Relatives and friends of gays hope that this law will pass them by

The father of a gay son in Makindye refuses to speak about him or the recently passed Anti- Homosexuality Bill. Another gay man’s mother is planning to send him out of the country ‘to keep the rest of the family safe.’ A landlord has felt forced to add a ‘homosexuals not encouraged’ clause to his rental contracts ‘just so that I have a way out’. And the straight partner of transgender Mercy* is in agony because Mercy may leave the country, too. It’s not just gays that are affected by the new laws in Uganda.

The family house of John Wandereba sits atop a hill overlooking Kampala city. From his veranda, the view of the city is beautiful and welcoming and even the short slope down to the gate and back up is pleasant. Every evening, for the last three years, John Wandereba had been taking evening walks together with his daughter Tina. But this has been halted since President Yoweri Museveni signed the anti-homosexuality bill into law.  Tina is gay.

Dad or mum could get arrested

"She is lovely and kind, I don't understand why you people think she is abnormal," says the family domestic worker, shaking her head as she serves freshly made orange juice, Tina's favourite. Tina broke the news that she was gay to her father when she was nineteen years old. Eight years later, her parents have come to accept her sexual orientation towards fellow females. But ever since the anti-gay law came into being, Tina and her father no longer go for evening walks. They now spend the evening talking and jogging within their compound. Tina has not been to work or out of the home for a week now. "I asked for leave from work just as a safety measure."

The new law requires all Ugandan citizens to report ‘gay acts’ and forbids use of any premises for ‘gay activities’. This means that Tina can no longer bring any friends home.

"Only those with gay children can understand my pain"

“Our compound is big and secure and my friends love it for the view of the city,” she sighs.“ But now imagine, my dad or mummy can get arrested for this. For me having fun with friends. That is not funny at all.” Tina's father is hesitant to share his thoughts, saying few would understand him. "Only those with gay children can understand my pain. And those are few, so I see no point speaking about it. It’s law already."

Panic mode

A mere five kilometres away, in the middle income neighbourhood of Makindye, lives a retired civil servant with twelve children. His son, David*(37), the fourth born in the family, is gay. David professed this to his parents when he was twenty nine.  "He first confided in mummy, then later our elder brother. Dad was in total shock when he was told. For a long time, he did not say a word. And though we have accepted it, we still don't talk about it in the family," says his younger brother Tonny*, adding: "When the President signed the Bill, my mum went into a panic mode because she could not get hold of David.  She only calmed down when I reassured her that he was with me."

His family loves David. “He is kind and helps many. We run to him whenever we need a solution to any problem,” reflects Tonny*, who is now supervising his brothers business in Kampala city. "It was never a problem for us when David hosts his friends in the house. We treat them as normal people, which is what they are.” Tonny feels the new law is unfair. “I don’t think we should dictate one’s life. David did not choose to be that way. He is like that by nature.”

The family has dealt with the general fear of homosexuality in Ugandan society as well as they could. Tonny: “Our family is liberal and we accepted David and his friends. But none of us has ever told his teenage daughter about it. Mum always stops him from visiting his daughter who is at a boarding school. She says she is doing it to protect her from being ridiculed at school.”

Nevertheless, friends and neighbours have grown more understanding over the years. Neighbour Mike Ssemanbo (34) tells me he befriended the family ‘out of curiosity’, and even if he still finds it ‘difficult to accept’, he understands them now. Mike or any of the other neighbours would never hurt David; they are simply curious, and they leave it at that. “We have another neighbour who is a medical doctor. We always call him in case of emergencies and he has never shown any resentment towards us,” says Tonny.

But David is gone now. Into hiding, or out of the country. The family doesn’t know. "He was loud and his absence is loud”, says Tonny. “We miss him."

Keeping the family safe

In yet another suburb, a mother of a 26-year old gay son is planning to send him out of the country, too. “The intention of this law is to deny gay people the right to set up homes. But it is doing more than that. It is affecting families”, she says. She explains that she has to send her son away to “keep the rest of the family safe.”

Mercy, a transgender activist, was cut off too. She received a Whats App message from her cousin a day after the Bill became law, asking her to “either leave the country or distance myself from the family to avoid any problems with the government." It’s difficult thing to accept, she says sadly, “seeing how much they supported me before this.”

Mercy’s boyfriend Nathan* is heterosexual and in turmoil. He frowns whenever his girlfriend’s homosexual friend makes advances at him and, he says, he “still struggles to fully appreciate gay acts.” But he cares for and loves Mercy, his transgender girlfriend.

"I cannot date a homosexual but yet I love this one."

“I have been trying to understand myself,” he confesses. “I cannot date a homosexual but yet I love this one for a long time already. I have been trying to understand that dilemma and am still seeking answers.” His greatest fear at the moment is losing Mercy. “I fear that she might move out of the house and never return,” he says. “I fear that I will hear that she is in jail or even out of the country.”

