'Call Me Kuchu': Uganda's Secret Gay Community

One of the front page stories published by Ugandan newspaper The Rolling Stone, which terrorized the LGBT community. i i

hide captionOne of the front page stories published by Ugandan newspaper The Rolling Stone, which terrorized the LGBT community.

Katherine Fairfax Wright/Courtesy of 'Call Me Kuchu'
One of the front page stories published by Ugandan newspaper The Rolling Stone, which terrorized the LGBT community.

One of the front page stories published by Ugandan newspaper The Rolling Stone, which terrorized the LGBT community.

Katherine Fairfax Wright/Courtesy of 'Call Me Kuchu'

When Ugandan lawmakers introduced an anti-homosexuality bill in 2009, it called for the death penalty for "serial offenders." That legislation failed, but a new version was reintroduced in 2012 in an effort to further criminalize same-sex relations in a country where homosexuality is already illegal. The bills have drawn loud and widespread condemnation from much of the international community, particularly after the brutal death of openly gay activist Davdi Kato.

Filmmakers Katherine Fairfax-Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall gained access to Uganda's secretive LGBT community for their documentary film, Call Me Kuchu. The pair follow a group of gay women and men — derogatorily called "Kuchus" — lead by Kato, as he fights to repeal the country's anti-gay laws and as they rail against the ongoing, sometimes violent, persecution.

NPR's Neal Conan wraps up a two-part series on the American Film Institute's Silverdocs Film Festival with Malika Zouhali-Worrall, the producer and co-director of Call Me Kuchu, and one of the film's subjects, John "Long Jones" Abdallah Wambere.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

In 2009, Ugandan lawmakers introduced a harsh anti-homosexuality bill that called for the death penalty for serial offenders and three years in jail for anyone who failed to report a homosexual to the police. That legislation didn't pass, but a new version was introduced earlier this year. The bills have drawn widespread condemnation from much of the world, particularly after the brutal murder of gay activist David Kato.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CALL ME KUCHU")

DAVID KATO: I'm the first gay man to be open in Uganda - the very first gay man.

CONAN: Filmmakers Katherine Fairfax-Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall gained access to Uganda's LGBT community and made a documentary film, "Call Me Kuchu." They follow a group of gay women and men, led by David Kato, as they fight persecution. Today, we wrap up our two-part series on the American Film Institute's Silverdocs Film Festival here in the Washington, D.C. area with the film "Call Me Kuchu." And Malika Zouhali-Worrall is the producer and co-director of "Call Me Kuchu." She joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.

MALIKA ZOUHALI-WORRALL: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And also with us is gay rights activist John Abdallah Wambere or Long Jones, as he's called in the movie. And it's nice to have you here as well.

JOHN ABDALLAH WAMBERE: Thank you for hosting me.

CONAN: And Long Jones, tell us about that name, kuchu. What does it mean?

WAMBERE: Actually, we - a group of gay men traveled to Kenya, and there was this group of people who used to call themselves makuchu. When they came back to Uganda, we were sitting at one of the gay bars - friendly gay bars, actually, and we thought we needed to have a name to identify ourselves with because the word gay homosexual was sounding a bit not friendly in our ears and maybe also - the community basically knew about it so much. So we decided to leave out M-A and remained with the word kuchu, and that's how the word kuchu came up as an identity of ourselves.

CONAN: And David Kato, tell us about him.

WAMBERE: David Kato was a friend to me and an activist, and he was this kind of person who would forego anything for the sake of security and safety of the LGBT community in Uganda. He was so dedicated and very determined to fight the harsh laws that exist - the penal code that exists and have the decriminalization of the laws that are enforced on the gay people.

CONAN: Malika Zouhali-Worrall, we meet him in your film, and he seems like a very nice man.

ZOUHALI-WORRALL: Yeah. He was an incredible man. He - we actually first met him predominantly as an activist. He's one of the first people we spoke with. As we were researching the film, we spoke with him by phone from the U.S., where we're based. And then when we went to Uganda, he was the first person we met with. He basically introduced us to the whole community. And then over the course of filming, we slowly started to realize that he wasn't only our media liaison or our fixer, but he's also the - he was actually the protagonist of the film.

And we got to know him, and we do - did everything we could to show this in the film, and we hope we succeeded in this. But we got to know him both as an activist but also as a very good friend and a really fun guy in a lot of ways but also a very passionate man.

CONAN: You - we meet not just him and Long Jones in the movie and the other members of the LGBT community, but we also meet those who are passionately on the other side, including - I found it astonishing the editor of a newspaper called Rolling Stone - no connection to the American publication of the same name by a long shot...

ZOUHALI-WORRALL: Yeah.

CONAN: ...and this was a man who was talked - after David Kato was bludgeoned to death, murdered in his own bed with a hammer, some in Uganda believe justice had been served, and this editor made that same argument.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CALL ME KUCHU")

GILES MUHAME: (as himself) (Unintelligible) but we didn't advocate for the violence against David Kato. We said this man should be arrested, tried, sentenced, hanged (unintelligible) he don't even repent...

