He sits at a table with his fingers encircled around the tail of a glass filled with Smirnoff. He is at a Kampala nightspot and has dissolved into the crowd, looking just like any other reveller. What most people at the bar would not know however, is that he, plus a couple of his colleagues at the venue, is homosexual. He demands that his identity is hidden if he is to be quoted in the papers instead; he proposes a pseudonym, Alan Mukasa.
He gives off no signs that he is gay. He’s not dressed in a tight fitting pair of jeans, commonly known as skinnies, his hair is a natural un-treated neatly trimmed black, he has no studs or earrings, wears no make-up or anything that may attract undue attention to him. “It’s a security precaution one has to take,” he says. “The best way to hide is to fit in.
Be as ordinary as everyone else and there will not be many questions to ask, and answers to give,” he adds. There is an ever-present sense of consciousness that runs on autopilot in the Ugandan gay man’s mind, Mukasa says. But that was before the murder of gay rights activist, David Kisule Kato last month, which, as Mukasa says, “Forces you to ask yourself whether you have watched your back well.”
Mukasa and Sam Musiime (also not real name), say the gay Ugandan living in the closet now has to add even more latches and keep the world away from the skeletons. “The aftermath of David Kato Kisule’s death is a strange atmosphere of confusion, fear, sadness, shock, and terror,” Musiime says, adding, “After watching a pastor deliver a less than savoury hate speech at his funeral, all I could think is, ‘they must think we are all mad’.”
Musiime and Mukasa are both in their late 20s and have kept their orientation a secret from many for nearly a decade now. “You tell no one. Only gay people like you ever get to know, and even then, you watch which gay person gets to find out because they too could sell you out, accidentally or not,” Musiime says. “The key is to ease into society as much as possible, behave like everyone else, even flirt with girls to portray the usual boy look,” Musiime says.
Musiime then expounds on how he now has to rethink his security. “After Kato’s death, something is triggered in you and even makes you think somebody you do not want to know already knows. Now I have to recheck my passwords – on my computer and phones so that no one accidentally runs into photos or any material that would raise suspicion. You fear that even if people would not kill you, you would lose the respect that those who don’t know still have for you,” he adds.
For Mukasa, Kato’s death also leads him to cover his tracks, but not through fear. “I’ve always been in fear, not for my life, but of being found out. I realised that living in fear only gives you away, so I live in confidence instead, knowing nothing is wrong with me,” he says. “Society may not be very accommodative of me, so I still have to be careful, maybe even more careful now that matters are rising to the surface. But I live on. I walk on. I go to work in the morning. I go to the bar in the evening. My life in general has not changed.”
When asked what he will do to keep his orientation a secret, Mukasa says, “I am very conscious of who is watching me and what I do. That doesn’t mean I’m always looking over my back. I don’t feel the need to. However, I am always careful. Things like phone calls, emails, communication, and even friends can be clues to a person’s behaviour. I take appropriate measures,” he says, making an effort not to divulge much. Later, he adds, “Answering this one truthfully is tricky, feels like I’d be giving myself away.”
Musiime and Mukasa say they are reaping the fruits of a ripened swelling of homophobia in a society that finds their actions terribly archaic. However, to many Ugandans, the attitude towards homosexuality is not an irrational fear like the word homophobia seems to suggest. It’s seen as a cry to save deeply treasured social norms.
At an anti-gay protest in support of the anti-homosexuality bill, hundreds of shouting protestors carried placards with among other messages, writings like, “Think about our children,”, “Together we kick homosexuality out of Uganda,” and “Homosexuals beware of God’s wrath.” Pastor Martin Ssempa then stepped in with a charge that homosexuals target and indeed rape boys in school, and that some teachers condone it.
Uganda, which has been under international spotlight over an anti-gay bill that ruling party MP, Hon David Bahati had tabled in parliament in 2009, returned into the headlines with even stronger criticism over the Police’s handling of Kato’s murder.
Cases of attacks on or perceived attacks on homosexuals feature highly on the news agenda of international media. Even with the crisis that was erupting in Egypt, Kato’s death got extensive coverage on the BBC World Service for instance. In fact, the news of Kato’s murder was broken to many Ugandans not by local media, but through tweets from online news wires.
On the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent show that offers analysis and insight into news events, Ana Cavell, the reporter, said, “Homophobia in Uganda is different to homophobia in Europe. It is not just that people do not like homosexuality or that they do not like to consider what homosexuals might do together. Here it is seen as an abomination. Gay people are reviled - a bit like how rapists are in other countries.” The show described Kato as a brave man who carried the air of an intellectual.
With such attention, Uganda seems to be coming under increasing international pressure as regards what happens to homosexuals here.
President Barack Obama had a personal message read at Kato’s funeral. A senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in the Africa Division, Ms Maria Burnett, says, “In the case of this killing, the world happens to be watching. Uganda’s reputation as a country that respects the rule of law and human rights is at stake if the case is not rigorously and impartially investigated”.
Back at the nightspot where Mukasa wined his evening away, he and his gay friends chatted about sports, money, cars and yes, girls too. And when a female friend passed by the table, Mukasa reached out with arms wide open and hugged her tightly, the way a boy longing to feel a girl’s chest would. As Mukasa would say, “the best way for to hide is to fit in. Be as ordinary as everyone else.”