In a country where constant lies and propaganda stoke the violent the persecution of gay men and lesbians in every level of society, and a law introducing the death penalty for homosexuals is still pending, one lesbian has stood up and said, “enough”. Brian Finnegan meets Kasha Jacqueline Nabagasera, the hope of gays in Uganda.
Every day at 6pm a preacher arrives outside Kasha Jacqueline Nabagasera’s house and proceeds to denounce her as a “homosexual” at the top of his voice. In doing so, he knows he’s endangering her life, but such is the level of hysterical fear that’s been stoked up in Uganda about homosexuality, this is the last of his concerns. He’s there to protect children from Kasha, who he believes is hell-bent on converting them to homosexuality and infecting them with HIV. Kasha lives in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. She’s 33 years old and has been openly lesbian since she was just seven years old. “To me it was just normal,” she tells me. “It was my class teacher who told me that I had lesbian tendencies. I didn’t know what the word lesbian meant, and I didn’t care too much about it when she told me, but the she said I was going to be expelled from Uganda because of it and that frightened me because I couldn’t imagine living somewhere else without my parents. “It wasn’t until much later that I understood what she was telling me.”
As a teenager, because she identified as lesbian, she was expelled from several schools as a teenager. “I grew up in a very supportive family,” she says. “Every time my mother heard I was being expelled from school, she said to them that I’d outgrow it. She had never harassed me about it, and my father didn’t talk about it. There was a time he cried when I was expelled from a school and they wrote that it was because of my sexuality on a report, that I should try my lesbianism somewhere else. It was the first time I ever saw him crying in my life. It was when I realised that he’d been watching everything, and that he was hurt. But there was nothing I could do, because I was born this way. The next day we went out to look for another school, and that was it.”
The problem dogged Kasha right up until her last year at university, when the authorities tried to have her expelled once more, after she had sent love letters to other girls. “They summoned my parents to the university, and before we went into the office my mother told me she was going to say something that I might not like, but she had to say it because she had to save my place at school. It was in my final year and a lot of money had been spent. So she told them that I was sick, and that my disease had no cure, so they should just let me finish my education.”
Kasha was not expelled, but this moment was part of a political awakening for her. The Internet had just arrived in Uganda and she used it to do some research on the status of lesbians and gay men there, and in other parts of the world. “I went back and told my gay and lesbian friends about how it was illegal in Uganda. They said, ‘You mean, you didn’t know?’ They had actually always admired me because they thought I was being brave. But the truth is I had been living in ignorance. All those years ago, my teacher was trying to tell me homosexuality is against the law.” Soon after this revelation, Kasha’s name was published in a Ugandan newspaper, along with several others. “They said we were a group of homosexuals who meet in a certain place, and then people began to come there and wait outside it for us, to attack us. So, I told my friends, we need to do something to change this environment. I had read about South Africa and how homosexuals are recognised, so I thought we could partner with people there. Many didn’t like the idea, because they didn’t want to be exposed. They thought I was lucky because my parents drove me to bring me to the place where we met, and drove me home. Most of them didn’t even have homes because their parents had found out about them. I was one of the most privileged people in the group, so I told them I would speak for them, that as long as they supported the idea, they didn’t have to worry about coming out. And that’s how Freedom And Roam Uganda (FARUG) was set up.”
Kasha is in Ireland to receive Seán MacBride Award for Human Rights from Amnesty International Ireland, and the GALAS 2013 International Activist Award. In the decade since she founded FARUG, Kasha has become the most outspoken gay activist in Uganda. In a country where gay men and lesbians are lied about, hunted, excluded and deprived of basic human rights with the same feverence that Jews were persecuted in Nazi Germany, she is literally the best-known ‘homosexual’. She has made it her mission in life to educate the Ugandan people about the truth of being gay, and to travel around the world speaking about the truth of living as a gay person in Uganda.
Given that her life is threatened daily and she’s forced to constantly move from home to home for her own safety, her bravery can’t be questioned, but in a soft-spoken voice with not even a hint of self-reverence, she tells me she had no choice. “I have to speak out for those who can’t,” she says. “What I go through scares some people away from even joining the struggle. People attack me on the streets. I get threats on my phone, on my email, on my Facebook, on my twitter. But having travelled around the world I’ve seen that other countries have struggled for the liberation of gay people and I believe I can’t bury my head in the sand and just feel sorry for my situation. I need to speak out and to try to make a change. I may never enjoy that change, but I’m happy to be part of it.”
