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Gay and out in rural Uganda? For some, it feels less impossible

Why We Wrote This

The tight-knit relationships of small communities can be difficult for people who feel they don’t fit in. But those same relationships can be the building blocks of acceptance, too. 

Jake Naughton
Despite occasional harassment, JoJo, a transgender woman, says she feels far more accepted in small-town Mbale than she does during visits to Kampala, Uganda, the capital.

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A small town in Uganda – a country with a reputation for being one of the world’s most dangerous places to be gay or transgender – might be the last place you’d expect to see LGBT acceptance. Big cities are often assumed to be more tolerant. But across Africa, “there is really a big gap between the urban and rural” LGBT experience, says Kapya Kaoma, a theology scholar and pastor from Zambia. Rural families “could become ashamed for having [an] LGBT child. So the family tries to find ways to hide that from the public,” says Dr. Kaoma. In doing so, “the family becomes the protecting group.” To be sure, many LGBT rural East Africans still face discrimination, blackmail, arrest, and even violence. But many are forging paths toward acceptance. Raymond felt abandoned by his relatives, but faced it without resentment. “In the rural areas, we respect so much our families. We don’t want [them] to be ashamed,” he says. “I worked hard, saved money, and kept sending gifts and money” home, Raymond explains. Then “they started believing me – that I can do great things for myself and my family.”

On a small farm in eastern Uganda, a baby boy named JoJo was born. Skinny with thin lips and cute ears, JoJo grew up hanging out only with the girls, singing and braiding hair. “People used to call me names, and I hated it,” says JoJo. But at home, that wasn’t a problem. “Most the time I did house cleaning, cooking, taking care of young ones,” JoJo says – traditionally girls’ work.

There’s no word for transgender in the local Lumasaaba language. But JoJo’s mom, “she knew,” says JoJo, who identifies today as a woman.

“What can I do?” JoJo remembers her saying. “It is my child.”

At age 22, JoJo, a committed church member, confessed to her pastor that she had feelings for boys. To her relief, he didn’t rebuke her. He said he would pray for her, to help her become “normal.” But when the pastor’s wife got wind, she outed JoJo in front of the congregation. She said “I am demonic – possessed,” recalls JoJo, who ran from the pews.

Since 2009, Uganda has made international headlines as one of the world’s most dangerous places to be gay or transgender. That year legislators and religious leaders first championed an anti-homosexuality bill to criminalize gay sex and marriages, even if they take place abroad, and obligate authorities to report them. “Aggravated homosexuality,” including people with multiple offenses, was to be punished with death – later amended to life in prison.

As the bill progressed, one prominent gay activist was bludgeoned to death, and many dozens of LGBT Ugandans attacked or arrested when newspapers began printing photos of “suspected homosexuals” under inflammatory headlines like “Hang Them.” After the bill was signed into law in 2014, hundreds of people fled across the border to Kenya as refugees.

Courts overturned the law a few months later. But Uganda’s penal codes still prescribe seven years in prison for anyone who attempts to or commits “unnatural offenses.” Successful prosecutions are rare, but LGBT Ugandans still risk arrest or blackmail by police, as well as rejection by their families.

But in small communities like Mbale, where neighbors all know one another, to cast out a relative is to draw unwanted attention, gossip, questions. So although several of JoJo’s relatives found her “secret” intolerable, the entire family still left the church in protest, signaling tacit support.

Jojo is one of many rural LGBT Ugandans who are finding ways to fit into traditional family and community structures – and without always having to entirely hide their identities, either. Their towns might be the last place you’d expect to see LGBT acceptance. Cities are often assumed to be more tolerant, where strength in numbers allows people to advocate together. But in Mbale, prejudice is often no match for personal relationships. By adapting to traditions and societal norms, some rural LGBT Africans are achieving a level of tolerance that just a few years ago seemed unthinkable – and challenging the conventional wisdom that growing up LGBT in the countryside is an impossible existence.

All across Africa, "there is really a big gap between the urban and rural” LGBT experience, says Kapya Kaoma, a theology scholar and pastor from Zambia who has spent more than a decade researching LGBT acceptance throughout the continent. In rural areas, families “could become ashamed for having [an] LGBT child. So the family tries to find ways to hide that from the public,” says Dr. Kaoma. In doing so, “the family becomes the protecting group,” says Kaoma.

In contrast, in many African cities, relationships “are not built around the traditional lifestyle. There isn’t the same kind of unity,” says Kaoma. So instead of embracing an LGBT child, “They will say, ‘You have shamed us.’ ”

Power of respect 

To be sure, many LGBT rural East Africans still face discrimination, blackmail, arrest, and even violence. But whether it’s by outing themselves to community leaders, or providing for their families, many are forging paths toward acceptance and stability. In working-class communities that value service, “Our character tells it all,” says Patra, a lesbian activist. She organizes LGBT volunteers to help out around town, sweeping out hospital wards and cleaning out vegetable markets.

Jake Naughton
An outreach event draws participants in Mbale, Uganda. LGBT-oriented organizations TASO and Triumph Uganda use voluntary counseling to identify LGBT people in need of support. The events, largely staffed by LGBT people, also sensitize the wider community to the LGBT community.

