Growing up gay in Western Uganda, Dismus K.A., 31, writes about his life experiences. With almost unprecedented Western media attention focusing on the violations of international obligations and constitutional commitments, it has become worryingly easy to forget the real people involved living in fear of imminent arrest, street harassment or violent abuse. Here I tell his story, as he experienced it.
I noticed my attractions to the same gender way back when I was still a young boy. I remember during the days of adolescence when they boys in my class would spend their time talking and fantasising about girls and women, but my attractions and feelings were totally different from theirs, and that’s when I first began to understand my sexual inclination. I kept my sexuality a secret; those of my family that I did feel safe to confide my sexuality in did not want others to find out, being different to others was ungodly even, which made it very hard for to tell others about my feelings.
In early 2000 the Internet was slowly becoming popular and accessible in Uganda; it was during this time that I first stumbled on to a website called Gay Uganda Geocities, which had listed contact emails and phone numbers of LGBTQ Ugandans. It was like I had found my safe haven on earth, after being alone for so long I had finally found a family that shared the same feelings as me and we were comfortable expressing our true selves for the first time.
After my university studies I worked for an organisation in Kampala, the capital city, but I missed my hometown and decided to move back and look for work there. It did not take too long to establish myself and I made a few friends, but not long after this a friend within our LGBTQ community was evicted from his home because of his sexuality. We tried to help as best we could and gathered resources to help him find somewhere else to live, and this was the start of my LGBTQ activism.
My friends and I in the LGBTQ community used to meet for drinks and round table discussions, just socially at first but after a while a pattern formed and discussions would always revert to serious matters about the issues that affected our community. We began to think of ways to respond to the problems we faced together and we formed a self-help group, which later turned in to a community-based organisation. The organisation was called the RHFM and it focused on providing health care and safe spaces for LGBTQ people in rural western Uganda. We had our own premises and we invested much of our time and efforts into it. It was one of very few LGBTQ organisations, in fact the only one operating in rural areas in Uganda, and we had very limited funds to manage with, but we continued to do so and we helped our community as best we could.
From 2009 we knew that our country was moving in a more homophobic direction, although anti-homosexual laws have been enshrined within our constitution since British colonialism there was a huge surge in the passion and hate surrounding homosexuals, pushed to a whole new level by fundamental Evangelists from America. They used daily radio programmes to tell the public how ‘unnatural’ it is to be a homosexual, claiming it was ungodly and instilling hate and homophobia all across our beautiful nation of Uganda. We knew that one day an anti-homosexual law that aimed to further criminalise and stigmatise us would eventually pass, but nothing could have prepared us enough for this.
Life since the bill passed has changed drastically; living in my hometown is no longer possible, I have lost my home, my job and many friends, but worst of all my freedom of life has been taken away from me, because living in constant fear is not living at all. It is very sad for me to have had to leave the place and people I treasured so much.
A few days after President Museveni assented his signature on to the anti-homosexuality bill into law I received a phone call from a friend in the early hours of the morning. “Yeah… you are the front page on the national tabloid Red Pepper”. It was 6:30am and from deep sleep I did not really understand what we were discussing and I sarcastically asked when I became a celebrity and that I could not remember playing any lottery games or anything of the sort where I could have such big money to be on such a tabloid. But he insisted, “Dismus, you are on the front page, your name your age and your photo, under the title ‘How We Became Homos’”.
At this point I wanted the world to open and consume me right there, my mind felt like it was blowing up inside of my head as I ran to log on to the internet, and there I was, a local down to earth simple man on the front page of the newspapers, imagine my shock and disappointment? A hundred million thoughts ran through my head as I stared back at the headline again in huge block capital letters.
I thought back to my earlier days in secondary school, how I used to pray and cry the whole night to the almighty God to change these feelings, how I would pray to him to make me heterosexual. All of my feelings of pain, anger and despair came back, they say history repeats itself and I had tried suicide before, but this is no longer an option. I am ready to serve my time behind bars if that’s what it costs to be myself. I have received emails, texts and other online communications mixed with both supportive messages as well as terrible threats. On a social platform of my old boys school association I was the only topic of conversation for over a week, degrading comments and shameful name-calling, all from the boys I grew up with.
Where do I run to, where do I go? What will life be like? These questions of uncertainty are haunting me. I have worked all of my life to get to a better place and to have a better life, and to also help others rise, and now all of this is in pieces. RHFM, our LGBTQ organisation, is illegal by the new law and its members have disbanded and are hiding, fearful of arrest or persecution. I am scared and confused and perplexed, and I am trying hard to look for alternative residence in more liberal countries where I do not have to hide my sexuality or fear for my safety. I know the success rate is not great, but I will try, and if I fail then adapting to hide and seek inside Uganda will be the order of the day. I think it will take many, many years for LGBTQ rights to ever be respected in Uganda because even a child that was born today will have already begun to hear about the evils of homosexuality.
I am eternally grateful for the international support of Uganda’s LGBTQ communities, but I am wary of those cutting Aid to our country to punish the government. Most foreign missions in Uganda work to improve the standard of living, especially in those rural areas that need it most, through provision of safe water, food security and medicines. After my experiences working within the LGBTQ community in rural and hard to reach areas I totally understand what it means to be living below the poverty line, and I know how important international financial assistance is to these people. I believe the only Aid that should be cut is the financing of political elite and their agendas, elsewhere these cuts will only cause more damage.
If the rest of the world wants to help Uganda’s LGBTQ communities they need to open their doors to people that are in need, soften some of your policies and support organisations that continue to fight for our safety and security within Uganda. We have over 30 LGBTQ organisations, they may be harder to find now but try and make a connection with at least one, work closely with them to give them the support that they can only get from outside of Uganda now, and you will truly be able help change a lot of peoples lives for the better.
After all of this the saying ‘Live every day like it’s your last’ has so much great meaning for me. With no place I can call home, no work and nowhere to run to, I am desperate for a change to come.
Image – D. David Robinson