Why Gay Pride Celebrations In Uganda Were Discreet

Gay pride celebrations are held loudly each summer in New York, Paris and Berlin. But when Uganda held its version of the event this weekend, it was done very privately. It came as the Ugandan parliament considers a piece of extremely anti-gay legislation, and as discrimination against gays is widespread

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Gay pride celebrations around the world are all about proclaiming loudly: I'm out and I'm proud. The celebration in Uganda is quite a bit more discreet. There discrimination against gays is widespread and widely accepted. Uganda's parliament is lingering over a long-debated piece of legislation that's extremely anti-gay, all of which didn't stop the festivities entirely. NPR's Gregory Warner sent us this postcard from the week-long Uganda Pride.

GREG WARNER, BYLINE: Rule number one of Uganda Pride: No wigs, makeup, or rainbow flags until you get to the designated private meet-up spot. Rule number two...

PEPE JULIAN ONZIEMA: Flamboyance has to be under control. Don't go kissing in public places...

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Wait, no kissing. That's so much a part of pride.

ONZIEMA: I know. But...

(LAUGHTER)

ONZIEMA: ...that normally offends people here.

WARNER: Pepe Julian Onziema is a transgender man and one of the organizers of Pride. We met at a Pride event held in a secret location on the outskirts of Kampala, the far outskirts where you find bulldozers filling in swampland. In a country where homophobic attacks are common, this discretion is a safety measure but not only that. There's also a sliver of optimism that someday the LGBT community will find its place in straight-laced Ugandan society.

ONZIEMA: We're basically tailoring it to a Ugandan Pride. I mean we want to be accepted. At the same time we want to be ourselves.

WARNER: The modern gay movement in Uganda arose in response to The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, its actual name. The bill not only targets gays and lesbians but holds a three-year jail sentence for anyone who fails to tell authorities, within 24 hours, that someone they know is gay. That obligates teachers, landlords, friends and relatives.

The bill, introduced in 2011, was allowed to expire without a vote. But it was reintroduced into parliament in November 2012 as a so-called Christmas present to Ugandans. Yet it still hasn't come up for a vote and there are signs that it may not. The police, for instance, know that this Pride Week is going on.

And so the government knows you're here.

ONZIEMA: In a way you would say so because the police knows that we're here.

(LAUGHTER)

WARNER: I should mention that Pepe is clothed in the silken robes of a Ugandan prince. The theme is culture. Around me are people dressed and cross-dressed as Maasai warriors, Ugandan brides, a Nigerian tribal chief and one Dutch pilgrim.

FRANK VAN DALEN: Hello, (Foreign language spoken) Nice to meet you.

WARNER: Frank van Dalen is an activist from Holland for the global Pride movement. He came to size up the status of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

DALEN: I talked with politicians, local political parties, a lot of activists. And in general the opinion is that the bill will not be put into a vote.

WARNER: Mostly because so many countries have threatened to cut their foreign aid, that it would be economic suicide for Uganda if it does. So now people here are asking themselves how to carve out a niche of acceptance in a place where gays are routinely fired from jobs, expelled from schools, kicked out of their own families.

PETER: I want to be a gay priest.

WARNER: You want to be a gay priest?

PETER: Yes, that's what I want to go study.

WARNER: Peter who, like many people here declined to give his last name, says that he wants to preach tolerance as a celibate, gay, Catholic priest in one of the most church-going societies in Africa. I heard a version of this story from law students, NGO workers, merchants all fearful of being outed too soon, but marking private victories with every straight friend they confide in.

A particularly remarkable version of this story was told to me by John Wambere Abdullah, known in these circles by a nickname....

JOHN WAMBERE ABDULLAH: Long Jones from Uganda, gay activist and human rights defender.

WARNER: And tour guide.

ABDULLAH: And a tour guide.

(LAUGHTER)

WARNER: His two identities collided in February. He was forcibly outed by an anti-gay tabloid. Seventy-five percent of his clients dropped him cold. But he also had received a call from the Uganda Tourism Board. It was getting angry emails from Westerners threatening to avoid Uganda because of its anti-gay bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE DOOR)

WARNER: Long Jones at the time was shuttling clients around Kampala trying to support his daughter and his four nephews.

ABDULLAH: I remember he told me: Respond to these emails and let me know how it goes. So in my heart I was like, oh hell, it seems like the whole travel industry in Uganda knows I'm gay.

WARNER: Now he's running gay safaris and he's teaching tolerance to every driver he hires. He says it's only a matter of time - 15, 20 years - before Pride in Uganda doesn't have to hide its colors or its high heeled shoes.

Gregory Warner for NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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