CONAN: Tried, sentenced and hanged.

ZOUHALI-WORRALL: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah, that's what Giles believed needed to happen and what a number of Ugandan legislators and others had - were pushing for and still are pushing for, so this anti-homosexuality bill that was introduced in late 2009, which basically proposed death sentence for HIV positive gay men and a prison sentence for anyone who failed even to turn in a gay person...

CONAN: Within 24 hours.

ZOUHALI-WORRALL: ...within 24 hours, yeah, yeah. A pretty incredibly draconian bill. And that bill, even though in our film we followed David as he worked to fight that bill over the course of a year, and then after he died we followed the rest of the activist community as they did the same, and the bill actually failed to pass the first time around. That was back in 2010. But now it has been reintroduced, and so that was back in - sorry - that was actually in 2011, that failed to pass. But now it's been reintroduced and the community is having to fight anew.

CONAN: And has anyone ever been charged with the murder of David Kato?

ZOUHALI-WORRALL: Yeah, yeah. And one man has been charged and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison, although Long Jones can probably speak to this, but I think there's a bit of a feeling within the community that - the community isn't entirely satisfied, I guess, because the trial happened very, very quickly. The folks representing David were barely involved, and there was a bit of a sense that the government just wanted to get it done and out of the way.

CONAN: To find a scapegoat and get the issue over and done with.

WAMBERE: We put those into a proper investigation carried out, because in the first place, actually, when David was murdered, the hammer that was used to murder him, by the time we go to the scene, had been taken away. So that means evidence had been tampered with. In most cases (unintelligible) people are murdered or issues happened, and then the government brings in high-tech investigation like sniffer dogs and all this kind of thing, such things are not carried out in the process of David's investigation.

And also, the fact that the ruling was done so quick a manner that even the lawyer who was supposed to be the lawyer who was representing the community at that time was not in court for the ruling, so we think. But at the end of it all, the lawyer tells us that it was - it wasn't biased ruling so - because the guy had committed some crimes before, so...

CONAN: The newspapers I mentioned earlier, Rolling Stone - again, no connection to the American publication of the same name - they published issue after issue, with pictures of people they said were gay, homosexuals - homos, as they call them in the headlines.

WAMBERE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.

CONAN: You knew people whose pictures appeared.

WAMBERE: I did.

CONAN: What is that - what was that like?

WAMBERE: It caused more threat to the people themselves who were published in the papers, and there was a lot of security attention in the gay community in that people had to move as quick as possible...

CONAN: Because they published their addresses as well.

WAMBERE: Exactly. So some had to be moved from their residences to hotels for a while as they seek them, to find new homes or new locations, basically. So they all left their original places of abode.

CONAN: The last thing that David Kato says in your film is, in fact, there will always be a safe house here for people - for LGBT people who are in fear of their lives.

ZOUHALI-WORRALL: Yeah. I mean, his last words in the film are basically - and they actually come after the credits - we wanted to give him an opportunity to have the last words, ultimately - and yeah, he basically says they tried to get rid of us, but - and they wanted to pretend that we're not here, but we are here.

CONAN: And Long Jones, your picture is on that paper.

WAMBERE: My picture was not in the Rolling Stone, but my picture had come out earlier in the Red Pepper, actually, which was the very first newspaper that was publishing and outing gays.

CONAN: And at that point you had to feel that your life was at risk.

WAMBERE: Exactly. My life has been at risk, and sometimes I have to really keep indoors and not really have to go out to work or do anything else, so...

CONAN: There is another case that David Kato pursues to try - an injunction to shut down that newspapers' program of publishing those pictures. In the course of doing that, of course, he and others identify themselves.

ZOUHALI-WORRALL: Yeah. And David himself was already pretty out and well-known by that point and - but there were definitely - and I think the two other plaintiffs that he brought the case with were also pretty well-known activists as well at that point. But there was a sense that every time there was a hearing, a group of the activists would go together to the court in solidarity. And there was a lot of media that would be there, a lot of Ugandan TV and newspaper journalists, and yeah, those people who would even just be sitting in court would end up on TV. And you know, there was a feeling that that started to jeopardize some people's security, and the same thing happened at David's funeral, which was an incredibly intense and emotional and traumatizing moment. And a lot of the activist community really came out to represent their community at the funeral. And again, it was very heavily covered by the Ugandan media. And after that, there were a number of people who had to relocate or even lost their jobs as a result of being seen - just by association, being seen at David's...

CONAN: A traumatizing moment in no small part because a minister erupts at the funeral and denounces David Kato and homosexuality.

ZOUHALI-WORRALL: Yeah. I mean, Long Jones was there so he could probably...

