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.