For gays in Uganda, a growing struggle
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.”