Outside the nightclub a group of men dressed for a fashion show are holding court – one of them dressed in screaming pink tights is strutting up and down the driveway Back inside the club, age, as they say, is nothing but a number. An elderly gentleman is seated at the main counter. Middle–aged lovers on long stools lean over to reach their partners. Younger revelers are the more restless lot, maneuvering the dance floor looking stylish and leaving a lingering trail of perfumes and colognes.
The week I am in Kampala everyone has told me I have to check out this particular place on Sunday night. They tell me that’s where I’ll see what they’ve been saying about living as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people in Uganda. The point about this nightclub is that every Sunday night, LGBTI Ugandans gather here and have a party like no other.
Tonight Sandra Ntebi takes me to the party. Sandra is Chairperson of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex National Security Committee, an umbrella body that deals with security concerns of LGBTI Ugandans across the country, whether they’re affiliated to any organisation or not. Sandra tells me the reason he’s agreed to come with me is because he wants to show me a side of Uganda people rarely talk about, the side where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Ugandans from across the social spectrum have a good time without looking over their shoulders to see who’s watching.
Once inside the nightclub, Sandra walks me around. As we see young men and women making out with their same sex partners and giving each other lap dances, Sandra keeps asking me over and over again whether I am seeing anything close to the narrative that LGBTI Ugandans are all hiding because Uganda is impossible to live in.
‘‘Can you believe this is the same Uganda people keep talking about?’’
Sandra and I happen on an altercation between two gentlemen. One of them is challenging the other – seemingly his partner:
‘‘Why did you go to Kenya? Why? Why did you go to Kenya? Was it for the excitement?’’
During my stay in Uganda I quickly learn that the word on the street is – and has been for some time now – that a good story about persecution based on one’s sexuality, once submitted to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, can translate into a passage to Europe or America. I am told this situation once led to a bus full of Ugandans arriving in Nairobi, all of its passengers claiming to be LGBTI asylum seekers.
As Sandra and I stand with our drinks in Kampala, over 200 Ugandans are already registered by both the UNHCR and the Kenyan government’s Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA) as refugees and asylum seekers on grounds of persecution for their sexual orientation; most counting on UNHCR resettlement to third countries. Now both the UNHCR and its implementing partner organisations have raised a red flag that there is a real possibility the asylum process is being abused by some Ugandans, given the unexpected numbers crossing the border into Kenya.
According to official UNHCR documents, the present crisis began in 2014 when a handful of Ugandan escapees showed up at UNHCR in Nairobi and at Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya. They were all seeking asylum, citing the passage of the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda as one of their reasons for fearing for their safety. Seeing that they were dealing with a small and manageable group and knowing the high risk they faced in a foreign country where homosexuality is also criminalized, the UNHCR sped up the group’s caseload, giving them priority across all its processes, including providing them with financial support aside from the psychosocial support given to all refugees. The UNHCR went as far as to facilitate speedy resettlement in third countries for this particular group of Ugandans, further securing their safety.
The mistake UNHCR made, it would appear, was to imagine that this was an isolated group of Ugandans and that there wouldn’t be more coming. These initial actions, noble as they were, came back to haunt the UNHCR and its partners.
Before long, word got back to Kampala that there was a direct passage either to Europe or America if one pitched up at the UNHCR in Nairobi or Kakuma citing persecution based on sexuality. There would even be financial assistance as one awaited resettlement, it was said. This is how, from late 2014 the UNHCR started paying for its earlier expediency. Now Ugandans would arrive every other week citing persecution on account of their sexuality. With time it became a custom to cross the border into Kenya, register as a refugee or an asylum seeker before sneaking back into Uganda. Then one could return to Nairobi every month to pick up the monthly UNHCR stipend but continue to live in Uganda while awaiting resettlement.
With these developments the UNHCR decided to pull the plug on prioritizing the Ugandan LGBTI caseload. There would be no further financial assistance and the caseload would follow normal UNHCR procedure without exemptions. This meant that genuine LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers would also be caught out. Unless one had an urgent medical emergency or similar life threatening conditions the UNHCR was no longer making exceptions for anyone on anything.
Yet people are still arriving from Uganda, and enduring living conditions harsher than they might have imagined.
Their harsh realities are illustrated by a confidential email dated March 2015 sent by a staffer of a Christian charity working at the Kakuma refugee camp addressed to a senior UNHCR official in Nairobi and copied to a number of others. The names of three Ugandan asylum seekers are listed. The staffer wonders to whom they may refer the matter and from the uncertainty in the email it appears there is no one mandated to intervene on the matter and come to the rescue of the three Ugandans (or that someone responsible for their welfare is choosing to abscond).
Since the three Ugandans arrived at the refugee camp in Northern Kenya earlier that month, they had been sleeping on the floor at the UNHCR reception centre, which is where all new arrivals at the camp stay until the UNHCR processes their information and admits them to the camp. The three individuals, the email said, had not been given any food. When the author of the email asked a UNHCR official about this, the official said he was not responsible for the situation. To make matters worse, when the three went out in search of food from the South Sudanese community within the camp – which is one of the largest communities within Kakuma – they got back and found all their belongings missing.
Seeing no improvement in their condition, they decided to walk to Nairobi, but were intercepted by UNHCR and taken back to a holding place near the camp (following the intervention of an organization named in the email just by its initials, URM).
The author of the email signed off by appealing to its recipients for action: the three Ugandans had still not been registered by UNHCR and lacked what she called ‘basic survival’, in that they were still not receiving food because they had not been registered. The final plea in the email was on the basis that the three had also run out of cash, after using whatever last coin they had to buy food.