During our interview Kasha smiles, she chats and laughs, but you get the sense that there is always a part of herself that’s held apart. It’s hardly surprising when you consider the world of anti-gay hatred she lives in. She’s only got herself for protection. In 2010 her name and address, along with that of many other ‘homosexuals’, including her friend and colleague at FARUG, David Kato, was published by a new tabloid paper called The Rolling Stone, beneath the headline “Hang Them”. Six months later after successfully suing the paper with Kasha, David was brutally murdered in his home with a hammer. “I did not know about The Rolling Stone until they published that article,” says Kasha. “It was their issue and they only way they could get to the market was to use the gay issue. In Uganda, the gay issue sells a lot. If you want to sell chicken and you put a headline on top of the article using the word homosexuality and everyone will read it, and buy the chicken.
I was quoted in the first paragraph of the story, saying that we were targeting children to recruit them, because they are easy to recruit. The gave our addresses and details of where we hung out. It’s not the first time this had happened, but this time they went too far. That’s when David and I decided to sue, and it closed the paper down, but it was already too late. People were attacked, evicted from their homes, and David was killed. The Rolling Stone might have been closed, but the witchhunt continues. “Just three weeks ago people were exposed in another tabloid,” Kasha says. “Two days ago my colleague was attacked because her name was printed in that paper. They do this with impunity, because the government doesn’t come out and condemn it. But we are banned from speaking out.”
As Kasha testifies, the people of Uganda are obsessed with homosexuality. There is wall-to-wall negative coverage in the media. A radio station solely dedicated to denouncing gays has been set up. During Sunday church services pastors show hardcore gay porn from the Internet to members of their flocks of all ages. Experts appear on television with large fruits like pineapples and mangoes and explain how homosexuals like to insert them into the anuses of children. But beneath the national obsession, there’s an astute political game at play. “Evangelists came in from the US and held conferences to stoke up a fear of homosexuality,” Kasha explains. “The politicians wanted this because all powerful people usually use the weak for their own ends. They want to distract people from paying real attention to the real issues affecting the country, like political corruption, so they bring in the gay issue. They blame everything from bad weather to terrorism on the homosexuals. When ambitious polticians get a chance to talk to the media they say, ‘if you elect me, I’ll protect your children from the homosexuals’. They use us to get into power.”
The upshot of the evangelical stoking of homophobia in Uganda is the Anti-homosexuality Bill (widely known as the Kill The Gays bill) which would introduce the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”. First introduced to parliament in 2008, the bill sparked worldwide condemnation, which effectively postponed it being put up to a vote. “People support the bill in Uganda because they’ve only been told a few things,” says Kasha. “They don’t understand that this law will affect all Ugandans. It will lead them to imprisonment if they don’t report homosexuals, or if they rent out property to homosexuals. It is wide open to misuse. But the only issue that brings people together in Uganda is homosexuality. Catholics and Muslims will sit at the same table and share a meal because they all support the bill. The opposition in parliament supports the bill. Chances are that should this bill reach a vote, it will definitely pass into law.”
Part of Kasha’s job is to work with outside forces to help stop it ever being voted on, but it’s a delicate business. “We don’t want our allies around the world to act without consulting us,” Kasha explains. “When we need public condemnation, we always tell them its time to do this. When we need quiet diplomatic talks, we also tell them this is what’s best for us right now. The people of Africa do not like the West telling them what to do. “There is also an issue of ignorance. People don’t really understand gay issues. Pro-gay speech is censored in the media – it’s called ‘promotion of homosexuality’. Radio stations have been fined for hosting us, others have been closed down. We have no voice, so the people believe what their pastors tell them in church. “There is so much fear. Traditionally Africans don’t talk about sexuality in public, so when we come out and speak, they think we have been influenced by the West. If I come out and say I’m a lesbian, they say, ‘it is not African, to speak about this’. And that’s why many people think it’s un-African to be homosexual.”
As Kasha speaks of the devastating isolation loneliness gay people feel in a country that demonises them every day, the prevealance of suicide, the fact that she can’t even go out at night anymore to socialise, the question on the tip of my tongue is whether she would ever seek asylum in the countries she visits. But that feels wrong to stay, so instead I ask if she loves Uganda. “I love my country,” she says emphatically. “I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else. I love the Ugandan people. Some are hateful, but not all of them.” And in the face of such seemingly insurmountable odds, does Kasha live with hope? Her face breaks out into a wide smile. “I don’t think I would be still standing up without hope,” she says. “Some day we will win the struggle. I live in hope for freedom.”
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