Sunday July 11 2010

In the footsteps of a gay man: A journalist’s journey into the Ugandan gay world

Within a period of three weeks, I learnt that gay relationships are almost like straight ones. Those involved charm, seduce, deceive, try to manipulate with money and even plead with whoever they are interested in to give into them and yes, they also get cheated on It was a hot Tuesday morning and I was seated in front of my computer reading an online article about gays in Uganda. The page had a link to a website called icebreakersuganda.org.

I clicked on it out of curiosity. It is probably one of the boldest gay things I have seen in this country. It’s a website that encourages gay people to come out and embrace their sexuality (thus the name icebreaker) and it connects gay people in Uganda. The website has a guestbook link where visitors of the site can update any comments or ideas on their mind about the website.

However, most of the comments posted on the website’s guestbook are announcements of gay people who want to meet other gays for mere company, sex or love. Consequently, this segment of the website has been turned into a “lonely hearts” of sorts for gay people. Some of the posted messages are darkly explicit and complete with e-mail addresses and phone numbers.
One of the posted messages on the website was an announcement for a gay party of sorts. It had a phone number attached to it.

I was always under the impression that the gay community in Uganda was so air-tight and secretive. I always imagined that they strictly met in secret locations (like world-class spies) and used secret gesture codes to identify themselves. I thought it was next to impossible to infiltrate their circles if one wasn’t gay. I had gotten so easily close to getting in that a part of me thought it probably was a hoax website. I dialled the number.

The calls and text messages
The man on the other line had an ordinary man’s tone (I expected a much softer tone). I told him where I had found his number and that I was gay and that I wanted to come for the party. He told me it happens every Sunday at a house in Nsambya. “Just call me on Sunday, we shall meet in town and go together,” he said to me. I promised him I would. His tone was hard to read; I couldn’t tell whether he was excited another “gay” person was coming to the party, or he had received several calls like this and was simply doing what he did a lot. His tone was indifferent.

The next man I rang was called Ronald (not real name). After telling him where I had found his number, we kicked it off. He was easy to talk to plus he sounded excited. He asked me how old I was and whether I was on Facebook. I hadn’t seen this coming and involuntarily, I hesitated. He probably noticed this because before I could answer, he assured me it was only because he wanted to see my picture.

I told him I wasn’t on Facebook; I lied. I added that I would call him back later; I lied, again. He called for several days after that insisting that he wanted to take me out.

For a few days, because of this man, I understood what it felt like to be pursued so directly and so aggressively by a man on the phone. Even though I was somewhat flattered by Ronald’s persistent ways, he was mainly irritating.

The third call was to a man called Peter (not real name). His posted messages said we was looking for romance and wasn’t yet ready for sex. I imagined he would be less aggressive. From our several text messages, I learnt that he worked with a small-time consultancy along Jinja Road, and that he had begun his gay tendencies in a secondary boarding school. He was living with a friend who, from the way he spoke about him, seemed to be his boyfriend or lover.

He suggested we meet at his place when his lover wasn’t around. When I asked him what was wrong with his lover, he answered, “He is just jealous over nothing.” It was hard to tell whether this was actually the truth. One thing was for sure; he wanted to cheat. It struck me so hard; this was probably when I started to realise that gay relationships are almost like ordinary straight relationships; people cheat on each other.

I told him I would not mind sleeping with him and he agreed. This was a direct contradiction, considering he had said he wasn’t ready for sex in his posted message. Days went by and I spoke to more gay men, some of whom also said they already had lovers and were only looking for a discreet relationship, something secretive that wouldn’t get them in trouble with their other gay partners.

After several calls and text messages, the one that stuck out the most was Moses (not real name). With most of the calls I had made, all I had to do was tell the men where I had gotten their numbers and what usually followed was them asking me when and where I wanted to meet.

When I told Moses where I had found his number, he asked me what I wanted and when I told him I wanted to meet; he asked why. When I asked how old he was; he told me he barely knew. He acted hard to get, always replying my full page text messages with one word or two. He had a certain confidence and self sufficiency about him. He did admit that he was gay, but acted too busy for petty calls and behaved as though he was above it all.

I was intrigued. I wanted to figure him out. What was it about him that made him want nothing? How come everyone else had succumbed and he hadn’t? For a moment, it felt like I was pursuing him. Even though I never got to meet him, he drove me to picture him as a well bred man who had seen it all and was hard to impress. I imagined he was accomplished and had a lot of class.

The meetings
Around the second week, the calls and text messages became dull; it was time to meet. One of the many people I had spoken to had advised me never to go to a gay man’s place if I didn’t trust him because gay men spike the drinks of those they want just like devilishly cunning straight men do to girls when they want to sleep with them.

The first physical meeting was with Paul (not real name). We met at a popular bar and restaurant at Centenary Park at about 10:30p.m. He offered to buy me a drink but I was already nervous so I offered to buy him one instead. We talked about the World Cup and he went on and on about Brazil and France. On the face of it, Paul did not in any way look like the stereotype gay man I had expected. He was a fairly well groomed man and did not strike me as a man who would have a lot of trouble finding a girl. When I asked him how he found out he was gay, he said he had “always been attracted to boys at school rather than the girls.”

At the risk of sounding like a gay man myself, Paul was the perfect gentleman; he probably noticed that I was new to the gay community. He told me not to give myself in to someone I didn’t love. “Sex is intimate, you are still a virgin. Take your time,” he said.

At another popular bar and restaurant along Lumumba Avenue, I met two other men who wanted to take me home so I could see their houses. I always found a way out. They were never pushy. They would use insinuating words, seduce in subtle and delicate ways, at times by simply staring. Most of them wore clean shaven beards; I don’t know if it’s a gay thing. Plus, they were not bad looking, so it was hard to believe they were gay because girls weren’t interested in them.

The party
I am ashamed to admit that I never went for the gay party; I failed to muster the courage for that. After noticing that most gay men looked like the ordinary man seated next to you on an ordinary day, I was probably afraid that I would meet somebody that knew me.

Frank Mugisha
As I interacted further with these men, one common name kept coming up - Frank Mugisha. Most of them bragged about knowing a certain Frank Mugisha. From the way they spoke about him, they somewhat idolised him, occasionally claiming they were Facebook friends with him.

I googled him: Frank Mugisha is an openly gay man living in Kampala. He is the director of SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda), a pro-gay and lesbian NGO. He is also the personality behind icebreakersuganda.org. He is a celebrity in the gay circles. I tried asking around about him but most that bragged about knowing him didn’t really know him; the only thing I learnt is that he has a blackberry phone and is a chicken (a gay term to mean a young-looking gay man).

The stereotypes
Most of what we know about gay people is that they are men who dress almost in a feminine way and talk softly or have feminine attributes. All the gay men I spoke to and met were none of these. These people act in the same way straight people do. Like I said, they charm, seduce, deceive, cheat and naturally I would assume there is also heart breaking involved. Plus, they always talked about having protected sex.

I expected to meet insanely rich people like the tales I have heard about the gays but these people are ordinary; they use taxis, eat and hang out in ordinary places and would rather beep or send a text message than make a call. Also, they have an attraction towards white people. Most of those who go to exotic uptown places are mainly activists.

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