Last week, Uganda's embattled LBGTQ community suffered another blow: local police raided a pride party in the nation's capital city of Kampala and shut it down, claiming they were there to stop an illegal gay wedding.
Pride Uganda organizers say 16 people were arrested. They were released that night, but the situation deteriorated again when Uganda's Minister of Ethics, Simon Lokodo, paid a visit to activists: he threatened to gather a group and put an end to any further pride celebrations himself. Organizers canceled Uganda's Pride Parade, which was scheduled for last Saturday, fearing for the safety of the LGBTQ community. Last year's parade did go ahead despite an atmosphere of threats and discrimination–organizers kept its location secret to protect the community.
In Uganda, a colonial-era law criminalizes gay sex. An Anti-Homsexuality Bill was struck down by the country's supreme court in August 2014, months after it was signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni. But local activist group Sexual Minorities Uganda say that even though it was repealed, the passage of that law marked a turn for the worse for LGBTQ rights. They recorded 162 cases of persecution against LGBTQ people in just the six moths between December 2013 and May 2014, up from just eight cases recorded the year before and 19 the year before that. Those incidents included "cases of violent attacks, arbitrary arrests, blackmail, and evictions," the group's 2015 report says. Between May 2014 and December 2015, the pace of reported attacks has slowed, but the group still recorded 48 instances of physical violence against LGBTQ people.
Richard Lusimbo, a 29-year-old gay activist with Sexual Minorities Uganda, has been involved in Uganda Pride since the organization's first pride parade in 2012. He talked to Fusion this week about what this latest police crackdown has been like, and whether he sees any hope for LGBTQ people in Uganda's future.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Where you at the club on Thursday when the police arrived?
I had just left 15 or 20 minutes before from the venue to return home, and I got a call from Pepe [one of the other organizers] and he told me, 'We have been arrested and you should call for help.' And then immediately I also called Frank [Opiyo, an LGBTQ activist and lawyer] and he confirmed to me that he also had been arrested. That was around 11 pm. I immediately got on the phone and also returned back to the venue—it was sealed off by the police. I went directly to the police station where Frank, Pepe, and the other people were being held by the police.
What did the police say was their justification for shutting the event down?
When I arrived at the venue the excuse was that they had been told there was a gay wedding happening at the venue and that’s why they had come to break it up. But then when we were at the police station and pressing harder around the same issue, a new narrative came up. The police said, 'Oh you were in this place and you had not asked for permission.' That was not true, we had already asked for permission. The other thing is we were in a nightclub which always has parties, which always has people at the venue, so there was nothing extraordinary that you needed to ask for extra permission for.
What happened with the Minister for Ethics? What did you make of his threats?
The meeting with the ethics minister and the DPC [Deputy Police Commissioner] at the police station where the 16 were held was more the minister just there to pass on his bigotry and pass on his hate for LGBTI Ugandans. There was nothing new he brought to the table.
Basically he was just passing on lies and lies and lies and lies, also saying that no-one was injured when the raid happened. But that’s of course also not true, because there was one man who fell off the building from the fourth floor, who is actually right now in critical condition and needs surgery.
Is this raid reflective of the general climate for LGBTQ people in Uganda at the moment?
It all shows the impunity of police brutality and how government officials continue to abuse their power and can just go away without being held responsible.
The whole raid by the police was another indication that some authorities in government continue to make life very difficult for LGBTI Ugandans. And the high levels of homophobia mean that people will act according to their own prejudices, totally outside the law.
Although the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was struck down by Uganda's Supreme Court in 2014, there were moves from other politicians to introduce new, similar bills. Have any of those been passed?
No there haven’t been any since the Anti-Homosexuality law was repealed. So far what’s in existence is just the old colonial law, which is in the penal code around unnatural sexual offenses, against nature, which is most directly related to sexual intercourse as opposed to being LGBTI. So basically there hasn’t been anything new introduced on the table but I think what has been new is having anti-gay people speaking out and trying to push new anti-gay laws.
