For gays in Uganda, a growing struggle

  • Leticia (nickname) and D. in front of the office of their LGBT organization in Kampala, Uganda, April 10, 2014. To protect their identities, real names and precise locations have been withheld.
  • M., 24, is a student in Kampala, Uganda, in the house he rented with four other gay activists. "We chose this house because of its high walls. We are afraid about the situation here against the LGBT community," he said, "and those walls protect us and our privacy."
  • On February 24, 2014, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which strengthened penalties for same-sex activity. Under the new law, those convicted of same-sex activities such as entering into same-sex marriage or having sex repeatedly with a person of the same gender face life imprisonment. Since then, life has changed dramatically for the country’s gay and lesbian community, forcing them to live deeper in the shadows and in greater fear for their safety. On weekends, middle-class members of the LGBT community in Kampala try to break their isolation at home by attending safe places such as those managed by relatives, trusted friends, or meeting places frequented by Westerners. Unfortunately, many of these locations are only accessible to those with a certain level of economic status. April 6, 2014.
  • K., 27, an LGBT activist, in his home in Kampala, Uganda, on April 5, 2014.
  • S., 30, an LGBT activist in Kampala, Uganda, on April 10, 2014.
  • Following passage of the harsher laws against gay and lesbian Ugandans, major tabloids in Uganda such as Red Pepper, Hello, and The Sun, have been posting pictures of hundreds of suspected homosexuals and LGBT activists. Photo taken on April 7, 2014.
  • L., 27, and A., 24, in their home in Kampala, Uganda, on April 6, 2014.
  • Leticia (nickname), 28, in Kampala, Uganda.
  • The Anti-Homosexuality Act that President Yoweri Museveni signed in February has had the insidious effect of increased discrimination and violence against the LGBT community in Uganda, one now seemingly sanctioned by the country's government.
  • Some gays and lesbians have decided to flee; and those who have chosen to stay feel greater fear than before and largely stay indoors, hidden from sight. Those who can afford it try to escape their seclusion on weekends by visiting friends and family outside their normally isolated surroundings.
  • D., 24, an LGBT activist, in Kampala, Uganda, on April 6, 2014.
  • Leticia (nickname), 28, in Kampala, Uganda. Since Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act – formerly (and informally) known as the “Kill the Gays bill” - fear among the LGBT community has spiked.
  • K., 34, is an LGBT activist in Kampala, Uganda. "From February 24, 2014, our life has become very hard to live. Before, we were an underground community, but we were vibrant. Now we all have fear. Nobody wants to meet others, or even leave the house. We feel like prisoners. Sadly now I cannot see any light, but I do not want to leave my country. This is the most beautiful country that exists."
  • K., 27, and D., 24, in their home in Kampala, Uganda, on April 5, 2014.
  • K., 34, is an LGBT activist, in Kampala, Uganda. "Our life has become very hard to live.... but I do not want to leave my country. This is the most beautiful country that exists."
  • D., 24, in Kampala, Uganda, April 5, 2014.
  • D., 23, and B., 24, in Kampala, Uganda. The country's LGBT community has been forced even further underground due to increasingly harsh laws.
  • M., 24., and A., 22, in Kampala, Uganda, April 5, 2014.
  • According to a report compiled by the group, Sexual Minorities Uganda, anti-gay incidents have risen tenfold in recent months -- including an attempted lynching, mob violence, arson, blackmail, firings, arrests, evictions, and suicides.
  • Members of Uganda's LGBT community come together on weekends, a break from their isolated living situations in a country that has imposed even harsher sentences on homosexual acts.
  • K., 27, an LGBT activist in Kampala, Uganda, on April 3, 2014.
  • LGBT youth relax at sunset in Kampala, Uganda, on April 6, 2014, during a rare break from the isolation in which they live most of the time due to harsh laws and fervent anti-gay sentiment in the country. "In recent months, because of  fear and the inability to go out  even just to take a bus, alcoholism has increased greatly within the gay community," says photographer Aldo Soligno. "For many of them, it has become the only way to escape reality or to spend their time."
  • S., 30, an LGBT activist in Kampala, Uganda.
  • S., 30, an LGBT activist in Kampala, Uganda, on April 2, 2014.

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It was never easy being gay in Uganda. For decades, a colonial-era statute criminalized the act of homosexuality as an “unnatural offence,” one listed alongside having “carnal knowledge of an animal.” Anyone who entered into a gay relationship did so at the risk of formal prosecution and life imprisonment.

But it never came to that – until now.

In two weeks, 19-year-old Jackson Mukasa and 24-year-old Kim Mukisa will stand trial for engaging in acts “against the order of nature.” Theirs will be the first trial in the history of Uganda’s anti-gay laws, and, many fear, not the last.

Since President Yoweri Museveni signed Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act in February, life has changed dramatically for the country’s gay and lesbian community. The new law goes beyond existing measures, imposing life sentences for those who enter into a same-sex marriage or who engage in so-called “aggravated homosexuality” – which includes having sex either with a minor, while HIV-positive, or even just repeatedly with a person of the same gender.

But it also carries a more insidious effect. In the months surrounding the law’s passage, Uganda’s LGBT population has experienced a growing wave of discrimination and violence, one now seemingly sanctioned by the government’s policies. According to a report compiled by the group, Sexual Minorities Uganda, anti-gay incidents have risen tenfold in recent months – including an attempted lynching, mob violence, arson, blackmail, firings, arrests, evictions, and suicides.

Some gays and lesbians have decided to flee; others are choosing to stay, trapped indoors and inside a prison of fear.

“Before, we were an underground community, but at the same time we were vibrant, we were engaged,” photographer Aldo Soligno recalls a woman telling him while shooting in Kampala.

“Since the law passed, everything has changed,” she said to him. “Now we are scared to go out from our homes.”

The situation is far worse for lower-income gays and lesbians, Soligno told msnbc. Wealthier people can take cabs and spend their weekends at country clubs, free from the threat of violence and police raids that often accompany public transportation trips. “But if they don’t have this money,” Soligno said, “they can’t go outside.”

Inside, there are other dangers. Soligno said that many of his subjects suffer from alcoholism, a problem that didn’t exist for them before the law was passed.

“Six months ago, they didn’t used to drink beer or wine,” he said. “Now they have to spend all day long in their homes with the fear that someone can knock on their door and say, ‘You’re under arrest.’”

Even participating in Soligno’s photography project poses a risk. The ones who agreed to show their faces did so only because a local tabloid had already “outed” them in the immediate aftermath of the law’s passage, he said. They now walk a fine line between wanting the international community to see what they’re experiencing, and at the same time, knowing that change has to come from within.

When President Obama called the law “a step backward” in February, his remarks were met with defiance by a majority of Ugandans – 93% of whom believe that homosexuality is morally unacceptable, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Who is he to say something about our tradition?” Soligno said, describing the general reaction from the public.

“They don’t see this law as something against human rights,” he continued. “They see it as something that declares their tradition.”

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