Together the voices of reason and care can bring sexual equality to an ever more draconian Uganda

Our writer, who saw an unlikely champion of gay rights fight for his beliefs in an African court, says that there are grounds for optimism in the battle for equality there

Share
Related Topics

As I stood in the morning heat out outside one of Kampala’s district court houses waiting for the British producer David Cecil, who was about to attend a hearing, I could see example of the penalty which lay in store should he be found guilty. A blue goods container with its doors replaced by a cage stood in the corner of the sandy compound. In it, around eighty prisoners awaiting trial fought their way to the front of the blackness, desperate for air and light. Both the laws and justice are severe in Uganda.

David had been arrested for staging the play, The River and the Mountain, which had gay themes. And the government is using his case to prove that their hostile view of homosexuality is real, and one they will enforce.   When I asked him if jail was a real possibility, and not just bluster designed to scare foreigners and their press corps, he replied determined: “of course it’s a possibility; this is what they are pushing for.  The crime carries an automatic sentence of two years, not up to two years.”

Draconian

He seemed genuinely shaken, and knew that there would be no immunity for his case. He has lived in Uganda for five years, and knows its tactics well, “they seem to be dragging things out, and indefinitely postponing things.” David isn’t gay, and seemed to me to be an accidental activist, but when I asked him if he regretted staging the play, his familiar determination once again made an appearance: “no not at all. The only regret I have is that it was limited to a very small audience.” 

What his play has done, albeit unintentionally, is bring wider international attention to the draconian laws concerning sexuality, laws which are set to become tougher in the coming weeks, and laws which he feels do not reflect the public mood, “I doubt whether the politicians really care about public opinion on this, and for me that is the biggest tragedy.”

The new bill which has been whirring around Parliament since 2009 threatens to bring in the death penalty, forced reporting of homosexuals, and hefty prison sentences for the promotion of homosexuality. The law would set new standards for state-sponsored civil rights abuse. But already, being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in Uganda means a life conducted mostly in the shadows, and without the peace that comes from knowing that law will protect you. Fear is a constant companion, and sanctuary is rarely found. I did, however, find one such sanctuary. 

It was a ‘safe compound’ called Ice Breakers. Set up by the leading activist Frank Mugisha, it aims to provide a secure space from which LGBT people can get learning advice, health advice from the on-site clinic, but most importantly: safety. As the car waited at the giant metal gates, I wondered what I would find once they creaked open.  The gentle gardens and low rise buildings within the high brick walls were an instant comfort.  People wandered around and there was a palpable sense of ease. The centre is kept alive by money from international donors, including from the British organisation, The David Cairns foundation.

Its money goes mainly into the health clinic, which is one of the few places in Kampala gay people feel comfortable to seek advice about HIV.  Gay men in Uganda are four times more likely to contract HIV, mainly because they feel unable to ask about the disease, and how best to prevent it.  The dark clinic with shallow medicine cabinets is very much on the front line of fighting the disease among this marginalised and persecuted community.

Comfort

Mary, the stout head nurse was sat in her chair as I entered.  She had the look of a woman who is impossible to shock. I asked her why people come to see her. Her answer was simple: “because here they feel free.”  Conversation quickly turns to the bill, which would make it technically illegal for her not to report her gay patients.  She shrugs of the suggestion, “there is no way the bill will stop us treating them.”  I smile:  this is not the ‘hostile public’ I was warned about back in England. I asked her if she felt that the activists can fight the bill alone, she looked at me, incredulously, “how can they fight the bill when they are sick in their beds?”

Inside the centre’s lounge, sat on a plump sofa watching the Ugandan version of X Factor, I found Aliyo.  I asked him what the centre meant to him. He smiled, “this is my comfort; this is my safe place.” I then asked him what he felt on the other side of the compound’s strong walls, his smile soon dropped, “you are always worried – this is about your life.”

I left the safety of Ice Breakers and headed back into the chaos of Kampala. The human rights tragedy will continue to unravel, and as it does, it will bring a health catastrophe with it.  But from the courthouse to the safe-house, the voices of care and reason do exist, and they are strong, even if they are occasionally accidental. 

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform