A year ago, at the end of 2022, we received an essay submission from a queer Ugandan writer about finding ways to live joyfully and authentically in an oppressive society. When on May 26th of this year, President Yoweri Museveni signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Act, we asked the writer if they would like to revisit their essay, to share their experiences both with fellow Ugandans and international readers who may not be aware of the reality they face in simply existing as a queer person in Kampala. The following piece is the result of months of difficult and passionate work by the writer, whose anger at the regime is matched by their belief in the Ugandan spirit, and their hope that friendship and community will see them, and their loved ones, through these darkest of days. To accompany this essay, we commissioned a photographer based in Kampala to capture images of modern Ugandan life, which we are equally proud to present.

It will become obvious why both the writer of this essay, and the photographer whose images of life in Kampala accompany their words, choose to remain anonymous. Working on this essay with its writer, I experienced the gamut of emotions: rage at the injustices faced by innocent people, admiration for their resilience, awe at the bravery of activists. And there is wry humour here too in how the writer evaluates the corruption of the political class, or the assumptions or romantic tribulations of their cis-hetero compatriots. The essay is divided into short sections, covering the writer’s own life, civil society in Uganda, and a brilliant, succinct queer history of Africa. But there’s a lot of context, and so this is certainly a long read—longer than the usual pieces we publish here on 

A commitment to social justice is one of The Stinging Fly’s values, and a vision of a world made more compassionate through literature is at the heart of all we do. We are inspired by radical work, challenging ideas, and strong perspectives. This essay is in accordance with these aspirations. 

—Lisa McInerney, Editor

A Grand Ole Ball

I started 2023 by watching the fireworks with my queer friends by my side. It was an intentional and symbolic action, something to set the tone for what the year would bring. 2022 had been the best year of my life; I felt that I was coming into myself and finding a community of my own. I met so many amazing queer people, and we spent the year coming up with excuses to gather and celebrate our being. From birthdays to Pride, Eid, Trannyversary parties, movie nights, Queerloween and Queermas, we were having a grand ole ball, dancing to Renaissance. I was living my best queer life, like I was in Dublin and not Kampala. It was the gayest year on personal record, and I was ready for 2023 to top it.

29th May 2023, Uganda

Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda since 1986, signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Act, the world’s harshest anti-LGBT law. The act restricts freedom of speech on LGBTQI+ civil rights and prescribes up to 20 years imprisonment for ‘recruitment, promotion or funding’ of homosexuality, life imprisonment for gay sex, and the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’.

Shit Hits the Fan

Ugandans were homophobic long before the introduction of the law, but in recent years, things escalated in a way that none of us could have predicted. I think the current panic started when a Twitter user posted a picture of two high school girls from an international school who went to prom together—one wearing a suit, the other in a beautiful green dress—implying that they were lesbians. Few were curious as to why he had this photo to begin with, or why an adult man was speculating on the sexual lives of underage girls. Around the same time, a number of students were expelled for ‘lesbianism’ from a prominent, traditional single sex school. 

WhatsApp chain messages began to be forwarded across the country, warning parents to beware of homosexual influences on their children in schools. Elisha Mukisa, a man who described himself as an ‘ex-gay’, came forward and claimed that a prominent LGBTQI+ organisation, SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda), had recruited him and others into homosexuality and made them film gay pornography, leading to his becoming infected with HIV. His testimony reinforced the myth that queer people were ‘recruiting’ children and further fanned the flames of anti-gay hate. A blacklist of NGOs offering services to the LGBTQI+ community was circulated. Homophobic messages began to find their way into my carefully curated Twitter timeline and TikTok ‘For You’ page. All over the media, and at dinner tables, the queer community was the topic of discussion, and the consensus was that sinister forces were on a mission to spread homosexuality within the country by targeting children.

About a year after Mukisa came forward, a phone-call recording surfaced in which this ‘ex-gay’ tells a queer activist that he would like to return ‘home’ to the queer community. He acknowledges that he made his claims because he needed money; he was not receiving assistance from LGBTQI+ organisations, so he decided to turn to the government to offer his testimony in exchange for financial support. According to Mukisa, he worked with high-ranking members of the Ugandan government, like the Speaker of Parliament and even the President himself, to ensure the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. In the recording, Mukisa brags that he lives in a fully-furnished house, paid for by the First Lady, but now that he has every material thing he needs, he realises that ’this is not the life I want‘ because he cannot be himself. The activist tells Mukisa that he would need to apologise for the harm that he has caused. Mukisa expresses concern that the queer community will not forgive him, and then decides he will only tell the truth about the situation on condition that queer organisations help him to seek asylum. 

In a twist of fate that almost feels scripted, Elisha Mukisa is going to face the law he worked so hard to put in place. On the 23rd of August 2023, a few days after those recordings surfaced, Mukisa was arraigned before the court and charged with homosexuality. Under the law, because he is HIV positive, and in the event that he infected his co-accused, his case may be categorised as aggravated homosexuality which carries the death penalty. While I don’t forgive him for the role he played in this injustice, I don’t want him dead. It remains to be seen how the case will unfold. 

Gabby with the Waist-long Braids 

When I was little, there was no discussion about homosexuality at the dinner table, no representation in the media, no prominent LGBTQI+ organisations, and I ended up queer anyway. I knew I was gay before I even knew what gay was, or that it was considered a bad thing. 

I remember the twinge of disappointment I always felt after those sex education lessons at school when the boys would be separated from the girls and a senior woman teacher would tell us about periods. The whole time, a part of me that could not name what I was feeling waited for her to say… something, but she never did. I thought I was going crazy and that there was something deeply wrong with me. I thought I was the only one in the world. 

When I was thirteen, I attended a week-long youth camp run by my church. One of the nights was dedicated to our praying for deliverance from any ungodly tendencies that had a hold on us. During the week, there had been sermons about homosexuality, and the youth pastors had invited anyone who was ‘struggling’ to approach them for counselling. I didn’t, because I could not stand the idea of anyone knowing. But that night, tears streaming down my face, I prayed to be delivered from my attraction to women.

Part of the reason I was so conflicted was that I was also attracted to men. A very specific kind of men, but men nonetheless, so I knew that I had it in me to be a ‘good, normal Christian girl’. I walked out of the auditorium that night believing I had been cured of homosexuality. I woke the next day hopeful and excited. It had rained during the night, and the morning air was crisp, the sun warm. It felt like a new beginning, like God had sent that storm to wash away my sins. And then Gabby with the waist-long braids and winged eyeliner walked by, and my chest tightened in that familiar way. I was still gay. 

I began to despair, experiencing this as a consistent low hum inside me. I was never going to be cured, which meant I was never going to go to heaven—I was going to burn in hell. The Bible teaches that it’s not just your actions you need to worry about, that you also sin with your thoughts; I hadn’t even had my first romantic encounter with a girl and I already hated myself, because I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I wanted to hold the hand of a girl I loved who loved me back. Where would I even find her? How would I know if she was queer? What if I approached a straight girl and then she told everyone I was a disgusting, predatory lesbian? I fell into depression and started cutting myself. I developed an eating disorder. I didn’t feel connected to my body.