WAMBERE: Actually, he uses - he says that group must repent and that group must be - must vanish - actually, must be wiped out completely, which sends out a message that homosexuality has to be dealt with or the people have to be killed to totally get rid of it.

ZOUHALI-WORRALL: And he was a family pastor. He was very close to David's family, but he decided to take that moment to tell everyone there that the LGBT community had to be destroyed.

CONAN: We're talking with Malika Zouhali-Worrall, producer and co-director of the documentary "Call Me Kuchu," featured at the American Film Institute's Silverdocs Film Festival this week at the AFI Silver Theater in the greater Washington area. Also with us, Long Jones, a gay rights activist in Uganda, one of the subjects of the film. David Kato is also featured prominently in the movie before he was murdered. He spoke with NPR's TELL ME MORE. We've posted a link to that interview at our website. Go to npr.org. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

There is also some scenes of American evangelicals who go to Uganda. And this is - many people from that country, deeply religious, and that's reflected in the influence of American evangelicals who are also pushing the anti-homosexuality bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CALL ME KUCHU")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I know that homosexual agenda is sweeping into our education system. The parents are losing their rights over the education of their children, but I believe Uganda has suddenly become ground zero. God wants you to make a statement and stand for righteousness.

CONAN: How - this is, in part, a holdover of colonial days. The anti-homosexuality laws were brought in by the British, who, of course, had them in Britain at that time too. The British left. They changed their laws. These laws are getting tighter and tighter in a country like Uganda, and this religious influence seems to be exacerbating the situation.

ZOUHALI-WORRALL: Yes, definitely. So, yes, so Uganda has had sodomy laws on the books, as you say, since the British were there. And there is a pretty strong sense that it's really only in the last five to 10 years that LGBT people have actually really started to feel the extreme persecution that we're seeing today, so a relatively recent thing. And even the sodomy laws being enforced to the extent that they are today, again, has only really happened in the last few years. And that's largely a result of the influence of fundamentalist Christians in Uganda.

And you know, we definitely saw, and there had been a lot of connections drawn between American evangelicals who have gone there and to other countries around the world, and especially on the African continent, and essentially influenced these bills very similar to the anti-homosexuality bill, and the anti-homosexuality bill itself.

CONAN: There's a scene - Mr. Museveni, the president, says at a public meeting, says I get called by Hillary Clinton, and what she does want to talk to me? Gays. I get called by the foreign minister of Great Britain. What does he want to talk to me about? Gays. There's pressure on the government.

ZOUHALI-WORRALL: Yeah, there's a lot of pressure, and I think - and that's actually become, you know, ultimately that's a great thing, but it's definitely become a very sensitive area to tread, because what we've seen over the last year or two is that while that pressure, which ultimately is, in some cases is threatening - AIDS sanctions, for example - while, you know, that can be powerful, there have been other side effects, which is that some African leaders and especially members of parliament in Uganda feel very strongly that that's a form of the West imposing its own morals and its own ethics and its own values on the country. And it's very easy for them to spin that in a way that implies that, you know, kowtowing to their demands would be a form of accepting colonialism once again.

CONAN: Long Jones, how does this change? How does this get better?

WAMBERE: We really think that the international community just needs to continue their lobbying the Uganda government and bring it to reality that imposing such laws will not really be the solution, but to protect its citizens and not discriminate them(ph) .

CONAN: And are you going to go back?

WAMBERE: Yes, I'll be going back to Uganda. I know, even right now, to speak of this situation is not really that good because minister of ethics, Reverend Lokodo, has closed down another - has so far closed meetings for the human rights defenders. So that - that's giving another picture that the clergy actually called for the government to expedite the passing of the anti-homosexual bill.

So right now, at this moment (unintelligible) we really don't know what's going to really come out in the next couple of months or days.

CONAN: A report from Kampala yesterday in Uganda said that it was banning 38 non-governmental organizations it accuses of promoting homosexuality and recruiting children, and that's the accusation we hear all the time from the - that they are recruiting children to their - to their cause.

ZOUHALI-WORRALL: Yeah. No, exactly. And recruitment and even supposed promotion of homosexuality is the rhetoric that's really used to try to shut down these organizations that are essentially, for the most part, human rights-defending organizations or grassroots organizations such as the work Long Jones does to support the community, whether it's through HIV-AIDS outreach or anything else. So it's scary rhetoric and it's actually very powerful. And as Long Jones said, right now there's - it's a very tense situation there.

CONAN: Malika Zouhali-Worrall is a journalist and co-creator of the documentary, "Call Me Kuchu," featured at the American Film Institute's Silverdocs Film Festival here in the Washington D.C. area. Long Jones is an activist for gay rights in Uganda. They both joined us here in Studio 3A. Thank you very much. Long Jones, good luck, thank you.

WAMBERE: Thank you.

ZOUHALI-WORRALL: Thank you.

CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here for a look at China's space program. Can American keep up? It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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