Aside from police and government discrimination, what's the reception for LGBTQ people from wider society like in Uganda?
I think socially it’s a divided piece of cake. There are some people who are progressive and they don’t care about what two people who are adults do or who they choose to love. And then we have this other side that leans more towards the extremist side that is religious and doesn’t want to unlearn anything, and is just conservative. It’s been a mixture. Why do I say so? Because while we have made some strides within government and some communities, there still remains a very big kind of wall in terms of how our community is perceived.
Just like when you look at our recent report that we released in April, it shows cases of violations and it shows that there is a lot of backlash and a lot of hate that has been inflicted upon our community members.
What was it like for you coming out in Uganda?
I think I’m at a point where I’m all out there. I didn’t choose to come out, I wasn’t ready—but it happened anyway. I was outed by the tabloids beginning from 2013 and 2014 where I found myself on the cover pages. It was a very tough moment for me, more so in 2014, whereby I was all out there on the cover pages and the [Anti-Homosexuality] law had just been signed by the president. There was a lot at stake. My family was divided. Some didn’t know whether to support me. Some of those who were supporting me did not understand why I had maybe spoken to the media. It was so hard on me. I lost friends. I got so many threats. And it was such a painful time. At some point I had to leave the country and then return. So it was such a very difficult situation for me.
What has that meant for you, being so publicly outed against your will at the time?
Eventually parts of my family were very, very supportive, friends from Uganda and around the world came to my rescue and I think in that moment I started to pick myself up and started standing up for myself. I decided to deal with the environment by saying, 'I'm not going to change any minute soon, you had better get used to it' and I think in a way that has helped me. But in a way that has also put me at a moment where I have to be very, very cautious when I go out because I’m an all-out gay person and that comes with its own benefits and also with its own troubles. There are some places I can just walk into, some places I can just go, but sometimes I need to be with friends if I’m going somewhere, sometimes I need to notify someone if I’m going somewhere just to avoid anything happening that could actually put my security at risk. It’s just like, such a divided world.
How do you feel in the aftermath of this latest raid by police? Is the situation for LGBTQ rights there improving or getting worse?
It’s just too much sometimes. Sometimes you feel you’re getting there, and then when all this happens you see how far and how such a long journey we are still yet to get around to. I think the only courage we have is that we see and believe that there will be some kind of liberation at the end of it all. And I think we are not worried about when this is going to happen but we are more determined to make change as it comes at every opportunity.
When did you get involved with Uganda Pride?
Our first gay parade was in 2012, this would have been our fifth. I have been privileged to be able to go through it all this time and seeing it grow from just a handful of us (like 50 or so in 2012) to magnitudes of people from last year… I think if the parade had happened this year it was going to be a big bang. For me it’s been an amazing journey. Seeing people who are proud of who they are. Seeing people standing up to bigotry and speaking back to power, for me it’s been a tremendous journey. And a very exciting one. And I think that’s where I get strength and that’s why I believe for sure that change will come because I am not alone in this. There are so many people who have come along the way and there are so many more who are still going to come. When I see young people standing out, not shying away, and being braver than ever before, I see a lot of hope. I’m optimistic for the future. I’m 29 but I’ll be turning 30 this November.
Do you think you'll still try to hold the parade this year sometime?
We are planning to have the pride parade at a later date, we don’t know when. We really want that march—its for our community—but we need to make sure that everyone is safe. We don’t want people getting hurt like they were hurt on Thursday night. Security for our community comes first.
One thing I just want to say is that even if we didn’t have that pride parade I don’t take this as a failure. I think we scored a victory because we now have the police releasing a press statement talking about LGBT, we have a minister who has to go to the national media center to speak about LGBT. So in a way, the whole country is now talking about LGBT people. And I think that visibility helps. But having said that, I think the events of the last few days also clearly show that as a community and a movement there is a lot we need to work out to ensure our safety, but also to ensure that this wider community gets to understand that we are just like them. We are not aliens, we are just part and parcel of this community.