In high school, speakers were invited to deliver horror stories about homosexuality. One man told us that he had been kidnapped and used for sex by both men and women, and how his intestines fell out of his anus; it was all very graphic. I would later learn that this gentleman did the rounds—my peers who attended other schools remember him as well. And his kind of approach was not unique. As soon as you mention homosexuality, Ugandans start thinking about anal sex and eating faeces. This is courtesy of Pastor Martin Ssempa’s viral anti-gay sermon which included a video presentation of coprophilic gay pornography. (Excuse me for a moment while I kink shame, but what the actual fuck? For a ‘Christian heterosexual man’, Ssempa has been to parts of porn websites the average homosexual person has never visited. I wonder how long and far he had to look to find those videos?)

Back to high school. We were told to be careful, that there were lesbians who had been planted in the school to recruit students into homosexuality, funded by foreign organisations. I believed this, even knowing that I myself was queer. I’ve kept journals for most of my life, but in those turbulent years, I couldn’t put into writing what I was feeling, partly because I was afraid someone would read it, but more because I was afraid that if I wrote it down I would make it real. 

The fear of people finding out would hang over my head for years. I remember, in my second year of uni, calling my boyfriend in the midst of a panic attack, crying to him that everyone knew, and they were all talking about me, and that my life was over. What was all the angst for? I was technically heterosexual if you looked at the people I had been involved with. I hated myself for seven years before I was ever involved with a woman. What a waste of time.

I’m glad I survived it. Many kids don’t. 

‘Let them do it, but the right way…’

The series of events that led to the Anti-Homosexuality Act coming into law felt choreographed, propped up by that central falsehood that queer people are a danger to the children of Uganda. No doubt there are homosexuals who prey on children, and my heart goes out to their victims. I strongly agree that they should be identified and dealt with under the law; the existing Penal Code Act penalises rape and defilement. The data tells us that every 42 minutes, a Ugandan child is sexually abused. But we know that the overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse in this country is carried out by adult heterosexual men, and that of the 12,740 defilement cases reported in 2022, 310 of the victims were male and 12,430 female. The logical conclusion should be that heterosexuality poses a far greater danger to Ugandan children than homosexuality, and should be similarly legislated against. 

The current teenage pregnancy rate in Uganda is at 25%. During the COVID-19 pandemic, an average of 32,000 teenage pregnancies were recorded per month. Adult heterosexual men were responsible for a significant proportion of these pregnancies, but few voices in our media are keen to raise the issue that a large number of Ugandan men prey on girls, and that they have been enabled by the wider community. 

In a 2014 BBC interview with Stephen Fry, Simon Lokodo, then the Ugandan Minister of State for Ethics and Integrity, was confronted with the fact that heterosexual rape is endemic in Ugandan society. He responded, ‘Let them do it, but the right way, at least it is the natural way of desiring sex.’ (Stephen Fry recalls how this confrontation rattled him so much, he attempted to take his own life afterwards.) Lokodo’s statement is a perfect encapsulation of the hypocrisy of homophobic Ugandans. 

A Waste of Sin

In June 2021, a video circulated of a gay wedding in Nansana, a town just outside Kampala, that had been raided by the police. With the couple’s faces plastered all over social media, commenters kept asking why they looked poor. Aren’t gays supposed to be rich? 

‘What a waste of a sin,’ was the common refrain. 

The narrative is that there is a sinister agenda among foreign entities to implant homosexuality in Uganda, with local actors funded to spread the ‘vice’. There is a general belief that homosexuals are lazy, so ‘promotion of homosexuality’ is seen as a quick way to make money. Queer Africans from Kenya to Uganda, Zambia to Ghana are inundated with the same claims that we receive allowances from shadow organisations for being gay. We’ve all been played; we’ve been gay for free this whole time when we could have been cashing serious cheques?

The ‘rich gay’ stereotype abounds in part because only a small percentage of queer Africans can afford to be visible, and this skews public perception. The places you frequent, the areas you can afford to live in, the financial ability to avoid public transport—all offer a degree of leeway to be able to express yourself without repercussion. In a worst-case scenario, you can buy your way out of trouble.

This doesn’t apply to the majority. In 2022, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics categorised 42.1% of the Ugandan population as ‘multi-dimensionally poor’. In 2019, 12.3 million Ugandans were surviving on less than $1.44 per day. The pandemic worsened that figure. And, of course, it includes queer Ugandans. 

Most Ugandans can’t conceptualise a queer person as an ordinary human being, though it’s likely that every Ugandan has at least one queer person in their life. They may not be aware of it, especially if they are homophobic, since most of us blend in. We are heterosexual Ugandans’ friends, family members, classmates, teachers, colleagues, doctors, lawyers, boda boda riders and Rolex guys. For those queer Ugandans who cannot blend, who fail to adhere to gender norms, their participation in everyday life is severely curtailed by prejudiced systems and individuals. They face higher poverty rates than their heterosexual peers. Students who are identified as queer, whether they are or are simply perceived to be, are often bullied or expelled from educational institutions, and in a lot of cases, disowned by their families. (A queer child is a shame on the family name.) Family is the primary social safety net: without it, people are even more prone to poverty. 

The first thing most queer Ugandans stand to lose is their family. Hearing family members repeat homophobic rhetoric and knowing what could happen if they ever learn who you are is a very distinct pain. When I was considering coming out to my parents, I was terrified that they would tell me I was no longer their child, and ask me to leave. I made backup plans which were flimsy in hindsight; I had no job and I was still in school, so I was dependent on my parents. I took a very poorly calculated risk, but I was lucky: I have parents who love me regardless. Those of us who still have connections with our families are the envy of the community, because the wider queer community is marked by grieving for the families we are no longer allowed to be a part of. How does an ideology that causes disowning of queer family members encourage cohesion and longevity of the family?

It is homophobia, not homosexuality, that threatens families. 

Unemployment and housing discrimination are factors, too. People do not want to hire a gay or a ‘lesibian’, and they definitely do not want to rent to one. Long before the Anti-Homosexuality Act was signed into law, people were being evicted over their real or perceived sexuality with less than two weeks’ notice. (The law requires that a landlord give three months’ notice before eviction, but the average queer Ugandan is not aware of that, nor do they have the resources to enforce it.) Now, the Anti-Homosexuality Act even renders a landlord liable for knowingly renting to a homosexual. 

Queer Ugandans who can mask their sexuality may complete their education and obtain work, but make no mistake, unless you’re lucky to have a boss who is an ally, if your employer finds out about your sexuality, it’s bye-bye job. Try your luck with Uganda’s 9.3 million unemployed youth! Ugandan NGOs that support the queer community have tried to help by offering skilling workshops, but these are often labelled as ‘promoting homosexuality’—a perpetual concern. 

By Their Fruits, You Will Know Them

Overseas donations to LGBTQI+ organisations are interpreted as funds for ‘recruitment’ and taken as evidence of a sinister plot to spread homosexuality in Africa, despite the fact that these organisations need funding precisely because queer Africans are so frequently victimised by their communities. Interestingly, anti-LGBT campaigners neglect to mention that they too receive money from foreigners. Far from being organic, this mass hysteria is engineered by conservatives on the American Christian Right, pushing a version of African family values modelled on evangelical Christianity. 

