Tuesday, February 23, 2010

FARUG Director, Kasha Jacqueline Speaks to AWID on Anti-Homosexuality Bill

Ugandan lesbian activist Kasha Jacqueline speaks about being lesbian in Uganda, and discusses the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill currently before the country’s parliament. Kasha is the Coordinator of Freedom and Roam Uganda.

By Kathambi Kinoti

AWID: Please tell us about Freedom and Roam Uganda and how it was started.

KASHA JACQUELINE: Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG) is the only exclusively lesbian, bisexual and transgender organization in Uganda. It was started by three lesbian-identified women on July 4, 2003 in a bar which at the time the media frequently called a lesbian bar. Many lesbian women who heard the news started coming to the bar to hang out and make new friends. Earlier, in April 2003 we had been approached by a group of men who claimed to have a lesbian organization by the name Makerere University Students Lesbians Association. When we asked them where the lesbians were and why it was led by men, they said that the women were “shy.” Later we did some research and learnt that these men were not university students nor did any such organization exist.

AWID: Why do you think they would do this?

KJ: Simply because they wanted to use women for their own agendas. Otherwise why would a group of men claim to be a lesbian organization?

After this incident we decided to take up the idea of forming our own lesbian organization. We then brainstormed about what to call ourselves and what the organization would look like. It wasn’t easy because when we introduced it to other lesbians they had mixed feelings. Some wanted it to just be a social club but some of us wanted it to have a political component. At this time, many people had come to know about us and the bar in which we met and would wait for us outside in order to harass us as we left. We argued that it didn’t make sense for us to meet everyday, drink, smoke, and talk about women and sex, and then leave the bar only to get harassed on our way home. This issue introduced some friction into the newly formed organization and some people left including one founder member who had wanted it to be strictly a social club.

The rest of us who still wanted to be part of the group decided that those who wanted to participate in it only to the extent of socializing would have space to do so, and those who wanted to use it as a forum for their political activism could go ahead so long as they wouldn’t expose the names or identities of those who didn’t want didn’t want these revealed to the outside world. And since then FARUG has never looked back.

AWID: What is the situation like for lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Uganda today, even without the obnoxious Bill that is currently before parliament?

KJ: Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda. For many people and institutions, it is a no- go area. Many of us have been expelled from schools just for writing love letters to our same-sex lovers, something our heterosexual colleagues are not expelled for. My principal at university even made me sign a memorandum of understanding that I would not go anywhere within a radius of 100 metres of the girls' hostels because I am a lesbian! So many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons have been expelled, sacked from jobs and sent away from families. Many do not receive appropriate and necessary healthcare services for fear of revealing their sexual orientation, identity or preferences. Transgender individuals and lesbians have been subjected to ‘curative’ rape and the perpetrators in most of the cases recorded come from the victims’ immediate families.

LGBTI persons if identified are harassed on the streets, in public recreation centres and churches. Many have been evicted from their houses by landlords. I was once thrown out of a public taxi[i]because a woman who identified me as a lesbian said she would rather pay for the empty space beside her than have me sit in the same vehicle as her. When I got out of the taxi she continued to shout and draw attention to me. Some bodaboda[ii] riders stationed nearby heard her and one of them whom I didn’t identify hit me on the head with a hard, sharp object. So it is really not a safe environment for LGBTI persons, especially those of us who are out and are actively doing advocacy work to end the criminalization.

AWID: Of grave concern is the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009 currently pending before Parliament. What the Bill is about, and what are its implications for LGBTI individuals?

KJ: Currently, section 140 of the Ugandan Penal Code criminalizes ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature’ with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Section 141 punishes ‘attempts’ at carnal knowledge with a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment. Section 143 punishes acts of ‘gross indecency’ with up to five years in prison. While the Penal Code does not specifically refer to same-sex practices between women, lesbians face the same hostility from both state and non-state actors.

The 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill expands the range of same-sex relations that would be criminalized regardless of whether or not the parties are consenting adults. It introduces an offence known as “aggravated homosexuality” for which the penalty is death. People living with HIV and AIDS who engage in same-sex relations are one of the categories of people who would be affected by this offence. Anyone who 'aids' or 'abets' homosexuality will also face criminal penalties.

Generally this Bill is just an additional proposed piece legislation to further criminalize and abuse the rights of LGBTI persons. There is currently a lot of public incitement from high profile persons like religious leaders, Ministers, Members of Parliament and so on. This has further victimized LGBTI persons: The people in power and the State that is supposed to protect us are instead calling for harsher laws against us. It is very scary not to know what the future holds for you especially when it includes facing death. Many of us are now underground for fear of abuse by State and non-state actors since lots of allegations and lies are being fuelled in the public. Many people who didn’t even have a problem with us before are now being influenced and by the anti-gay crusaders who are saying all sorts of things about us. There are allegations that members of the LGBTI community recruit children, break up families and spread HIV/AIDS through sodomy. Some cannot even go to church because every sermon is about how sick we are and what sinners we are. There is a lot of talk about how we have dirty sex from eating our faeces to urinating in our mouths. This has made the public so angry that they are ready to strike at homosexuals. Many of us are now back in the closet. I am forced to work from home now for fear of being beaten on the streets since I make frequent television appearances.

