A proposed anti-gay law could make Uganda perhaps the most dangerous place for homosexuals and drive the gays of Uganda further underground. In a rare interview, the first of its kind with a newspaper journalist, a lesbian told Saturday Monitor’s Rodney Muhumuza why she is very scared
The Sunday before last, Val Kalende listened quietly as her pastor’s sermon digressed into a soft tirade against homosexuals. “We may even have one in our midst,” the cleric told a congregation of about 50 born-again Christians.
If Ms Kalende did not know her pastor to be an honourable man, a father figure, his sudden anti-gay remarks would have left her shifting uncomfortably in her chair, wondering if those dreaded words were meant for her.
In the end, the woman who also serves as a minister, regularly taking her place on the worship team at her church of eight months, chose to let it go. It would not be her last time there.
Ms Kalende’s chosen place of worship is a small church somewhere in Zana, in Wakiso, not too far from her Namasuba house, past a stage for motorcyclists who have made it a habit to ask if she is a man or a woman.
Ms Kalende’s standard attire --- she is comfortable in a pair of denim jeans and does not wear skirts at all --- turned her into a favourite target for the boda-boda cyclists, once upsetting her so deeply that she had to report her tormentors to the authorities.
On the afternoon I met Ms Kalende, 27, she had just returned from attending service. The television in her living room was tuned to a station named Top, a Christian broadcaster, and a pastor was wedding heterosexual couples as elated witnesses chanted loudly in the background.
As she readied herself for a new conversation, Ms Kalende grabbed the remote control to reduce the volume, creating artificial silence that would be broken by the occasional sound of cutlery dropped in a kitchen sink.
A teenage girl, a relative of Ms Kalende, was doing the dishes as some children lazed around the house. Then Ms Kalende headed for the door, leading the way to her veranda, away from the children she considered too young to know she was gay, for the sake of children she wanted to protect.
In a narration of the kinds of people she was not too comfortable around, Ms Kalende’s account would include inquisitive children, illiterate motorcyclists, gossipy parishioners, bigoted employers and, most recently, a lawmaker named David Bahati. “My first reaction was, ‘Who is Bahati?’ He is the last person I knew,” Ms Kalende said, launching into a decidedly personal explanation for why, “for the first time, I am very scared”.
In October, Ndorwa West MP Bahati brought an anti-gay law to the House, proposing in his document a new felony called “aggravated homosexuality”, committed when the offender has sex with a person who is disabled or underage, or when there is HIV transmission. The crime should attract the death penalty, he proposed, while consenting homosexuals should be imprisoned for life.
The proposed law, which has the tacit approval of President Museveni, would also penalise a third party for failing to report homosexual activity, as well as criminalise the actions of a reporter who, for example, interviews a gay couple.
Although Mr Bahati said he was not in a hate campaign, he could not explain the lack of facts to back his case --- the proposed law seeks to improve on the penalties prescribed in the Penal Code, which already criminalises homosexuality --- or provide evidence to back claims that European gays were recruiting in Uganda.
In a country where homosexuality is still taboo, the bill had excited the homophobic sentiments of many Ugandans, and it also looked set to shrug off human rights concerns. As the Canadian government called the law “vile and hateful”, and as the Swedish government threatened to cut aid over a law a minister described as “appalling”, the authorities in Kampala were saying they would push for the introduction of legislation that would make Uganda one of the most dangerous places for gay people.
Ms Kalende has been openly gay since 2002, several years before she became a rights activist with the group Freedom and Roam-Uganda, six years before she met the woman she calls the love of her life.
In October 2009, around the time Mr Bahati was preparing his anti-homosexuality law, Ms Kalende’s partner, a 25-year-old woman she did not wish to name, left for the United States, where she is now a student and the regular sender of hopeful messages to a partner living thousands of miles away.
The couple met in November 2008, one openly gay and the other closeted, but soon found the connection that inspired them to exchange rings in a recent private ceremony. They enjoyed each other’s company, even going for an HIV test together.
Ms Kalende, smiling wryly, recalled being asked by a counsellor if her partner had been using a condom.
“In my mind, I was like, ‘Dude?’ I felt useless. He was giving me the wrong kind of counselling. I wanted to tell him: 'The lady you see there is my girlfriend,'" she said.
These days, a typical telephone conversation between the two lovers, which happens almost daily, ends with Ms Kalende saying something like this: “I love you.” Before breaking into tears, the person on the other side answers back: “I love you, baby.”
In the intimate scheme of things, Ms Kalende plays the stronger partner, encouraging her lover, whom she affectionately calls Mimi, to be brave and allaying her concerns about safety in Uganda. “When she starts to cry, I don’t cry,” Ms Kalende said. “I want to be stronger than she is. But I feel bad, of course. She is really scared about what’s going on at home.”
The couple met through a mutual friend, with Ms Kalende as the more enthusiastic partner, until their relationship grew strong enough for them to start sharing a house. “She is a very beautiful woman,” Ms Kalende said.
“It’s about her heart, her beauty, and the fact that we share the same faith.” Ms Kalende keeps in her wallet a picture from October 2009, taken days before her partner left Uganda.