Church attendance in the USA is in steady decline. In Uganda, though, business is booming. Africans are a very spiritual people. When our traditional religions were demonised by European missionaries —more on that later—they were replaced with Christianity, and Islam to a smaller extent. 

Africans have taken up Christianity with an intense fervour under the guidance of pastors who wield tremendous influence over their congregations. Most are proponents of a prosperity gospel, promising wealth to those with unwavering faith. Churchgoers are encouraged to give generously, and assured that the Lord will return their generosity sevenfold. When He doesn’t, it’s interpreted as a sign that their faith is lacking. (Nothing is too sacred to be desecrated by capitalism.) Prosperity gospel is so influential precisely because people are poor and suffering. For many, divine providence is their only source of hope. Regardless of the reasons, Ugandans are attending church in big numbers, and so Uganda is seen as fertile ground for American evangelicals who lost the battle against marriage equality at home, and who are currently backing anti-trans legislation across various US states. Neo-fascism is on the rise in the West, and Africa is a proxy battleground for its culture wars. 

The Christian Right plays a long game. An investigation by Open Democracy revealed that more than 20 US Christian groups opposing LGBTQI+ rights, access to safe abortion and contraceptives, and comprehensive sex and sexuality education, have spent at least $54m in Africa since 2007. These groups and actors include Family Watch International, founded by Sharon Slater, and Scott Lively, author of a book called The Pink Swastika in which he makes the ludicrous claim that the Holocaust was engineered and enacted by gay men. Lively’s actions in Uganda prompted SMUG to file a lawsuit against him, which was dismissed in 2017 on a technicality; nevertheless, Judge Richard Ponsor’s ruling stated: 

‘The question before the court is not whether Defendant’s actions in aiding and abetting efforts to demonize, intimidate, and injure LGBTI people in Uganda constitute violations of international law. They do.’ 

These extremists have forged ties with local anti-LGBT activists like Pastor Martin Ssempa (of the coprophilic gay pornography), Stephen Langa and David Bahati to influence policymakers. Queer Africans the continent over find themselves targeted with outrageous claims that vary little across countries; it is clear that African legislators are being ideologically mentored. 

For example, the Kenyan anti-homosexuality bill contains a clause that criminalises referring to someone with a different pronoun than the one corresponding with their assigned gender at birth. But most African languages do not even have the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’. In Swahili, if I were to ask ‘Where is she?’ or ‘Where is he?’ I would say ‘ako wapi?’ And in Kikuyu, ‘E ha?’ or ‘E ku?’ The same goes for Ugandan languages. In Luganda, it would be ‘aliwa?’, in Lugisu, ‘ali wayena?’, in Lugwere, ‘ali aina?’, in Acholi, ‘Tikwene?’, in Ethur, ‘En ti’e kwene?’, in Runyoro, Rukiga and Runyankore, ‘ari nkahi?’ or ‘arahi?’ The direct translation of these phrases is ‘Where are they?’

In America and other parts of the world, they/them pronouns have conservatives screaming that it’s grammatically incorrect to refer to a single individual as ‘they’, and that they won’t give into the ‘woke agenda’. The clause in the Kenyan anti-homosexuality bill is a reflection of that meltdown. 

When pressed about their role in orchestrating the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, Slater and Lively both responded that they do not support such harsh penalties for queer people. If they are so confident that what they are doing is right, why are they shying away from the results? They should claim their win and celebrate it out loud—or are they ashamed? Is this not exactly what they hoped would come from their hateful rhetoric?

The Bible has something to say about false prophets: ‘By their fruits, you will know them’. And, baby, look at the fruits and tell me this is Christ-like. 

A Queer History of a Pure Continent

In Uganda, every 3rd of June, millions of pilgrims flock to Namugongo Shrines to commemorate the 45 pages of the court of Kabaka (King) Mwanga II who were burned to death on his orders when they refused to renounce Christianity. This event holds a lot of significance for Uganda as a nation—the Pope even joined the pilgrimage in 2015—and yet, Ugandans are not informed of the circumstances that led to the pages’ execution. 

In primary school, we were vaguely taught that there were political factors at play, that the Martyrs had disobeyed the king. So imagine my shock when I stumbled upon historical accounts showing that Kabaka Mwanga II was accustomed to having sexual relations with his male palace pages. 

The British missionary John F. Faupel wrote in 1962 that,

Homosexuality seems to have been rife at Mutesa’s (Mwanga’s father’s) court. Mutesa himself indulged in the vice and encouraged his subjects to do so. His son Ssekabaka Mwanga II was also an addict before he ascended to the throne.’ 

As the pages interacted with European Catholic and Anglican missionaries, they were taught that homosexuality was a sin against the Christian god. They started refusing to meet Mwanga’s sexual demands, which was viewed by Mwanga’s senior chiefs as an attempt to undermine his authority as Kabaka. He was advised to do something about it, and the pages were put to death. 

There is much to be said about the power imbalance that existed between these pages and Kabaka Mwanga II, but we won’t get into that. Mwanga has since been labelled ‘Uganda’s bisexual king’, but this a modern categorisation which doesn’t accurately represent what was going on in his court. At the time, gender in Buganda (the traditional kingdom of the Baganda people, located within Uganda) was framed by a context-sensitive intersection of political authority, social class, biological sex, and gender roles. The royal palace was considered sacred grounds, where gender was constructed differently than it was in public spheres. Within the palace, all royals were gendered as male—meaning a Mumbejja (princess) would be referred to as Ssebo (sir)—and all bakopi (commoners) were gendered as female. This may provide some context to how we think about Kabaka Mwanga II’s interactions with his pages, differentiating them from present-day ideas about gay or bisexual identities. But whichever way you look at it, it is clear that precolonial Africans experienced and acted on same-sex desire.

We don’t have a lot of information regarding how homosexuality was regarded among common Baganda people at the time. It may well be that Kabaka Mwanga got away with things that would not have been accepted by the wider community. Some scholars have argued that his ‘vice’ was picked up from Arab traders. 

Sounds familiar. Queer Ugandans today are accused of having ‘learnt’ homosexuality from television, or interactions with white people. That queerness is un-African is a narrative that has been repeated by various African presidents and their citizens. Robert Mugabe described it as ‘a scourge planted by the White man on a pure continent’. With homosexuality viewed as a facet of neo-colonialism, African leaders passing laws like the Anti-Homosexuality Act can be heralded as brave, anti-imperialist revolutionaries who have stood up to the West to defend African values. The Anti-Homosexuality Act has certainly entrenched Yoweri Museveni in the minds of homophobic Africans as a leader who fought off neo-colonial attempts to dominate our culture. (Additionally, Museveni tries to craft his image here as a benevolent grandfather, referring to young Ugandans as his bazukullu, his grandchildren. This makes it difficult for Ugandans to hold Museveni accountable as a public servant. In our society, it is bad manners to criticise your grandfather.)