Hard work is how JoJo, now 27, has won a measure of protection, too. A few years back, a woman hired her as a hairdresser at a small salon on the outskirts of town. “The majority of the customers, they liked me,” says JoJo. But soon it became apparent that to the owner, “That was the issue. She was jealous.”

One day, the tension boiled over. “This guy is a gay,” the owner told customers about JoJo, who dresses as a man. When JoJo didn’t respond, the salon owner called the police, who held JoJo until her mother arrived to pay a bribe.

But in a matter of days, former clients began passing by JoJo’s house, asking if she could do their hair there, instead. Despite occasional harassment, JoJo says she feels far more accepted in small-town Mbale than she did during visits to the capital, Kampala, where she was arrested at a gay pride event.

“Here, I think we have more trans men who are out,” JoJo says. “They are living their life.”

“If you’re out and working positively, they look at you in a different perspective,” Patra says of Ugandans’ attitudes.

Patra has devised other ways to fit in, too. Her parents are both devout Catholics who brought her to services as a child. Today, Patra isn’t religious – quite the opposite. Yet most weeks she still attends church – such a fundamental part of community life that not to be seen at services might taint her reputation. “I have to respect the culture,” she says.

And in exchange, she has come to expect respect – or at least tolerance. Growing up at an all-girls secondary school, Patra was once caught kissing another girl. The headmaster called her dad, threatening to expel her. But when her dad arrived, he defended her.

“Show me a gay school,” she remembers him saying. “I’ll take my daughter there.”

“But of course they couldn’t show him a gay school,” says Patra. So her dad told the headmaster, “We have courts of law. Kids have the right to go to school.” The headmaster relented, and Patra remained.

“Unfortunately, other parents, they didn’t defend their kids,” Patra cautioned, recalling a time another girl was caught and flogged in front of the class. But Patra’s dad’s threat that day hints at another mechanism that many LGBT Ugandans are using to their advantage: the law.

Laws that can protect 

Today, at least 33 of Africa’s 54 countries still outlaw homosexuality. Many of those laws are relics of the British Empire, which introduced penal codes in its colonies to criminalize same-sex relations. In major cities like Kampala, rights groups provide advice and sometimes legal representation to LGBT people accused of violating these laws, or, more commonly, who are blackmailed or extorted. But in small towns like Mbale, such resources rarely exist – until someone decides to change that.

Sean Awali realized he was gay at an early age – and so did his neighbors in the small village of Bumboi, in eastern Uganda. At his neighborhood mosque, “there was a lot of finger pointing,” Awali says. The imam said homosexuality was one of the greatest sins – and that the punishment was death.

“I decided I should change religion,” says Awali. Many Christians were opposed to homosexuality too, he knew, “But there are no particular [edicts] for killing people – I thought.”

But Awali soon discovered that the church felt no safer. So he decided to turn to a third institution altogether. “It came to my mind that this is all about the law.… if this is what the law said, they would think twice. They would fear doing violence.”

One law degree and several years later, Awali found himself defending two gay Mbale men who had been arrested by police while picking up condoms from a local NGO. Awali claims the police demanded 1 million shillings ($266) for their release. They refused to pay, and on the date of the men’s court hearing, the prosecutor – presumably unable to gather enough evidence to charge the men with “unnatural acts” – didn’t show up. The case was dismissed.

Now, whenever police arrest people accused of violating Uganda’s laws against homosexual acts, Awali defends them in court. And it works: “After some time, police stopped charging people with ‘promoting homosexuality,’ because they couldn’t prove it,” he says.

“Fear of the law” says Awali, increasingly preempts violence against LGBT people. When an attack does occur, Awali sometimes calls the police himself. “Now they go arrest the people who are doing the violence.”

Last year when Mbale LGBT activists received funding to host a daylong training about human rights, they invited police officers to attend. “We told them violence is criminal to everyone,” Awali recalls. To arrest someone, “It’s not enough simply that they are gay.”

This year, when two transgender men were attacked in the street one night, police charged the suspects with assault. The news spread around town, and it sent a strong signal to the community, says Awali: “Those who do violence are going to be arrested whether they are doing it upon LGBT or not.”

Working for acceptance

But there are limits to change. Some rural gay and bisexual men like Medi wind up entering into straight marriages for the public eye. But even that is not always an option. To be LGBT in rural East Africa may be hardest for those who have no family at all – those unable to integrate into the rhythms of rural life.

“I’ve seen many of my relatives abandon [me],” says Raymond, a gay man who lives in southwest Uganda. “My family couldn’t accept me anymore because of who I was.”

Yet he doesn’t resent them.

“In the rural areas, we respect so much our families. We don’t want our families to be ashamed,” he says. After being kicked out, he moved to Kampala, where he eventually graduated from university and found a job.

“I worked hard, saved money and kept sending gifts and money” home, Raymond explains. Then “they started believing me – that I can do great things for myself and my family.”

The last time he returned home, Raymond says his relatives promised never to bring up his sexuality again. “Let us not talk about it,” he says, describing their attitude. “But let us be reunited again.”

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