Earlier this year the president of Uganda signed into law an Anti-Homosexuality Bill. It makes being gay punishable by life in prison and also makes giving aide to gays and lesbians a crime – with long prison sentences.
Because of that, you’d think it would be difficult to find Uganda’s LGBT community. But after a few emails and a couple of phone calls, you’d find St. Paul’s Reconciliation and Justice Center, just off one of Kampala’s main roads.
St. Paul’s is a Christian ministry that does outreach to gays and lesbians who have nowhere else to turn -- people who’ve been thrown out of their homes. And kicked out of their jobs.
On Sunday afternoons, a dozen or so people gather in a makeshift chapel set up in a small garage. They sing hymns, pray, and hear scripture readings. What’s going on here is essentially illegal: supporting and consoling LGBT folks. Among those sitting on the St. Paul’s white plastic lawn chairs on the day I visited were Nathan and Ronald.
“The reason why we're here?,” asks Nathan, who’s 19. “Ok. We feel comfort when we are together, as gay, we feel good.”
Parishioners here are so afraid, they asked to only use their first names. Sitting next to Nathan is his boyfriend, Ronald.
“Why am I here? To pray,” he says. “And to meet my friends. The community.”
Ronald, who’s 23, was raised in the church, as were most people in this very religious country. But the Church of Uganda, which is Anglican, is not welcoming of gays and lesbians and is, in fact, a strong supporter of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law. Ronald says there is simply no where else for him to turn apart from St. Paul’s.
Ronald is essentially homeless, living with friends when he can. His boyfriend Nathan is a little luckier. At least his mom didn’t kick him out.
“My mom knows that I’m gay,” says Nathan. “From the first she knew, she started supporting me. But my dad, it was tough. He used to say that I have a devil in me.”
A devil. You hear that a lot when you talk to LGBT folks here: they’ve been told they’re evil. That’s why the message of St. Paul’s Reconciliation and Justice Center is so unusual.
That’s Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, founder of St. Paul’s, says the Center is giving hope to people.
“Because there are people being told "God does not love you unless you change.” But this is very discouraging,” he says. “I tell that person, "No, no, no, no, God created you and loves you.”
That love he’s talking about, you can see it radiating from his face. In his 80s, he’s retired now. But Bishop Senyonjo has been preaching that message his entire life. He’s not gay. Nor are his children. His stance has cost him his pension and his position in the Church of Uganda – the bishop’s been defrocked. So, why does being a pastor to gays and lesbians matter so much to him?
“We are human beings. If one part of humanity suffers, I think one shouldn't say, ‘Oh that does not concern me.’ That’s why I feel some people are discouraged and say, ‘This is not our business.’ But if we are humans, we should find out what are the values as human beings.”
What Senyonjo is taking about here are not just gay rights. They’re human rights. And that connection is at the heart of attorney Adrian Jjuuko’s work.
“This issue is not necessarily about homosexuality,” says Jjuuko. “It is about the civic space in Uganda.”
By civic space, Jjuuko means civil society – a democracy that works, with freedom of the press and freedom of speech…but more importantly, freedom to live your life the way you choose. And if you frame it that way, he says you can begin to talk about gay people as human beings. Until recently in Uganda, you couldn’t even say the word homosexual out loud.
“And we now have that word being spoken,” says Jjuuko. “It is now every day on the radio, someone is talking about homosexuality, on TV you switch on, homosexuality in the papers, homosexuality, so now its word everyone can talk about.”
So, says Jjuuko, gay rights can be a catalyst for opening a larger, necessary conversation in Uganda.
“Whereby really every human being deserves an opportunity,” he says. “However different you are, however diverse you are.”
Back at St. Paul’s Reconciliation and Justice Center, the conversation is less about rights of opportunity but more about a fundamental right: the right to not be afraid in your own city or your own church or your own home. That’s a right few people here have. I ended my conversation with 19-year-old Nathan by asking him if there was something he wants the people who hear this story to know. Here’s what he told me:
“In Uganda, we are not in good life totally,” he says. “We as gay. So, I would like to tell them that if they have, if they get anything, they can help us. Help us.
Help us. But what help might look like is unclear. Chances aren’t good for Nathan or for his boyfriend Ronald. They have little education and no money. To claim asylum, they’d first have to get to the U.S. or Europe. But even if they could find their way out there’s no guarantee life would be better, paved with opportunities. We talked just a few weeks before Uganda’s president signed the anti-homosexuality bill. Once it became law, Ronald and Nathan felt so unsafe in Kampala, they fled to a village a few hours outside the capital, where they continue to hide and to wait.
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