There is, of course, no such thing as a homogenous African culture. Africa holds within it a multiplicity of cultures. Uganda makes up only 0.8% of the African land mass and it contains over 56 tribes, each with their own customs and traditions. The presumed homophobic culture that Africans valiantly defend is a colonial relic: European Victorian moral sensibilities based on Christian ideology. I think wryly of people proclaiming we need to protect African values while referring to Sodom and Gomorrah and quoting Islamic and Christian texts—religions distinctly foreign to Africa.

Precolonial Africans who engaged in homosexual behaviour probably did not think of themselves as gays and lesbians in the contemporary sense. That language, and those understandings of sexuality as personal identity, arose from the very specific socio-political contexts surrounding Western gay and lesbian rights movements. But the type of behaviour associated with those terms was, without a doubt, always present. 

It is commonly claimed that the absence of terms for queer people in our local languages is proof of the non-existence of homosexuality in pre-colonial Africa. But that is simply false. The Ethiopian Amhara had the wandarwarad (male-female) and the wandawande (mannish-woman); the Hausa, the yan dauda (homosexual or transvestite); in Ghana, the Kojobesia (man-woman). Among the Fang, gay men were called a bele nnem e bango (he has the heart [aspirations] of boys) and in Ila they were referred to as mwaami (prophet). Outside those palace walls of Kabaka Mwanga II in Buganda, there was language for those who did not meet expected gender roles: feminine males were referred to as ekikazikazi and masculine females were known as nakawanga (she-cock) or kyakulassajja (grew like a man).

Community acceptance of LGBTQI+ identities varied across time and place. Some African societies tolerated homosexual activity but did not encourage it, and in others, gender non-conforming people may have been ostracised, the names used to refer to them closer to slurs than honorifics. But in some societies, queer individuals were integrated, even deified as spiritual leaders who served as a bridge between the ancestral plane and the physical world. 

In an interview with Ugandan human rights activist and poet Stella Nyanzi, on the question of what place homosexuality has in Ugandan culture, one queer Ugandan said,

I don’t believe homosexuality isn’t part of my culture. As I said, my ancestors chose me out of all the people in my family. I’m the only kuchu (homosexual) out of my father’s children. In my extended family, we’re two—one of my cousins is also a kuchu lesbian-man. But the ancestors left all the other people who are straight and they chose me to be the medium through whom they communicate to the people in the clan about cultural matters. When the spirits climb on my head, I get into a trance and start dancing Kigisu traditional dances. My family know it’s time to take me to the village home. I help people to solve their problems. I’m powerful in that moment. I can even sit in fire and not get burnt. But then if homosexuality was bad, the ancestral spirits wouldn’t have chosen me.

The cultural significance of same-sex sexual activity also varied across societies. In some communities, it was part of an initiation process from boyhood into manhood. In others, it was believed to grant a warrior protection before going into battle by making them more vigorous. Azande warriors routinely married boys who functioned as temporary wives, and paid bride price to the boys’ parents. (‘Bride price’ refers to payments made by the groom or his family to the bride or her family—the same idea as a dowry, but in reverse.) In South Africa, ‘mine marriages’ became common: senior miners took new miners as wives, offering protection, teaching them the nature of mining work and socialising them into that environment in exchange for cooking and sexual favours. The senior partner had to pay bride price (known as ilobolo in South Africa) to the family of the boy whom he wished to marry. Homosexual sex was also looked at as an alternative for young men in societies where it was important for women to maintain sexual purity before marriage. For the nomadic San people, who did not cultivate crops and could not afford their population to swell, it was a method of birth control. The woman-woman marriages among the Igbo in Nigeria and the Kikuyu in Kenya were distinctly noted as non-sexual. Older women married younger women, who would then bear children on their behalf. Across Africa—across the world—indigenous communities had robust understandings of gender and sexuality that transcended the cisheterosexist binary that we have today. 

That is, until they were suppressed by colonising peoples who punished any expression of ‘deviance’. Anti-gay laws in Uganda were first introduced during British colonial rule as a legal transplant of the British 1533 Buggery Act, which Ireland was also subject to, of course, as a colony itself. (Interestingly, lesbianism was not illegal. The British parliament was reluctant to criminalise it, because they feared drawing attention to it would give respectable young women funny ideas.)

Colonisation required a distinction to be created between Africans and Europeans: Africans were constructed as ‘primitive’, juxtaposed with ‘civilised’ white people. Where homosexual behaviour was observed within African societies, it was taken as evidence of their primitivity, proof that they were savages and less than human—fit, therefore, for enslavement.

Andrew Battell, an English traveller imprisoned by the Portuguese in the 1590s in what is now Angola, wrote of the Imbangala people:

‘Beastly in their living, for they have men in women’s apparel, whom they keepe among their wives.’

A Portuguese soldier in 1681 also wrote,

‘There is among the Angolan pagan much sodomy, sharing one with the other their dirtiness and filth, dressing as women.’ 

Among the Langi people of Northern Uganda, there was a category of effeminate males known as the mudoko dako. They transitioned socially, took on typically female roles within their society, and were treated as women who could marry men. The mudoko dako wore traditional women’s dress, jewellery, and styled their hair like women. They were not known to alter themselves physically. The mudoko dako were accepted and integrated into society, and held to the same standards of ubuntu (an African Bantu collectivist philosophy) as those around them. Unlike the Hijra, India’s ‘third gender’, the mudoko dako had no special religious or cultural significance; they existed just to exist. And unlike the Hijra—once judged as an ‘opprobrium upon colonial rule’, now officially recognised as a third gender by the Indian Supreme Court—the mudoko dako did not survive British moral determinations.

Most pre-colonial African societies relied on oral tradition, so the past is, in many ways, lost to us. We must rely on anthropological accounts by outsiders who observed communities through their own cultural lenses, and were likely to misinterpret the things they saw. Prior to British intervention, the laws and customs that governed our people were alive. Because they were unwritten, they operated in constant flux, changing as people’s realities shifted. What is known of traditional African culture today was written by people who were part of the colonial system that disrupted those cultures.

It’s clear that queer people have always existed in Uganda, but you don’t have to take my word for it. In a 2012 BBC Hard Talk interview, President Museveni acknowledged that ‘Homosexuals in small numbers have always existed in our part of black Africa… They were never prosecuted. They were never discriminated [against].’ Still, most people do not know that there is documented evidence of same-sex desire in various African cultures. I believed there was no queerness in Africa’s history until the first lockdown, when I found myself with a lot of time on my hands. Now ask: how much more believable is that myth for someone who needs it to be true, lest their worldview be shattered? 

And Then I Met a Girl…

The Anti-Homosexuality Act has made provisions for the ‘rehabilitation’ of homosexuals, with Ugandan sources claiming that a conversion therapy camp is being established in Nakasongola to handle those who will be arrested under this law. 

