Outrageous Freedom: In the Face of Deep Prejudice and Persecution, the Ugandan Gay Rights Movement Crafted a Surprising Victory
When I met John Abdallah Wambere, known by his gay activist nom de guerre Longjones, my first thought was: ‘Will that shirt get him killed someday?’ We had arranged lunch at Fang Fang, an upscale Chinese joint in Kampala, Uganda, and I’d wondered whether I would recognise him. Then he walked in and even my (often unreliable) gaydar pinged immediately. He had a certain out-and-proud swagger, and his rainbow bracelets and pride jewellery rustled and clicked as he walked. He was indeed long, topping out at nearly two metres, not counting the unpruned stalks of dreadlock growing out of his head. And the shirt. Bright purple, hanging like a bright gay sail on the dark mast of his frame, it seemed to propel him forward with the breeze.
He cut quite a different figure from the one you might expect to find in ‘the world’s worst place to be gay’, as a BBC documentary described Uganda in 2011. During the past several years, a broad societal revulsion toward homosexuality has erupted into frank attempts to identify, persecute, and ultimately execute gays. David Bahati, a parliamentarian who is now the ruling party’s chief whip, proposed a bill in 2009 calling for imprisonment not only of gays but also of those who fail to report them. Repeat offenders could be executed, although Bahati assured the documentary’s reporter Scott Mills, a gay BBC Radio 1 disc jockey, that he strongly preferred rehabilitation to hanging.
I came to Kampala to meet Longjones and other gay activists, as well as those who wished to oppress, jail, and ‘cure’ them. The anti-homosexuality bill never passed, but Bahati has reintroduced it in every legislative session since. When I arrived, parliament had moved its deliberation behind closed doors, so no one knew whether it would pass this year or, for that matter, this afternoon. The bill’s fate remained a mystery and, at any moment during our meal of fried rice and tofu, we could get news that the knock of a gavel had put Longjones on a path to the gallows.
But anti-gay plots in Uganda had something special about them — the intense, abiding attention of the Western media. Since they learned about the persecution of gay people in Uganda, a cavalcade of filmmakers, journalists, and human rights activists has descended on Kampala over the past few years to bring back story after story about the worsening conditions for gays, and the fraught lives they lead, pinched between the threat of lynching by the common man and prosecution by the government.
Why was Uganda, a country of sickening anti-gay hatred but no executions, whippings, or anti-gay pogroms, singled out as the worst of the bunch?