By Thom Senzee
Originally published on Advocate.com June 27 2014 3:24 PM ET
Hundreds of LGBT refugees — whose existence has been criminalized under Uganda's draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act — have fled Uganda for neighboring Kenya after facing threats and being blackmailed, kidnapped, arrested, evicted and assaulted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, says a Kenyan activist and LGBT community organizer.
"Ken," who is currently touring the U.S. to raise awareness about the plight of LGBT people in east Africa with the help of American Jewish World Service, is traveling under a psuedonym for his own safety, the safety of the LGBT social services organization he runs in Kenya, and for the safety and security of its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex members.
According to organizers of Ken's U.S. speaking engagements and media interviews, not only Ken himself but the entire organization he represents would be in grave danger if his identity were known to those opponents of LGBT rights back home in Kenya.
"In our organization, we have 102 members who have come from Uganda in order to escape the antihomosexuality law and the violence and oppression it has created," Ken tells The Advocate in a phone interview.
Since Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act into law in February, virtually any Ugandan arriving at a refugee camp in Kenya is automatically assumed to be an LGBT person by other refugees, Ken says. The draconian law prescribes life in prison for many LGBT people and lengthy jail terms for anyone who "conspires" to commit homosexuality, or supports, houses, or affirms an LGBT person.
"The thinking is that Uganda is a relatively stable country for this region," says Ken. "The only reason to be a refugee from Uganda is because you are running away from the antigay law, because you are gay."
That assumption has led to acts of violence, deprivation of basic necessities, and the ostracizing of both LGBT and non-LGBT Ugandan refugees living inside Kenyan refugee camps.
Then there's the matter of those living with HIV or AIDS.
According to activist Nikki Mawanda, a transgender Ugandan man currently living and seeking asylum in the United States, decades of work and hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in the fight against HIVand AIDS in Africa are now threatened by the newly magnified stigma against LGBT people, caused in part by Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act.
Ken and Mawanda both agree that Uganda's antigay law and the general rise in African homophobia currently being stoked by politicians who are looking for distractions from their own poor performance are reawakening old stereotypes, leading people to believe that only LGBT people get HIV and AIDS.
"Some people on [antiretrovirals] aren't getting their medicine in refugee camps," says Ken, who adds that for LGBT refugees in Kenyan camps, living with HIV or AIDS is often complicated and dangerous, causing some to turn to sex work as a means to survive.
"Because all they get in the camps are beans and rice to eat, and they need leafy green vegetables, they will sometimes turn to prostitution to have a better diet," Ken tells The Advocate.
Mawanda confirms Ken's number of 102 known refugees from his home country who have joined his organization in Kenya.
"But there are probably a lot more than that," says Mawanda in a conference call hosted by AJWS.
Ken, whose organization works to change African perceptions about LGBT people one person, one family, and one village at a time, believes as many as 500 Ugandans may actually be seeking refuge in Kenya. All of them, he believes, are there because their lives were in danger as a result of Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act.
"We believe we can improve the situation if more people know someone who is gay," says Ken. "We show our members how to safely come out first by telling their families, then their villages."
Even if a family does not want an LGBT relative to come out to their community, at least more families will know and hopefully love someone of their own flesh and blood who is LGBTI, says Ken.
For now, however, prospects for acceptance on a larger scale are fairly bleak for LGBTI people in east Africa.
"The common LGBTI person in Uganda is struggling to even make ends meet," Mawanda says. "The common LGBTI in Uganda today — I'm talking about a trans man, a trans woman, who is seen as being a typical gay person today in Uganda … is homeless, because they were evicted from the small homes where they were living before the law was passed, because the law says their landlord had to evict them. The average LGBTI person in Uganda cannot go to hospital to get antimalaria or [antiretroviral]s because the doctors fear being jailed because of the new law."
That law prescribes seven-year prison sentences for landlords who don't evict LGBT tenants. Mawanda says the law has also essentially given homophobic people in Uganda license to assault or even kill LGBT people, making it unsurprising that many LGBT Ugandans are seeking safety and asylum in the U.S., Canada, Sweden, Scottland, Kenya, and even Rwanda.
But, says Mawanda, those who can leave are the fortunate few with the means to travel abroad.
"I was lucky," Mawanda says. "I was able to get a visa and come to the U.S. But it is hard. I'm lucky. But the U.S. immigration system is very discriminatory."
Indeed, the average Ugandan, who survives on pennies a day, cannot meet the means testing required to obtain a visa to the U.S. In fact, most can't afford airfare to North America or Europe.
"[U.S. immigration officials] need you to prove you have a family tie here," Mawanda explains. "You have to show [acceptable] economic status. Many Ugandans don't even have an income or a bank account."
For those reasons, most LGBTI Ugandans must weather the antigay environment, whether they would like to leave the country or not.
"While we sit in meetings talking about these serious and important issues, we're not talking about common LGBTI Ugandans who are going through these evil acts," Mawanda says. "I've seen these acts. The police think this is just a joke and an opportunity for them to blackmail and extort money from LGBT persons. LGBT people are kidnapped by unknown people claiming to be security forces who extort money from them, while the government authorities look the other way."
Ruth Messinger, American Jewish World Service president, tells The Advocate that her organization has made fighting for the rights of LGBT people worldwide is a major part of its mission because Jewish people understand what it is like to be oppressed by official government policies and government officials.
“In Africa and around the world, LGBT people are ostracized, threatened, and assaulted just because of who they are and whom they love,” Messinger says during a phone interview. “As Jews, we certainly understand all too well the reality of living in countries in which states sanction hate against minorities and trample their rights."
Even the U.S. Department of State defers to AJWS on the issue of African LGBT refugees, referring The Advocate to Messinger's organization when we asked for numbers of LGBT refugees in the region.
"It is difficult to estimate the number of LBGT individuals who have fled Uganda for the neighboring countries, as Ugandans are able to move freely within the East Africa community," a State Department official tells The Advocate. "Anecdotally, we are hearing that many do not seek official recognition as asylum-seekers, because by doing so they would be outing themselves and potentially putting themselves into further danger. Some are, however, registering as refugees with the U.N. Refugee Agency in Kenya, but the numbers are currently believed to be few."
Ken, the Kenyan community organizer and LGBT activist, says most LGBT refugees will not identify as LGBT out of fear of violence and ostracization.
"They are not going to tell refugee agencies that they are gay," he says. "That's because the agencies put fellow refugees in charge of registering new arrivals. That makes it almost certain that they will be outed in the camps. So they don't identify."
The State Department official agrees that revealing individual LGBT activists' identities or the names of organizations such as Ken's would be perilous to both.
"For the safety of the LGBT beneficiaries, as well as the service providers, we decline to provide information on the organizations within Uganda working with this population,” the official says.
For its part, the State Department asserts that the U.S. recognizes the legitimacy of claims of persecution due to sexual orientation and gender identity.
"The United States recognizes that LGBT individuals from Uganda may have a legitimate claim to persecution, along the lines of other claims which also include persecution based on religious affiliation or ethnicity," says the State Department official.
It remains to be seen if that supposed legitimacy will make its way from the diplomatic corps to ground-level U.S. immigration procedures — or if LGBT Africans fleeing persecution will be granted a reprieve on the regular requirements to demonstrate financial means and family ties in order to secure a visa for extended stay and political asylum in the U.S. Thus far, activists continue to report a complex system for requesting asylum that remains out of reach for many in Uganda's already marginalized LGBT population.