Conversion therapy is predicated on the idea that homosexuality is an abnormality that needs to be cured, and it works by reinforcing shame and self-hatred in queer people. Sharon Slater, of Family Watch International, advocates for ‘reinforcing a culture inimical to homosexuality to encourage LGBT people to unlearn their attraction.’ The plan is to create conditions so hostile that queer people decide that they would be better off being heterosexual. This has the unintended effect of making it so that some queer people would simply prefer to be dead, because when you finally realise that you cannot change, what are you left with? 

I have never been in conversion therapy, but Ugandan society is a borderless, open-air conversion camp—everywhere you turn, the message is that it is wrong to be anything but heterosexual. For years I internalised the idea that I was a dirty abomination, headed for hell because I had failed to get rid of my queerness. When I wasn’t sad, I was numb. Even when I was having a jolly time with my friends, my shame lay waiting for me to be alone, waiting for a quiet moment. I could not remember a time in my life I was actively glad to be living. People woke up and just felt joy? That did not compute. 

Accepting myself and undoing that self-loathing was an important step, but the loneliness was another beast. It is one thing to accept yourself, but it’s important to have people around you who accept and affirm you as well. And I didn’t know any other queer people. 

And then I met a girl.

In typical lesbian fashion, I fell in love with her on our first ‘date’ which wasn’t even a date. She came to my room to hang out for two hours and we ended up talking for six, about trauma, being queer and navigating the homophobic Ugandan school system. I felt like we were the main characters in a queer indie film. After she left, she texted, ‘I wish I’d kissed you.’ I asked why she hadn’t, and she said she didn’t want to scare me. I’d been afraid to scare her too. 

She became my everything. I latched onto her, too tightly and too quickly. I was intoxicated with that new feeling of being seen in the way only another queer person can see you. It felt like we were living Troye Sivan’s Blue Neighbourhood; it was us against the world. She was all I could think about: her smile, her smell, the taste of her lips. When we saw each other, I felt powerful, like the sun had risen that morning just for me. I imagined our life together, growing old with her, travelling the world. We were going to start with the coast in Kenya, then South Africa, then go outside the continent. I allowed myself to have hope, and it’s the hope that gets you.

She was still figuring herself out. Even though it was she who had sought me out, she was conflicted about our relationship and her faith. She was heavily involved in the church. She’d go three times a week without fail, even interrupting our limited time together to participate in Christian fellowship. I suppose to repent for whatever we had done. I’ll never forget the moment she told me that she thought what we were doing was wrong in the Christian god’s eyes. I laughed, thinking she was joking. Soon after that, she told me she was getting married—how clichéd. 

I begged and begged her to choose me, as if some abstract notion of love could be stronger than the very real pressure she was under, as if it could override the material consequences if she did not prove to her family that she was a god-fearing heterosexual woman. Love was not winning. I was not being picked.

Until then, I had thought the heartbreak that people wrote songs and made films about was exaggerated. I had been involved with men and didn’t see what all the fuss was about. But the pain I felt when she left me made me wish I’d never met her. It made me wish I was straight. I saw her in my dreams: as a face in a crowd or lying beside me in my bed. I would smell her perfume and frantically try to follow the scent. I felt like I was losing my mind. I lost 9 kilograms and received compliments about how hot I was looking while I was dying inside. I had to attend lectures and do coursework like nothing was happening. It was us against the world, but the world had won. 

I couldn’t exactly vent to others. What would I say?

‘I know you said that if you came across a homosexual, you would put a tyre around them and set them on fire, but I’m a lesbian. And this girl I’ve been involved with is going to marry some guy, instead of running away with me to start a fairytale life. And now I daydream about stepping in front of a speeding vehicle.’ 

No. That was not an option.

But when things got really bad, finally I told my two best friends. I’d waited so long to tell them because I was… a bit embarrassed. Because truly, what had I thought was going to happen? That she would meet my parents and I hers, and we would start a cute little family? I felt like such a clown.

My two best friends kept me alive. I was hanging by a thread, and they were holding the other end. But though they were my biggest allies, there was only so much they could do. I needed to feel seen by fellow queer people, but I had no queer community to fall back on. The end of that first relationship felt like confirmation of my fears that there was only rejection in my future. My mental state, already fragile, disintegrated. 

I’m privileged in that I have the kind of mother who suggested I see a therapist. She didn’t ask what I had to be so sad about when I had food in my belly and a roof over my head, so I took a year off university to focus on keeping myself alive. 

Keep it in Your Bedroom

President Museveni is of the opinion that sexuality is such a deeply personal thing in Uganda that if he kissed his wife in public, he would not win elections. According to multi-award-winning Ugandan-British author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, the private nature of sexual expression in Uganda means that most Ugandans first see openly gay people on Western television programmes, thus equating homosexuality with Western culture. She also says:

‘When more gay people became visible, in film and in the music industry, Africans who are gay got confident and started to come out and be conspicuous.’

Unfortunately for queer Ugandans, what qualifies as ‘conspicuous’ is arbitrary. It could be dressing in a gender non-conforming way, or existing in a public space with your partner, or even mentioning that you have a same-sex partner. 

Some Ugandans say, ‘It’s okay for you to be gay, just keep it to yourself.’ And yet how many heterosexual people base their whole personalities on their sexuality, obsessing over the rules of romantic interaction? ‘Who should pay on a date? Can a man forgive a woman who cheats? Ladies, here are some tips to keep a man!’ Ugandan pop music is rife with innuendo; talk shows constantly debate sex, relationships and marriage; sexual enhancement drugs are openly advertised on radio and television, even on loudspeakers attached to cars snaking through neighbourhoods in an effort to attract customers; tabloids publish lurid stories about which socialites are having sex with each other, or who is the ‘sweetest babe’ in Kampala; young Ugandans all but have sex on the dance floor in the name of nyigos. A television show has ONE queer character and ‘they’re shoving this rainbow thing down our throats!’. I wonder what world Ugandans think they live in where there are no queer people? For years, we sat down and consumed media depicting only heterosexual relationships and their predictable, repetitive issues; it’s time for the gays to eat. 

I too want to dance with my partner in the club. The logical conclusion would be for us to have our own bars and clubs, except the concept of a gay bar in Uganda right now is laughable. (There’s something about the threat of getting raided and featuring in the next viral video that makes it hard to relax.) 

A mere year ago, I was proud to know that when people saw me with my partner, they’d wonder how I bagged such a baddie. Now I’m afraid to hold hands in public.

For her 2013 book, Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall, Marie Cartier quotes a queer elder, Myrna Kurland: 

‘I would get up at one or two a.m. and I would call every gay bar I had the number to from the 1940s. I wouldn’t say anything. I would just stay on the phone and listen to the sounds in the background. … That phone. Those numbers. That was my lifeline … It meant there was a place somewhere—even if I couldn’t go there—that place was out there. I could hear it. Freedom.’

In the year I was recovering from the breakdown of my relationship, I self-soothed by creating my own queer community online. I followed gay people on YouTube, Twitter and TikTok. I listened to queer podcasts. I watched shows with LGBTQI+ characters. Living vicariously through queer people in progressive countries made me happy. Sometimes, it made me cry. I spent hours online, watching them live their lives. I particularly loved watching them wear their gay little outfits out in public. Alone in my room, I would scream and dance around, stirred by the bold display of phaggotry I had just witnessed. My chest would fill with such joy.

