Being Gay in Uganda
August 2, 2006
– Will McCall, RPCV Uganda 2004-2006
I recently completed my COS (Close of Service) as a PCV in Uganda. Uganda is part of eastern Africa and sits on top of Lake Victoria right on the equator. Although it is a former British colony, and English is the official language, it boasts some 25 other languages and tribes with over 50 dialects. Most people know Uganda by the names of its former dictators Idi Amin and Milton Obote who murdered hundreds of thousands of people in the name of their oppressive regimes. Presently there is war in the north of Uganda sponsored by the LRA (Lords Resistance Army) in which hundreds of children have been forcibly recruited to take up arms and fight in a war for which nobody understands the purpose. The current government makes ongoing claims of reconciliation but these statements have been repeated for the last 20 years with little change.
In my opinion when a country is oppressed it is oppressed all around. Of course as a Peace Corps Volunteer I constantly attempted to train myself to be both optimistic and objective. However there were some things in Uganda that warranted an opinion and when human rights are at stake, I believe those opinions should be heard. I remember when I arrived at my home-stay/host family for training that the women in my host family knelt to greet me and sat in a separate room on the floor to eat. This seriously took some getting used to and in the beginning I had to hold my tongue so that I didn’t offend anyone about what I found offensive. Women have just recently been granted the right to own land, but the practice of a “bride-price” is still very accepted and common in all of Uganda. I know this is part of the culture. I know that I don’t really have the right to judge it, yet I do. I equate it with the same values that hold homosexuality as a sin in many parts of the western world. I think that the same energy that has homosexuality punishable by 17 years of imprisonment in Uganda is the same energy that keeps women on the floor. After I got to my work site I tried to practice something that one of my American trainers described to us new trainees that first day we arrived in-country. She said, “Try to think of things here as different, not good or bad, just different. Life will be a lot easier for you if you do.” It was a lot easier keeping this in mind. However when those differences begin to encroach upon my freedom, the lines of good and bad become more distinct for me.
What struck me when I arrived in Uganda was the open display of affection between men. I was immediately curious and surprised when I saw men holding hands while walking down the street. Men in general seemed to be quite effeminate as well. How could this be? Had I been misinformed? Yet this was certainly antithetical to everything I had known in mainstream America and anywhere in the west except for those openly gay areas where a level of acceptance was already known. Consequently I soon discovered that this public display is simply an expression of friendship and homosexuality is definitely not part of the picture. Homosexuality is thought to have been “brought in” by the Bazungus (whites or foreigners) and “does not exist in Uganda aside from that.” On the other hand the holding of hands and male femininity broke some of the stereotypes that I myself had about being gay. I was grateful for this.
Before I accepted my invitation to Uganda I had to seriously consider whether or not I wanted to be in an environment where I was not able to be open about a very important aspect of who I am. I came straight from San Francisco – where obviously being gay was not an issue for me – to a place where you dare not mention the words lest you run the risk of literally being killed. I believe this is where the colonialist religion influence has made its indelible mark. If you ask people nonchalantly about boys and girls having same-sex experiences in boarding school (because they do in Uganda), they say that is normal. Yet when you throw the word “gay” into it, then it becomes a conversation of hell and damnation. For the most part I chose to keep quiet about my being gay through my entire service. I did come out to three Ugandans and received reactions of surprise and confusion on all three occasions. It was very difficult to explain myself since people just don’t think that it exists there. I had visions in the beginning of “educating” my counterpart or the director of my NGO in my last weeks of service so that I could offer myself a safety net if need be. But after a while I grew tired of trying to fight the customs and the beliefs of the people of Uganda. The old me would have felt it my obligation to enlighten the rest of the world of its ignorance, but something became peaceful for me when I was in Uganda. I acquiesced to the notion of “live and let live” and realized that I wasn’t there to change the world.
There is a very hidden underground community of gay people in Uganda now; mostly in the capital. I have even heard of many young men engaging in sex (even when they are not gay) because they heard that there is money to be made there. So the lines continue to be blurry. I can only wish the best for the few gay people I met there. It is such a sad situation because there are not a lot of places where they can go for support. I had heard before I left that one of the female members of parliament was openly challenging others to accept differences and realize that gay people should have rights too. This could be a start. It’s befitting for the culture because they like to say, “mpola mpola” which means “slowly by slowly” we get things done.
Will McCall is now traveling before he returns home. He can be reached at email@example.com.