They are looking straight in the camera, no smiles, with Ms Kalende’s partner extending an arm over her lover to create the only sign of intimacy between them. It is a beautiful, if cheerless, photograph, yet one that captures the character of a relationship that is steeped in trust, respect and commitment.
“Before I met her, she was already in the process of leaving,” Ms Kalende said. “I couldn’t stop her, and I think that was the best for her. She wasn’t my first partner, but I know that she is the last…I was her first serious partner.”
In press conferences hastily called to condemn the gays of Uganda, Ethics Minister Nsaba Buturo has been revving up the rhetoric, telling reporters that homosexuals can “forget about human rights”. In a recent press briefing, Dr Buturo asked homosexuals to “leave us alone”.
It is the kind of statement that offends Ms Kalende, who professes love for Uganda but retains a keen understanding of her society.
“I love my country, and that means a lot to me,” she said. “But this bill is not about homosexuality. It affects everyone; my pastor, my friends. It’s not about us gays…Homosexuality is not about sodomising young boys. What about relationships among people who are not hurting anyone?”
It was Ms Kalende’s way of saying that homosexuals have people in their lives who treasure them, men and women who may not let their silent aversion to gays determine the course of their friendships.
But it is difficult to predict how loved ones would react to a revelation that a daughter or sister is gay, Ms Kalende said.
“My partner is not like me,” Ms Kalende, the only child of her father and mother, offered. “She’s not yet brave enough to be open, because she doesn’t want her family to know. I can’t approach my mother-in-law and tell her I am in love with her daughter. It would give her a heart attack.”
When Ms Kalende agreed to talk to a journalist about how the proposed law made her feel, she first sought the consent of her partner.
She said yes, but with the caveat that “you don’t put me out there”. Before she left Uganda, Ms Kalende’s partner had sought to convince her lover to go slow with her activism, to keep a low profile, to just hang in there. It was the kind of advice Ms Kalende was always reluctant to accept.
But midway through her interview with Saturday Monitor, Ms Kalende seemed to remember her lover’s words, asking: “How is this [interview] going to help me?” Then, moments later, she found her rhythm, saying firmly that “she was doing it for the whole LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community”.
Mr Bahati’s proposed law, the human rights lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi has noted, is “not needed” in Uganda. Yet few people doubt the bill would be passed without much opposition.
Already, Speaker Edward Sekandi has spoken out to say Uganda should do whatever is necessary “to stop” homosexual relationships in Uganda.
If passed in its current shape, the law would drive Ugandan homosexuals --- there are no reliable figures on their numbers, and most gays appear in public wearing masks --- further underground.
In one of those moments when Ms Kalende would stop to give a thoughtful response, she came across as resigned to a destiny she had no way of foretelling. “We’ve never been through this,” she said, preparing to ask a question for which she would get no answer.
“Even with the existing law, things have never been this serious. I don’t know if things will ever be normal for us. Tell me, what will happen to us?”
Some facts about homosexuality
- Homosexuality is the romantic or sexual attraction or behaviour among members of the same sex, situationally or as an enduring disposition. As a sexual orientation, homosexuality is considered to lie within the heterosexual-homosexual continuum of human sexuality and refers to an individual’s identity based on those attractions and membership in a community of others who share them.
- The prevalence of homosexuality is difficult to determine accurately; studies suggest between two and twenty percent of the population exhibit some degree of homosexual sensibility, though in many cultures homosexual relations have been prevalent.
- Homosexuality is widely encountered in the animal kingdom.
- Throughout history, individual aspects of homosexuality have been admired or condemned according to various societies' sexual norms. When praised, those aspects were seen as a way to improve society; when condemned, particular activities were seen as a sin or a disease, and some homosexual behaviour was prohibited by law. Since the middle of the 20th century, homosexuality has been gradually delisted as a disease and decriminalised in nearly all developed countries.
- However, the legal status of homosexual relations varies widely by country and there remain jurisdictions in which certain homosexual behaviours are crimes with severe penalties including death.
- Many homosexual people hide their feelings and activities out of fear of disapproval or aggression; they are commonly said to be closeted.
- Efforts toward emancipation of homosexuality as it is currently understood began in the 1860s; since the mid-1950s there has been an accelerating trend towards increased visibility, acceptance, and civil rights for lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
- Currently the most common adjectives in use are lesbian for women and gay for men, though some prefer other terms or none at all. One of the crucial issues in the public discussion about homosexuality is whether or not the condition is a mental illness.
- Religious and conservative Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs etc, regard same-sex behaviour as profoundly immoral and hated by God regardless of the nature of their relationships. Many regard homosexuals as a threat to religious freedom, to the culture generally, and to the institution of opposite-sex marriage (which they generally refer to as traditional marriage).
- A variety of groups, consisting of most gays, lesbians, bisexuals, their friends and families of origin, religious liberals and progressives, secularists, mental health professionals and their associations, civil libertarians, human sexuality researchers, etc, favour equal rights and protections for persons of all sexual orientations, including the right to marry. Most favour the extension of hate-crime laws to include violent crimes motivated by hatred of the victim's sexual orientation. Most regard homophobia -- any denial of human rights based on sexual orientation -- to be as profoundly immoral as is sexism and racism.