganda, and it gives me great pain not to be with my community, allies, and friends while they are under increasing attack. But in my heart, I know it is my only option, and that I would be of no use to my community in jail."

Anti-LGBT violence in Uganda — including kidnappings, evictions, arrests, and mob attacks — has been escalating since the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which also permits lengthy jail sentences for anyone found to be "aiding or abetting homosexuality," including nonprofits that work with LGBT people or those who are HIV-positive, or even those who provide housing or decline to report to police a "known homosexual." 

Despite the increasingly hostile environment, several prominent activists have elected to stay in the country, though many have been forced to continue their work underground, lest they be targeted by politically emboldened police or townspeople. Although international outrage has been loud and swift — including the removal of some foreign aid upon which the Ugandan government heavily relies — a majority of Ugandan citizens report supporting the law. More than 1,000 Ugandans gathered at a rally near Kampala last month to celebrate and "give thanks" for the law's passage. President Museveni, who is up for reelection in 2016, led that march through the streets of Kampala, while demonstrators carried signs with messages like "Museveni, thank you for saving the future of Uganda," "Homosexuality + AIDS = 100%," and "Obama, we want trade not homosexuality."

Wambere, who has a 16-year-old daughter and is the head of his family's household following the death of his father, according to GLAD, delivered a moving speech in Los Angeles last month when a film in which he was prominently featured, Call Me Kuchu, won the 2014 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary.

Watch Wambere's acceptance speech below, after the victory was announced by Oscar-winning actor Lupita Nyong'o.