The email indicated that the Ugandans had lost their special status, whether one blames opportunists feigning persecution, a lack of urgency by the UNHCR or the inadequacy of funds and facilities to sustain an ever increasing number of refugees and asylum seekers. Whatever the cause, these are now the circumstances faced by LGBTI Ugandans escaping persecution. Their suffering was apparently increased by the distrust the UNHCR developed for the number of Ugandans streaming in, and there is belief amongst these refugees that even if one’s case merits prioritizing it might take longer than expected for it to be processed. The Ugandans are hoping the UNHCR will reverse its hard stance, while the UNHCR is hoping the Ugandans will adjust their expectations according to UNHCR procedures. It seems they are both waiting to see who will blink first.
When I met Sandra for the first time and had a lengthy conversation about the state of the LGBTI movement in Uganda and the level of risk faced by the average gay person in the country, he took a surprisingly categorical stance. It wasn’t one I expected living in Kenya and knowing that organisations in Nairobi, including the UNHCR, had all registered a dramatic escalation in the number of Ugandans arriving in Kenya claiming persecution because of their sexuality – a state of affairs that created the impression that Uganda must be completely unsafe.
‘‘Uganda is not the worst place to live as a gay person,’’ Sandra said.
That said, and a lot of context building later, Sandra made it clear that of course circumstances change from person to person. He conceded that those living public lives as members of the Ugandan LGBTI movement can often do so because of the neighbourhoods where they live, the jobs they keep, the families they come from, the friends they maintain, the places they choose to hang out, and so on. But the thing that needed noting, according to him, was that the LGBTI population can’t ask to live a separate life from that lived by any other Ugandan. What he meant, he explained, was that there would be the challenges they shared with other Ugandans, the conditions of life that were not about their sexuality. He said, there are Ugandans who live in worse off conditions than their LGBTI compatriots who are suspected of now fleeing for economic reasons.
‘‘We have rich and poor Ugandans, and LGBTI Ugandans can be either of the two. We have genuine cases needing assistance but everyone cannot now say being gay in Uganda is an automatic death sentence. I am a proud Ugandan. I love my country. I vote. I pay tax. I live like any other Ugandan. We have our challenges as a country. But Uganda is not the worst place to live in whether one is gay or not,’’ Sandra said.
A few days later, I sought out Richard Lusimbo, Research and Documentation Manager at Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) Uganda’s umbrella LGBTI organisation. I told him about my Sunday night escapades, asking him to enlighten me as to how gay Ugandans regularly have a night out at a known location, without anyone showing up and throwing them into police trucks.
Richard told me the Ugandan LGBTI movement had progressively built political capital and as such, concessions have been made in some places for things like Sunday night to happen. The concessions are made in backrooms, he said, because at the end of the day gay Ugandans are Ugandan citizens who can be given a hearing in any office. Not that things are always smooth. He was just back from Mbarara in Western Uganda where a group of nine men had been arrested on suspicion of being gay. They had been paraded and ridiculed, and while in police custody and forcibly subjected to HIV/AIDS testing and compulsory anal testing – supposedly to confirm whether they were gay.
This is how fluid things are in Uganda. The ground can shift fast from the Sunday night party to the Tuesday morning report of violations.
Richard told me it was unfortunate that hoards of Ugandans were fleeing into Kenya and having to put up with deplorable conditions. He and his colleague and fellow firefighter Douglas Mawidra, SMUG’s Human Rights Officer, strongly believe no Ugandan should have to flee their home because of their sexuality. SMUG (as the umbrella LGBTI organization) has never suggested that anyone should leave the country; it prioritizes homegrown solutions, building systems to make LGBTI Ugandans secure and fighting homophobia.
They told me those who choose to flee do so on their own volition without the prompting of any organisation, since asylum seeking is a legal process that may be pursued by any individual who believes they’re facing persecution. However SMUG has responded to the growing exodus with REACT (Rights, Evidence and Action), an emergency response service to answer distress calls from anywhere in the country. They promise to respond to these calls in less than 24 hours. This is in part a response to the impression created, amid growing claims of persecution and evidence of migration, that there are no comprehensive local interventions in Uganda to assist those in need.
I am trying to resolve the conflict in my mind, comparing the Sunday night party with Tuesday morning’s reports of harassment in Mbarara, and find myself standing between two compelling realities. On the one hand here are individuals who can party at the nightclub in Kampala and on the other there are men persecuted for the mere suggestion that they might be gay. There were other conversations I’d had in both Nairobi and Kampala that offered similarly diverse perspectives. One couldn’t sum the situation up.
I put my dilemma on the situation in Uganda to SMUG’s Richard Lusimbo. He responded by quoting Dr. Frank Mugisha, SMUG’s Executive Director – who was out of the country when I visited.
‘‘Uganda is like the weather. Today can be sunny. Tomorrow can be rainy. You can never tell.’’
 In January 2015 the UNHCR sent out to its NGO partner organizations a document titled ‘‘the updated UNHCR 5 Key Messages 2015” detailing its five point positions on key issues affecting LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya, with a particular focus on the Ugandans and how the organisation had decided to handle their caseload.
 The Uganda Anti Homosexuality Act – which criminalised same sex relations and proposed life imprisonment and penalties for individuals, companies, media/other organisations supporting homosexual people – was passed in December 2013 by the Ugandan parliament. The Act was struck down by the Constitutional Court of Uganda in August 2014.Read part 2
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