Among the relatives, neighbours, friends and other loved ones of gay people in Uganda, there are also those who shrug their shoulders and say it will pass. “Every struggle has its own time. Each generation cycle has its own time; right now it’s the gay movement,” says Jacky Kwesiga, a human rights activist.

Feeling bad about ‘gayism’

For now, in Kampala in 2014, even among those who feel that homosexuality isn’t right, you find many who declare that they wouldn’t, actually, want to see gay people hurt or in jail.

Liz Naturinda would not report anyone to the police

Liz Naturinda, for example, professes to ‘detest’ homosexuality, but she “would not report anyone to the police” if they were gay. She would even rent a house to a gay person, she says. “As long as they pay (rent) in time, that's all that matters. I actually feel bad about gayism but I don’t have a right to seclude them, because I believe that they might have learnt it at a much younger age and have no control over the habit.”

When asked if he would report or evict gay people, Dick Nuvle, a professional working in Kampala and a landlord said: “That would be poking my nose into people's private lives. But I would have a disclaimer on my ‘should know’ list that gays are not encouraged to apply for rental of my houses. This just so that I have a way out.” And fellow landlord Anthony Bugembe: “I would have no problem renting out premises to a gay person. Provided they keep their actions or activities indoors and provided those activities do not disrupt the peace of my other tenants.” He said he would never report a gay relative to the police. “Despite being gay, that person remains my relative.”

A group of youth

But not all Ugandans are reluctant to ‘poke into private lives’. Evictions by enraged mobs have already happened. In early March, a young man called Peter was evicted from his house in the Kampala suburb of Rubaga by his landlord and ‘a group of youth.’ Peter had lived in the house for two years, but as soon as the new law was in place, the landlord and his young friends from the neighbourhood ‘thought they had the powers’ to evict him. A notice of eviction, written by the landlord and copied to the area Local Council Chairman and the police, asked him to leave the house immediately. Douglas Musungu, a friend of Peter, recalls that 'The landlord then arrived at the house together with the youth who forced their way in and started throwing Peter’s property out.”

According to Douglas, the eviction was violent, but the Local Council Chairman and the police ‘only stood and watched.’ “Police later acted only to rescue him from the violent guys, but they did not stop the eviction.” Douglas and a female friend who pretended to be his girlfriend returned to the house the following day to salvage some of Peter's household items.

In many other suburbs of Kampala, human rights organisations say, police have been searching houses of gay people without a warrant in the weeks after the Bill was passed

Stigma and hostility

Generally, the more affluent and middle class sections of society are more tolerant of gay people than those in low-income suburb and shantytowns. Less understanding families have disowned their gay children. “To them, I don’t exist anymore,” says an openly gay acquaintance. A call made to his mother to ask her for her views, was met with “I have nothing to say,” before she hung up.

In the two weeks after the Bill, five gay people were disowned by their families

Records at the advocacy group Sexual Minorities Uganda indicate that in the two weeks immediately after the bill was passed, five gay people reported having been disowned by their families for fear of a backlash from the community. Several reported having been evicted from rented homes in the Kampala suburbs. Human rights activists also say they are receiving more cases of harassment since the bill was signed.

And though some reports of death threats are yet to be proven, they have increased to about three to four a day from the previous time, of nothing in a week or even months.

"When people don't understand something, they attach stigma to it."

Human rights advocate Jacky Kwesiga explains that the resentment is caused not only by cultural and religious beliefs, but stigma associated with it. “When people don’t understand something, they attach stigma to it. Ugandans first responded to HIV/AIDS victims with stigma and hostility, it’s the same thing here.”

Part of the stigma is the belief that homosexuals are ‘after children’. Some of those supporting the Anti-Homosexuality Act talk of cases of sexual abuse by men, or older boys, of younger boys (whilst often forgetting to be as outraged about sexual abuse and rape of girls, BA) A landlady called Lydia Gloria narrated how her brother left a boys’ only school because ‘the older boys wanted to use his bum’. She added that she would therefore not rent a house to ‘such a person’, for the ‘safety of the young generation’. Because of the confusion between homosexuality and paedophilia, gay activists and their loved ones see themselves forced to explain, many times over, that they do support laws that protect children (girls as well as boys) from sexual and other abuse.

Respected human rights lawyer Ladislus Rwakafuzi, who has represented gay persons who experienced harassment before, says that the Anti- Homosexuality Act “conflicts with privacy law. How do you prove that a person is homosexual? When you can only get evidence from an act involving two people in their private room?” he asks. He also points out that implementation of the Act would conflict with Constitutional provisions for fundamental rights and freedoms. Earlier judgements in Uganda have already upheld relevant articles of the Constitution as applying to all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

Update: the Ugandan Constitutional Court has recently annulled the Anti Homosexuality Bill on procedural grounds. So far, the Bill's supporters have not introduced a new Bill.

*Names of individuals changed for safety reasons at their request

Barbara Among (1982) is a reporter and investigative journalist covering conflict, human rights, terrorism, politics, business, health and environment. She works on a free-lance basis with The East African newspaper.

The picture above by Barbara Among shows gay rights activists challenging the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda's Constitutional Court.