Uganda is often referred to as one of the world’s worst places to be gay, and is one of the 36 Commonwealth countries that still criminalise same sex behaviour. In a country where newspapers publicly out people and call for them to be hanged, it is not surprising that public and police attitudes towards LGBT people are hostile. But in the face of this adversity, a small group of organisations are fighting for the rights of LGBT people in the country, including organising an annual pride event.
Since the first Uganda Pride in 2012, the event has managed to go ahead without much interference, until last year when police raided a night club and cancelled the parade. I spoke to Gerald Kaunda who was in the club at the time and sustained life changing injuries by jumping from a 4th floor window to escape arrest:
“The way the police jumped in was so scary, the way they started beating up people as if they had been sent on mission to come and get terrorists there. They used their fists, they had no batons but they had guns.”
Gerald had been attending the club with a friend to watch a Mr & Mrs Pride competition, ahead of the pride march at the weekend. Like many Ugandans, Gerald wasn’t publicly out, so when the police raided the venue he not only feared for his safety. He was also terrified that his uncle, who he lived with, would find out he was gay.
Gerald’s uncle, who he describes as “a deadly person”, was in the Ugandan military and the fear of him finding out that he was gay led Gerald to do the unthinkable and risk his life:
“It was the only remaining option and many had it in mind, though I was the one who did [it] first, most of them got scared of the height of the building where we were. But [other] people had it in mind.”
After hitting the floor, Gerald lost consciousness and broke his back, sustaining a serious spinal cord injury.
Despite his attempted escape, his worst fear came true when his family found out he was at a LGBT event:
“The incident was all over the media, they wrote in papers that we had gone to attend a gay wedding, they read the papers and my uncle attacked me and he chased me away at that very moment. We left his place, me and my mother. People tried to defend me – the other aunties and uncles.”
Gerald and his mother fled to his elder brother’s house where they camped for several days before Gerald could receive surgery for his injuries:
“They put screws inside me to hold up the broken spine.”
During his recovery, he was in a wheelchair for many months and although he can walk now, his right leg remains paralysed. He also suffers from numbness in parts of his back and intermittent pain from the surgical implants.
Gerald explained that the free healthcare service in Uganda was unequipped to deal with his injuries, so he had no choice but to pay for private surgery. He also had to pay for months of physiotherapy and private taxis as he was physically unable to use public transport:
“It was a lot of money. It must have come up to 50 million.” (£10,700)
Gerald’s family were unable to pay the medical bills but thankfully several organisations and individuals stepped in to cover the costs, which he says are “worth the salary of a [government] Minister.”
Despite his injuries, Gerald says that the accident gave him “more confidence and no more fear”. “It showed me I have a life to live because I was announced (sic) dead three times.”
His family obviously now knows that he is gay and although he believes that his mother still has reservations about his sexuality, he says coming out is “better because it makes you a free person. It takes away all the guilt you feel.”
When asked why he thinks that there is so much hatred towards LGBT people in Uganda, he says that it is a combination of religion and politics. Many preachers are spreading hateful messages about LGBT people and unless they get a change of government, which he thinks unlikely, the situation doesn’t look set to change anytime soon.
Like many LGBT Ugandans, he still faces discrimination regularly, although perhaps not as much as other people because his injuries mean that he spends most of his time at home, alone. Before his accident, Gerald was forced to drop out of education due to financial pressures but he hopes, one day, to return to his studies.
He remains positive and believes that the “young LGBTI generation need to wake up and fight for their own rights, the little freedoms we are enjoying are because of the aging activists we have. If they are gone, we will just be counting stars.”
He also urges people who want to help to consider supporting organisations such as Icebreaker’s Uganda and Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), both of which provide essential services for LGBT people in the country, that they otherwise wouldn’t receive.
Before ending our conversation, he reminds me that although many of us take our sexualities for granted, only by working together can we overcome the injustices that many LGBT people still face in other parts of the world: “With one heart, we won’t be moved, no more fear.”
Uganda Pride is set to return to the country in the first week of August this year; hopefully this time without incident.
This article was written by me and was first published in Out News Global on July 25th 2017.