A month has passed since President Yoweri Museveni signed Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act. A blitz of reactions followed: donors withdrew millions of dollars in aid, while the Ugandan tabloids seized the moment by outing 200 suspected gays. But as international attention has already turned elsewhere, life goes on for a Ugandan lesbian.
By Thomas Kleinveld, Kampala
“Not that much has changed for me. If you don’t inconvenience anyone, it’s OK,” says Julia. “There are blacklists and that is bad. But there are many of us just living their lives in peace.”
To the outside world, she is just another businesswoman in her late 20s living somewhere in downtown Kampala. On Friday nights, you’ll find Julia playing pool in one of the city’s many bars. On Sunday mornings, she’ll be in church. Afterwards, she goes home to the apartment she shares with her long-term girlfriend.
“Be quiet, be discreet. That’s the only way to deal with it,” she says. “Few people know the truth about me. The neighbours think my girlfriend and I are related. But I wouldn’t do it any other way, even if I lived in a place where gay marriage is legal.”
Her worst fear
Julia was breaking the law long before 24 February, when Museveni signed the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2014. Under the country’s prior existing anti-sodomy laws, Ugandan gays could face up to 14 years in prison. But the authorities rarely ever enforced the law. Off the record, senior police officials have made it clear they don’t intend for this to change – even now that the new law has come into effect.
The police, however, were never Julia’s worst fear. She is afraid of being publically outed. She has heard the stories of crowds beating up suspected gays. Mob justice is not uncommon in Uganda; luckily. violence against gays is still an exception although it does happen. What Julia really fears are the social ramifications. Outed gays have been chased out of their hometowns, seen their friends and families turn away and lost their jobs.
“Maybe it has been easier for me,” she admits. “For women, it’s somehow more acceptable. But for a dude, there is no going back.
He would lose everything if people found out. Somehow, it’s considered more degrading in African culture if a man assumes this role.”
But even as a lesbian, Julia has to be careful. She resents being defined by her sexuality and tries to keep this part of her life from those that might not understand. A select group of friends knows the truth. Many others, including her family, don’t.
“I just always watch out,” she says. “But in the end you have to choose between who you are and those you love.”
“Some people just don’t get it”
In the last five years, Julia has seen the attitudes of friends around her change – for the worse. Not against her, in particular, but against gays, in general, she explains. Friends have told her that the Anti-Homosexuality Act is essential to protect Uganda against depraved foreign influences. But the same friends would react shocked and hurt if Julia asked them if they would report her to the police, as the new law requires. To them, the two things were completely unrelated.
Rumours that young, poor Ugandans are paid to ‘turn gay’ by Western NGOs are unconfirmed, but they are persistent and often repeated by the media. To many, even within the LGTB community, it doesn’t seem that far-fetched – stranger things are known to happen in the Kampala slums.
“There just has been reaction to reaction, to reaction. That’s how such a small thing got this big. Even guys who had no affinity for the bill react in favour because they are so pissed off,” explains Julia. “The gay community also has to understand that some people just don’t get it. If we approach them, it will just create extra tension. Sometimes this bothers me, too. You know, these people that are gay but try to assume the other sex? If you are gay, it shouldn’t change the way to talk, dress and act. Don’t be overly out there. Just act normal and be yourself.”
True to her country
Julia knows she has to find a way to live in a country that outlaws an essential part of who she is. What makes it difficult for her is not the hatred she faces, but the ignorance.
“There is a lot of misunderstanding and assumptions, and it’s just very confusing. Nobody is objective on this issue,” says Julia. “But the cutting of aid is not a solution. Neither is seeking asylum elsewhere. Not everyone can do that. Even if I could, I wouldn’t. At the end of the day, I’m true to my country, even if it crucifies me. It’s where I’m from. It’s who I am. There are just a few people causing this problem. It’s not what being Ugandan is about.”