They may not realise it, but the positive impact queer people in progressive countries have on queer people across the world cannot be overstated. For those of us who live in countries where it is dangerous to express our identities, this connection means everything.

The online community I had created was a start, but the tide truly turned when I began to meet actual queer Ugandans. An old schoolmate reached out on Instagram. I was delighted to find they were also non-binary, and when I expressed my desire for queer community, they referred me to a friend of theirs who was interested in community building. 

At first, I was sceptical. But as soon as I met [REDACTED] and his partner, I knew I had found a home, I had found friends. With them, I didn’t feel like I had to put on a show or explain my existence, and the anxiety and tension I had been carrying was suddenly gone. I did not think it was possible for me to feel so at peace in the company of other people. It was my first time in a deliberately queer space. We talked for hours about everything from film and socialism to permaculture and the possibilities we could materialise for ourselves. Through [REDACTED] and his partner, I met so many brilliant people, more queer people than I thought was possible to exist on this planet, let alone in Uganda. I learnt that queer Ugandans were making lives for themselves regardless of the hostile legal and cultural environment. I learnt that it was possible to not just survive, but really live. Until then, when I’d thought of my life trajectory as a queer youth, I didn’t visualise a version where I could live openly and be happy; I only saw misery, rejection and death. I used to have nightmares regularly about being killed by a mob. And yet here I was, with people who had transcended friendship, and were quickly becoming family. 

Western Help and Hindrance

In response to the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, the USA announced that visa restrictions have been placed on ‘individuals believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda and abusing human rights, including those of LGBTQI+ persons, or engaging in corrupt practices.’ I applaud this, and think other countries that uphold LGBTQI+ rights and freedoms should do the same. Our gallant moral paragons should be supported in their endeavour to maintain a heterosexual Uganda by being denied access to progressive countries. What if they come across a homosexual in the streets and catch ‘gayism’ only to return to Uganda and spread it to our vulnerable youth? Let our leaders set an example, and stay here where we can all be sure that they will be safe from the gay agenda. 

The American government has also threatened to withdraw funding for HIV/AIDS prevention programmes in Uganda, but this response is much less helpful to our cause. It hurts vulnerable Ugandans who need those services, some of whom are LGBTQI+ persons living with HIV. I understand that the efficacy of HIV prevention programmes is hampered by the Anti-Homosexuality Act; that efficacy hinges on being able to reach key populations. Moreover, the money that Uganda receives for those programmes comes from American taxpayers, some of whom are queer themselves; why should their money be given to a homophobic government, especially given its habit of misappropriating funding? So I get the logic behind threatening to withdraw this funding, but it would do more harm than good. 

It would also be helpful if the international community was vocal about other human rights abuses that have been carried out by the Museveni regime. By coming out so strongly on this one issue, the impression is given that certain human rights are more important to the West than others. It actually lends to the idea that there is a Western plot to impose homosexuality on Uganda and Africa at large. 

Take for example what happened on 18th and 19th November, 2020. Protests broke out in Kampala after the arrest of opposition politician Bobi Wine, and the military was deployed and responded with tear gas, beatings and live bullets. 54 Ugandans were murdered, with many more injured. The state response in the aftermath was chilling. General Elly Tumwine, the Security Minister at the time, said, ‘Police has a right to shoot you and kill you if you reach a certain level of violence. Can I repeat? Police has a right, or any security agency if you reach a certain level, they have a right.’ The international response to the November massacre, in comparison to the recent response to the passing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, may as well have amounted to silence. Ugandans were left out in the cold.

And even when the West condemns human rights abuses carried out by Museveni’s regime, it continues to support and legitimise his leadership. From the time he took power in 1986, Yoweri Museveni has received total bipartisan support from every American administration. He is strategically positioned as one of America’s most important military allies in the Great Lakes region. In return, he has received sophisticated military equipment and training for his army. Donor funding has kept the regime’s pockets full enough to pay people to continue pretending that they believe Museveni is good for Uganda, to the point of getting rid of the presidential age limit to allow him to stand for another term.

To the outside world, the viral video of the fight that broke out in parliament on the day the age limit was abolished was just comic relief. Trevor Noah, covering the brawl on The Daily Show, joked that viewers wouldn’t care why chaos had broken out in the Ugandan parliament—what mattered was that it was entertaining. And while Western onlookers laughed, Ugandans found themselves ever more trapped by Museveni’s regime. 

By continuing to support this illegitimate government, the USA, Europe, and whatever other actors are complicit in a wide range of human rights abuses carried out by the Museveni regime. Without Western support, it is unlikely that Museveni would still be in power, but I suppose American interests come first, and fuck the rest of us. I wonder if American taxpayers know that their money is actively being used to hold Ugandans hostage? I wonder if they care? 

The Stability of Uganda

Ever since the November riots, I have had nightmares where I am going about my day downtown as a protest brews. Next thing I know, the big green truck is pulling up, and I spend the rest of the dream hiding from army men and dodging bullets. 

But President Museveni reached for a different kind of irrational fear—anti-LGBT sentiment. ‘Some of these (protesting) groups are being used by outsiders—the homosexuals and other groups outside there who don’t like the stability and independence of Uganda. But they will discover what they are looking for.’ Ugandans should not be surprised to see their government labelling all sorts of issues or challenges as ‘homosexual’ in order to stifle dissent or advance their interests. Parliament even approved an 18% tax on adult incontinence pants on the false basis that they are primarily used by gay men, not the sick and elderly. Another government official claimed that the DNA testing craze sweeping the country, revealing interesting levels of paternity fraud, is the work of homosexuals seeking to destroy the African family. 

Ugandans will go online to insult politicians who make such stupid statements, but won’t acknowledge that they are complicit in creating this situation. Meanwhile, the threat of violence hangs over our heads. In the months leading up to the 2021 election, army officers set up camp in various parts of Kampala; I would drive by, see the expanse of green tents, and wonder if we were in the middle of a war that we didn’t know about. Tanks drove through the city to remind Ugandans what the government was ready and willing to do to them if they stepped out of line. When Justine Lumumba, then the Secretary General of the National Resistance Movement (Uganda’s ruling party since 1986), told Ugandans that the state would kill their children, she meant it.

So here we are. Nothing seems to work in this country, except for the Uganda Driver Licensing System (we must give credit where it is due). Almost weekly, there is another shooting. The health and education sector are embarrassing; teachers and doctors have to protest to be paid, and there are no medical supplies in the hospitals. Meanwhile, our ruling classes fill their accounts with the money they are supposed to use to deliver services. They build extravagant, mall-like houses and fly out for medical treatment. Their children study abroad. Every time another scandal rocks this country, I hold my breath, wondering if this will be the thing that makes Ugandans angry enough to rise up. But we don’t, because we are afraid.

We can’t express our displeasure without risking beatings and tear gas, so we turn to the internet. But even as we banter online about the state of the nation, we’re aware that if our comments go too far, we could be picked up by a ‘drone’—an unmarked Toyota HiAce infamous for abducting people. The lucky ones later turn up with clear evidence of torture. The unlucky ones are never seen again, leaving their loved ones to wonder indefinitely what has become of them. 