The tension and mistrust within the LGBTI community is high and there are some reports of LGBTI individuals blackmailing others. During social events one is never sure that there aren’t spies present and many LGBTI persons are now confined to their own homes. Some of our own activists are making claims that we are indeed recruiters.

AWID: Media reports imply that the Bill's proposer, [Member of Parliament] David Bahati has the financial backing of powerful right-wing evangelicals in the United States, but President Yoweri Museveni seems to have given an indication that the Bill might not succeed in its present form. How likely is it that the Bill will succeed?

KJ: We have to remember that the Bill is a Private Member’s Bill and so the President can only wait for what comes out of Parliament before deciding whether he signs it into law or not. For now, Parliament is an independent organ which cannot be directly influenced by the President, although, just like any other Ugandan, he can comment on it. My concern is that when the Bill first came into Parliament, Museveni was very clear that homosexuality is “immoral and abnormal.” Now that perhaps he has been “enlightened” that he would be violating his citizens’ human rights, he has softened his position because he knows that the donor countries that fund the Government respect human rights and that they wouldn’t spend their citizens’ taxes giving aid to a country that doesn’t respect its citizens’ human rights.

The Bill should either be withdrawn or debated as it is without any amendments to “soften” it. The public has not been sufficiently educated on its provisions and I believe if they were, they would see that it doesn’t just affect LGBTI individuals but has serious implications for everyone in Uganda.

AWID: You say that the Bill has implications for everyone in the country. What would criminalizing homosexual relations mean for anti HIV/AIDS campaigns in particular?

KJ: The Bill is going to throw away all the years of work that Uganda has put into fighting HIV/AIDS. I wonder whether the MP who introduced this Bill or some of the other leaders who support it really want Uganda to win the fight against HIV/AIDS. So many HIV positive LGBTI individuals were in the closet even before the Bill. How many more will remain in the closet, and how many who were already out will be forced to go back? Government campaigns against the disease have not been comprehensive enough to reach LGBTI individuals. Many men who have sex with men (MSM) and women who have sex with women (WSW), live double lives and this fuels the spread of HIV. Many interventions against HIV/AIDS ignore WSW assuming that they are at a low risk of contracting the virus. Yet many of them also have sex with men and do not always have the power to negotiate for safe sex. They do not have adequate information about how some practices such as sharing sex toys or needles can expose them to the risk of contracting HIV.

LGBTI organizations in Uganda have been doing great work to inform and educate the LGBTI community about the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. If the Bill passes, we will have to stop this work. Driving this community further underground is going to negate all the gains that we have achieved.

AWID: What have you, and other LGBTI activists been doing to oppose the passage of the Bill?

KJ: We have partnered with human rights, women’s rights, feminist, donor and health organizations to spread awareness about the adverse effects and implications of the Bill. We have also lobbied our allies and partners nationally, regionally and internationally to strongly throw their weight behind the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law which was formed to oppose the Bill. This partnership has opened up valuable spaces for public hearings and debates including in the media. Without these partnerships it would have been difficult to access any spaces at all. We are documenting every abuse and violation to help us in future work should the Bill pass into Law.

AWID: How can human rights advocates around the world assist you in opposing the proposed law and promoting the upholding of LGBTI rights in Uganda?

KJ: Our allies need to keep up the pressure on the Ugandan Government by signing petitions, speaking out openly and urging their governments not to waste their taxes on funding our Government since it regards LGBTI persons as secondary citizens.

The anti-gay crusaders are trying to force LGBTI persons out of our country and they know that many are scared. Uganda is where I was born and neither any person - including the President - nor any piece of paper has the power to force me out.

The Christmas Party That Was. December 19, 2009

Time Check: 15:30. Location: FARUG Office: We host our members to an end of year social gathering at our offices in a Kampala suburb. Members’ gathering is to mark the last day of a consultative meeting. Over 15 members stay behind to socialize since most of them have no Saturday plans. For some, broke.

17:00hrs: A police patrol car parks in front of our office gate. Armed policemen disembark and disperse around the area. Panic sends everyone into hiding. Everyone runs towards the high fence hoping to jump over it for safety. People climb the wall fence to fall over to the other side for safety. Our member, who also happens to be a football player and coach starts to cry for help fearing that if the armed men break in, that will be the end to her hard-earned profession. The Director in her bravery tells everyone to run so she can handle the armed men ‘herself’. Hhmm..! Human bodies running up and down in confusion- someone tries to open the small emergency gate. The key stubbornly fails to open it. Bad luck always comes in times you need help most.

One of our members mounts the roof of the pit latrine in the compound, the only route for escape. A story is told of someone who ran back inside to switch off an office computer but failed to locate its shut down option. ‘How is this computer switched off?’ she asked. Panic at its best.

The Office Administrator, fell from a wall fence last night, injured her ankle and now shw in her room sleeping with a swollen leg. ‘I ran to her room to tell her that police was at our gate and on hearing the scary news she tried to jump out of bed to ran for her dear life but instead hurt herself, sat on the floor and wailed like a baby’, narrates a friend.