Because Ugandans cope with humour, we will ask those who post particularly risqué comments what colour they would like their drone to be: white or grey? Would they like it to have air conditioning? Nothing about this is funny, really, but if we don’t laugh, we will cry.

We are wary of war, especially the elders; we have a brutal history, and this country has never seen a peaceful transition of power. Lose your life for Uganda, and your death will amount to nothing. So we keep our heads down and focus on providing for our families, quietly grumbling about how everything has gone to shit. We are angry, but we cannot express our anger in a meaningful way. The army and the increasingly militarised police are on standby to violently suppress any protests, no matter how peaceful. 

Unless, of course, you’re marching against the gays. 

This year, Ugandans have witnessed the only two peaceful protests in my living memory. In February, thousands of Muslim protestors took to the streets to protest against the LGBTQI+ community. The protests were concluded without a single tear gas canister going off. I didn’t even know that was possible, particularly as Uganda’s minority Muslim community is no stranger to scapegoating. It is common practice for any terrorist activity to be blamed on Muslims, but if Muslims had gathered to protest that, or the numerous unsolved murders of Muslim clerics in the past decade, things would have gone in a completely different direction. 

At the end of May, a day after the president assented to the Anti-Homosexuality Act and it became law, a small group of university students marched to parliament to congratulate the legislators. They were escorted by the police, and traffic officers diverted traffic to allow them to pass. This was truly a sight to behold, especially since only a few weeks prior, medical interns protesting the government’s failure to deploy them were brutally arrested. In 2019, when Makerere University students protested a 15% increase in tuition fees, the state responded like they were trying to stage a coup. 

Pointing out how absurd all this is doesn’t change the fact that queer lives are being affected by these games. It doesn’t matter that homosexuality is natural and African, it doesn’t matter that this hate is being fanned by American evangelicals, and it doesn’t matter that most African languages don’t have pronouns for ‘she’ and ‘he’—not when you’re being attacked, blackmailed, evicted, or extorted by the police. 

At this point, even if the courts rule that the law is unconstitutional, it will not change the situation. The hate has been stoked. If anything, it will be taken as confirmation that queer people are a powerful group, and President Museveni can sit back and tell the people he did his best to take down those homosexuals. Online and in person, visibly queer people are being promised that even if the court strikes down the law, they will be dealt with through mob justice.

Fostering hate and division goes directly against ubuntu, the Bantu philosophy I previously mentioned that governs the way most of our communities operate. Ubuntu is loosely translated as ‘I am because you are’, and founded on a spirit of collectivism, where one’s humanity is affirmed by the humanity of those around them. This ethos emphasises values like solidarity, interdependence, compassion, respect and dignity.

I feel that spirit when I interact with people on a day-to-day basis. It’s confusing, because I see the homophobic rhetoric online, yet I know Ugandans are not as bigoted as their leaders would like them to be, not really. I’ve experienced kindness from people that has actually shaken me, even when my presentation is gender non-conforming. Perhaps it’s the Ugandan hypocritical ability to treat people we despise with kindness, and ridicule them as soon as they are out of earshot? No. No, it’s not that. I feel a genuine sense of curiosity, camaraderie and kinship. It’s my favourite thing about this country: the warmth in how we interact with each other. That’s why for me, leaving is not a real option. I don’t want to brave cold winters and isolating, individualistic cultures. I don’t want to be an immigrant and have people look down on me as leeching off their country’s resources. I don’t think I’m mentally ready to experience racism. Leaving would only come as a last, last resort. 

I know it sounds crazy. Ugandans, queer and heterosexual, are jumping ship like grasshoppers out of a hot pan. The position seems to be that if you find a way to leave this country, hop on and never look back. Maybe I am young and naive, but I think we should stay and fix our country for those coming after us, for those who may not have the option of leaving. I know that Ugandans are brilliant and creative people, and if our leaders just let us be great, we could really make something of this country.

There are many, many things wrong with Uganda, but it is my home, and its chaos and madness is a part of me. 

If I Saw Me on the Street, I’d Want to Be Me

I’ve reached the point in my transition where I am quite androgynous. Sometimes, I look in the mirror to try and figure out what people see when they look at me, but I’ve not found an answer. I just see myself, and I’m happy with what I see. If I wasn’t already me, and I saw myself in the street, I would want to be me. What bliss.

Towards the end of 2022, the security guards at a supermarket that I frequent stopped me to ask ‘what’ I was. At the time, things felt a lot more optimistic, even whimsical. The guards told me that they had been discussing it, and had even placed a bet. The female guard was sure I was a man and the male guard was sure I was a woman. I let them debate and they failed to reach a conclusion. I was in good spirits, so when they asked me, I told them I was ‘just there in the middle’. 

The woman proclaimed, ‘You are lying. You are a woman!’ 

I told her, ‘If you want.’ Because really, if you ask me ‘what’ I am, and I tell you, and you disagree, where do we go from there? I’m not going to argue with you. You are free to call me what you want. It doesn’t change who I am.

Predictably, she was not satisfied with that response, so—I guess to corner me—she asked, ‘So if I want to be your girlfriend, will you allow?’ I told her she couldn’t be my girlfriend, because I already had someone. We laughed it off, and since that day, we greet each other with enthusiasm every time we cross paths.

I find that when I am perceived as a queer woman, it doesn’t feel as dangerous as when I am perceived as a queer man. When others perceive me as a masculine woman, I garner respect because of that masculinity. Masculinity is venerated above femininity, seen as an upgrade, so I get called ‘boss’ or ‘rasta’. Interactions with boda men and vendors are positive. 

When I am perceived as a feminine man, though, the danger is palpable. The parameters of manhood are so rigid. For a man to be queer and allow another man to dominate him is viewed as a shame to all men. To stoop so low as to be like a woman? How dare you? This is good old misogyny, of course, and it would be interesting to witness if it weren’t so scary. 

I have no control over how I will be perceived, and no way to predict it, which means it’s hard for me to be safe. Initially, I found myself putting on a masculinity that did not fit in an attempt to pass as a cis man for my safety. I succeeded, but I found that I didn’t like it. I didn’t do all that work transitioning and letting go of having to perform womanhood only to start having to perform manhood. 

In my experience, a one-on-one interaction will more likely than not be positive. At worst, it will be neutral. But the situation can escalate and turn ugly with groups, particularly now. Passing a taxi or a boda stage, my heart races. My body goes into fight-or-flight mode. In public, I make it a point not to stand in one place for too long. I walk fast and avoid eye contact. I hear the question ‘Mulenzi oba muwala?’ (‘Is that a boy or a girl?’) and I quicken my pace, gone before they can mobilise their friends and ask me directly. 

During the pandemic, I was overjoyed. Not about the pandemic, but about the masks. This was at the height of my dysphoria, and masked, I didn’t have to worry about how people perceived me. I wore a mask diligently and continue to do so, long after most people have stopped. It’s funny: now that I am no longer dysphoric, and ready to be perceived, the situation is too dangerous for me to be perceived. My partner and my sister ask me earnestly to tone down my queerness and pick one gender to present as. They aren’t trying to dim my light; they are scared, and their fear fuels mine.