After 20 minutes of panic, fear and pandemonium, the armed men get back on their pickup and drive off.

Had they come out to get us? Were they sent on other business? We will never know.

Lesson: Always be prepared. Have a security plan and an emergency escape plan. You never know when the armed men will be back.

Challenging Christian Supremacist Homophobia: A Presentation at the Human Rights Baraza February 19, 2010. By Val Kalende

February 19, 2010

Fellow Human rights activists, distinguished guests and all Ugandans. I am proud to stand before you as a lesbian today. With hearts full of love and the abiding faith in justice, we have come to this place to speak to Uganda. We have come to speak the truth of our lives and silence the liars. We have come to challenge the cowardly anti gay campaigners and state officials to end their paralysis and exercise moral leadership. We have come to defend our honor and win our equality. But most of all we have come in peace and with courage to say, "Uganda, this day marks the beginning of the end from exile of the gay and lesbian people. We are banished no more. We will wander the wilderness of despair no more. We will be afraid no more. For on this day, with love in our hearts, we have come out, and we have come out across Uganda to build a bridge of understanding, a bridge of progress, a bridge as solid as steel, a bridge to a land where no one suffers prejudice because of their sexual orientation, their race, their gender, their religion, or their human difference.

I have been asked by the event organizers to speak in 15 minutes about the far right, the far right which threatens the construction of that bridge. The extreme right which has targeted every one of you and me for extinction. The supremacist right which seeks to redefine the very meaning of human rights. Language itself fails in this task, my friends, for to call our opponents "The Right," states a profound untruth. They are wrong - they are wrong morally, they are wrong spiritually, and they are wrong politically.

The Christian supremacists are wrong spiritually when they demonize us. They are wrong when they reduce the complexity and beauty of our spirit into a freak show. They are wrong spiritually, because, if we are the untouchables of Uganda -- if we are the untouchables -- then we are, as Mahatma Gandhi said, children of God. And as God's children we know that the God of our understanding, the God of goodness and love and righteousness, is right here with us today.

The supremacists who lead the anti-gay crusade are wrong morally. They are wrong because justice is moral, and prejudice is evil; because truth is moral and the lie of the closet is the real sin; because the claim of morality is a subtle sort of deception, a trick which hides the real aim which is much more secular. Christian supremacist leaders like Martin Ssempa, Stephen Langa, Solomon Male, Scot Lively, Caleb Brundidge and David Bahati don’t care about morality, they care about power. They care about social control. And their goal, my friends, is the reconstruction of Ugandan Democracy into Ugandan Theocracy.

We who are gathered here today must prove the religious bigots wrong politically and we can do it. That is our challenge. You know they have made us into the enemies of Uganda’s youth and children. And they say they have declared cultural war against us. It's war all right. It's a war about values. On one side are the values that everyone here stands for. Do you know what those values are? Traditional Ugandan values of democracy and freedom. Traditional Uganda values of both the heterosexual family and the homosexual family.
We believe in human rights for ALL, in many voices co-existing in peace, and people of all faiths living together in harmony under a common civil framework known as the Constitution of Uganda. Our opponents believe in hatred. We won the anti-gay struggle in South Africa. We won the big fight in Dehli, thanks to the hard work of all the people of India. And we are going to win our freedom in Uganda eventually.

To defeat the puritans politically, my friends, is our challenge when we leave this room. How can we do it? We've got to march from here into action at home. I challenge every one of you, straight or gay, who can hear my voice, to join the Ugandan LGBTI movement. I challenge you to join us to fight the spreaders of the gospel of hatred. We have got to match the power of the Christian supremacists, member for member, vote for vote, and shilling for shilling. I challenge each of you, don’t just send a word of encouragement, but get involved in your movement. Get involved! Volunteer! Volunteer! Every local human rights organization in this country needs you. Every clinic, every gay person, every youth program needs you, needs your time and your love.

And I also challenge our straight liberal allies. I challenge and invite you to open your eyes and embrace us without fear. The gay rights movement is not a party. It is not lifestyle. It is not a hair style. It is not a fad or a fringe or a sickness. It is not about sin or salvation. The gay rights movement is an integral part of the Ugandan promise of freedom and fundamental change for all citizens.

When all of us who believe in freedom and diversity see this gathering, we see beauty and power. When our enemies see this gathering, they see the new dawn of a revolution. We call for the end of the world as we know it. We call for the end of homophobia and bigotry as we know it. For the end of violence and discrimination as we know it. For the end of religious fanatism as we know it. We stand for freedom as we are yet to know it, and we will not be denied.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Free to Roam

In April 2003, we founded Freedom and Roam Uganda. Three fully fledged lesbains thought of starting up an organization to liberiate LBT women. The name Freedom and Roam came from the desire for all Ugandan LBT women to be free from discrimination and oppression based on sexual orientation. And, to be able to roam. If you are free, you can roam, but without freedom you cannot roam.

We are starting this blog to tell people about the LBTi community in Uganda. Please check back often as we update this page and leave a comment to say hello.