The sad part is that before this panic started, I had been fighting hard to defrost. I’ve been told I come off cold initially. Part of it was simply that I have a resting bitch face, but it was also a defence mechanism. I kept an emotional distance because I didn’t see the point in wasting energy forming bonds which would be severed once people knew who I truly was. After coming out, I learned that a lot of people were in fact rooting for me, and that I hadn’t needed to do that. 

My transition has made me so comfortable in myself that I can form a connection with anyone. I love leaving an interaction feeling like I have made a genuine impact. I like to learn people—to hear their stories and see life through their eyes. It’s enriching. I am actually good with people. My teen self would not believe the person I am today.

But now, once again I find myself less inclined to be warm to strangers. I see the discourse online and I know that the average person I encounter is homophobic. 

I know most people’s homophobia comes from ignorance and fear of the unknown. Studies have shown that interactions with an ‘other’ tend to lessen bigotry. But you’ll forgive me: what if the person is so disgusted to be breathing the same air as a ‘musiyazi’ that they can’t see past that and they hate-crime me? Please, I don’t want to give anyone an excuse to attack me. I’ll be minding my business and maintaining my resting bitch face.

If it were up to me, I would move through Kampala as a hazy mist, a faceless entity that people forget as soon as they see it, my true self reserved only for those I deem worthy. Instead, I get stares—people turn their entire bodies to look as I pass. Maybe it’s because I’m so sexy that they can’t resist. Maybe they are shocked at my audacity to exist in public looking the way I do. Maybe they want me dead. 

To Hope or To Despair?

Death and I have a complicated relationship. For a significant part of my life, I longed to be dead. More accurately, I wished I was never born.

And then I had a health scare.

I imagined my family organising car washes to fundraise for my treatment abroad and failing to raise the money on time. Death was no longer the cold, final kiss I yearned for, but a real and immediate possibility. I had to come to terms with my mortality and the realness of it. I thought I would be scared, but more than anything I was angry that I had not had a chance to live as my true self. I came out of that experience with a promise to myself: I wasn’t going to waste any more time playing a role to make people happy. I decided to choose myself every day. As soon as I did that, my will to live returned, and I began to experience real joy.

I’m excited about the future. I’m full of hope and energy. I wake up and the sun is out and the birds are singing; I see colours and revel in their beauty. Even the climate crisis and the systems that have orchestrated it feel like things we can dismantle with the power of friendship. It’s delirious and delusional; I am feeling all the joy I hadn’t been able to feel all those years, feeling it all at once, and it’s giving me a headrush. 

If I died now, I would be satisfied that I lived and was loved. To me, death is just another step in the cycle of my spirit. Sometimes I look forward to it, not as an escape like I did before, but more like one looks forward to graduating: with the uncertainty of not knowing what life after school will be like, and the excitement to find out. And now I can genuinely say that I was happy, however briefly. But I try not to talk so callously about my death, because it hurts the people who love me.

For them, I have made changes to the way I present in public. I’ve stopped adorning myself like I used to. I dyed my hair black, giving up the wide array of colours I had planned for this year. (I had a whole chart.) I used to wear multiple rings on my fingers, layer chains around my neck and wear jewellery in all the holes in my ears. Now I step out looking so bland, it’s sickening. It’s sickening that I can’t be sickening. Nary a cunt is being served, girlies; it’s giving basic bitch. I may as well be some hetero with zero spice. 

I know that there is only so much I can do to hide who I am. I am painfully masculine and feminine; it’s my favourite thing about myself, but it’s not a hit with the masses over here. Even when I feel I have done my best to be ‘normal,’ it wriggles free. The phaggotry permeates the air around me like vanilla essence; if someone is looking, they will find it. I’ve made peace with the possibility that there are people who will want to harm me for it. I’ve been taking self-defence classes, but I know that if shit goes down, I cannot realistically box my way out of an angry mob. I’ve cut out unnecessary outings, like I’m on some self-imposed lockdown. If I leave my house, it’s to go see a friend at theirs. Public establishments are a no-go with the queers: we went and got too comfortable with who we are, and we’re bound to start acting like ourselves in public, which is dangerous territory. But there’s only so much I can do before I start to feel robbed. I’m tired of being afraid. It’s so draining, and I’m over it. My life belongs to me, and I will live it as I please. 

It’s important that we do not give into despair because that only traps us in a loop of inaction. We must resist, for our sake, and for those who are coming after us. 

Resistance looks different for each of us, but we each have a role to play, no matter how tiny. For some, our role will be to survive, to do whatever it is we need to keep us going: a cheesy queer film, RuPaul’s Drag Race, anything. I doubt that the Western out-and-proud version of queer activism works in a Ugandan context; visibility is a hard thing to ask of someone in an environment like ours. If someone has it in them, then by all means. Simply being yourself, unapologetically, has more power than people realise. 

This wave of homophobia has shown me that we are not completely alone. Queer Ugandans have more allies than I thought. Imagine that—allies who actually speak out for us, publicly. If you’re an ally, when an opportunity presents itself, say something. Don’t sit and watch as people spew hateful rhetoric that you know is not true.

Those who can write, write. If you can speak out, do that. If you have money, give it. If you have political power or influence, use it. Use whatever tools that you have at your disposal, don’t be consumed by despair. That’s not how things change. 

The week that the president signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, most of us sat at home; leaving our houses didn’t seem very wise. I made more phone calls that week than I usually do in an entire month, checking in on people, making sure that they were safe, and those conversations made all the difference. Which is why this next one is very important: check in on each other, and be in community whichever way you can, physically or electronically. The conditions are perilous but we don’t have to face them alone.

My heart especially goes out to those queer people who have not yet found their community. The people I have around me make living worthwhile, even in these conditions. All the joy in the world would have been hard to revel in without them. I am because they are. Which is why I am making it my mission to organise and build community, intentionally and deliberately. To those queer people who may be reading this: hang in there and know that you are not alone. I give you my word: the future is worth sticking around for. We cannot let hate steal our lives from us. We must continue to laugh, dance, and love each other, because life is short.

We just need to ride out the shit-storm, and though there’s a lot more shit coming, things are changing. The war we are fighting is much grander than this moment in history. The idea that hate might kill the gay away is laughable. What is a human lifetime? A mere speck in the broad expanse of time. You cannot kill an idea; you cannot kill a spirit.

About the author

The author is a non-binary Ugandan writer living and working in Kampala. They are interested in subversive storytelling and media that challenges dominant societal and cultural narratives. Their work is an exploration of the intricate tapestry of the African queer experience, examining themes that resonate deeply on a personal level, and more broadly across the queer community.

About the photographer

The photographer is a young woman based in Kampala who passionately seeks to document economic, cultural, and human reality in Uganda. Through her lens, she creates powerful narratives emphasising the rich, unique voices of Ugandan minorities, and the warmth and humour that define its people.