Ugandan Civil Society Activist Speaks Out on LGBT Rights

September 28, 2012

The following text is edited from a longer interview conducted in Washington, D.C., on July 15, 2012.

Geoffrey Ogwaro is co-coordinator of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, a consortium of more than 50 human rights, women’s, children’s and other organizations that joined to fight Uganda’s 2009 “anti-homosexuality bill.” The proposed law would strengthen existing penalties—including the possibility of the death penalty—for adult consensual same-sex acts. It would also make it illegal to “promote homosexuality”—which would, in effect, outlaw gay-rights organizations. Ogwaro was a teacher before becoming a full-time activist.

Arcus Foundation: How did you become an activist for LGBT rights in Uganda?

Geoffrey Ogwaro: I am a gay man. I’ve always known I was different, sexually right from my childhood. An opportunity came up, after my first job, to volunteer with an LGBT organization in Uganda. I was already very passionate about the way that I felt and very well aware that we couldn’t be open and had to live secret lives. I thought that was not fair. So when I realized that there were actually people out there in my own country trying to better the lives of gay people, it was just instant. That is when I joined Sexual Minorities Uganda as a volunteer development officer.

AF: Even before you became a professional activist, did you speak up about the needs of the gay community?

GO: I had [already] been featured on a TV program in Uganda that was talking about being gay, and I was a member of the audience, so I asked a question about what we would do about gay men who were HIV positive, since we were not considering gay people in our HIV programs in the country. I revealed that there were lots of gay men in Uganda, and in Kampala particularly, who were living secret lives at the same time having girlfriends or married to women. I explained that that, in itself, was a danger because if someone is living a secret sex life, probably in the course of keeping it secret they’re not being careful with protecting themselves. It was one of the best questions asked in the show and somehow it motivated me and I thought, I think I should become an activist because I needed to better my own lot and I also needed to better the lot for the rest of us in Uganda.

AF: How has the “anti-homosexuality” bill affected the gay and lesbian community in Uganda?

GO: The bill created panic in the gay community in Uganda; I was part of that panic. We were so fearful. We saw ourselves being hunted down. We saw ourselves being given to the authorities by neighbors, by our own family members who maybe suspected [us], and so I decided that I had to fight, I had to contribute my own part in fighting this law that they wanted to introduce in the country.

AF: Can you explain the anti-homosexuality bill and what it would mean if passed?

GO: If the bill is passed, it will mean several things. It will mean for instance that a neighbor can report you, especially if the law is popularized and everybody knows about it. It will no longer be that [one must be] caught red-handed sleeping with someone of the same sex. It will be, for instance, that you’re associating with LGBT people. It might be that they found gay magazines in your house. It might be that you are working in an LGBT organization, so according to them you will be promoting homosexuality. So all those will become crimes, and it’s really going to restrict the space, privately, work-wise it’s really going to be difficult for us. Already it is, even before the bill is passed.

AF: Even without the law having passed, what is it like to be an openly gay person in Uganda?

GO: We do have good times when we go about our business, and nothing bad happens. But now, if an LGBT organization tries to organize a workshop or a seminar, it will be closed down. According to [Uganda’s] minster of ethics and integrity, being gay in Uganda is not ethical. Whenever we hold workshops, whenever we hold any public gatherings, we are very wary of that. So far he’s closed down our workshops twice. And so organizing is not very easy for us as gay people—even if it is a private party.

AF: Has your public profile put your safety at risk?

GO: I pray that that time doesn’t come, that I’ll have to decide between leaving the country and going to jail. I’ve been featured in the papers recently when the minister of ethics threatened to facilitate the process of de-registering [our organization]. I am becoming more and more known as a gay man and an LGBT activist, so it’s becoming more and more complicated for me. I try to take measures to protect myself. One of the things that I try to do in country is to not appear in the local media. My fellow activists and myself, we live nomadic lives. We move from one house to the other because the neighbors discover we are gay activists or we are gay and then the landlord throws us out. If that time comes [when I have to leave the country] I’ll have nothing to do about it, but for now I have to stay in the country and work and fight this bill together with the rest of my fellow activists. The captain doesn’t run before the foot soldiers.

AF: A number of LGBT refugees have come to Uganda seeking safety from both war and anti-gay persecution. Can you tell us about that?

GO: I was actually a bit surprised when I found out about a group of LGBT refugees in Kampala, most of whom are actually from Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s a whole intricate mix. We refer them to some of our member organizations that have, for example, safe houses or that have a little money that they can give for assistance with things like food or transport or accommodation for a few nights or for a few weeks or even sometimes a few months.

AF: Your group has been accused of being a pawn of international organizations.

GO: First of all, we are very thankful to many of the donor organizations that are based in the West. Without the finances it would have been impossible to do the work that we are trying to do. Of course it comes with its challenges. We have been accused of pretending to be gay or practicing an alien sexual practice because we are looking for money. There is the belief that LGBT people are very rich because they get lots of money from America and from the U.K. and from Sweden and from Norway. I don’t have a car. I don’t drive a car. I get on public transport. I basically pay my rent through my teeth.

AF: Your own coming out story is a universal and familiar case of what can go wrong in the Internet age.

GO: The first person I came out to was my uncle, who lives in the States, and this was quite accidental. I was chatting with him on Yahoo Messenger. At the same time, I was chatting with a gay man, so I mistakenly wrote something to my uncle’s page that was supposed to go to the gay guy. My uncle went, “What was that?” And I said, “Sorry, no forget about it, it’s all right uncle.” Then he was like, “No Geoff, can you tell me, is there something that you want to tell me? I just couldn’t bring myself to tell him. A few months later he came down to Uganda from the States and he called me over: “Geoff is there something you want to tell me; are you gay? And then I said, “Yes I am.” He asked what was stopping me from telling him all along: “Did you think that I would have a problem with it?” And I said yes, I thought you would have a problem with it. He said, “Can I surprise you?” I said, “Go ahead,” and he said, “Do you know that you are not the only gay person in our family?”

He told everyone else, every other person who is a member of our family living in the States… so that is how my family got to know about my being gay.

AF: What is your hope for the future of the LGBT movement in Uganda?

GO: My hope for my country is the realization among Ugandans that there are actually gay people in Uganda. At a certain point in time, it was very common to hear people on the street saying, “We don’t have such people in Uganda—those are in America.” But we’ve come out. Our voices are being heard. Our faces have been seen. We have been on the street or at parliament being shown protesting or delivering our petitions. We have been at parties. We have been at funerals for our colleagues, like one of our colleagues [David Kato] was murdered. So now people know we do exist.

We want Ugandans to realize that [being gay] is just like having another tribe. We have about 55 tribes in Uganda and many of them are not comfortable around each other, but we want everyone to be comfortable around one another. There will be a tribe called gay, there will be a tribe called transgender, there will be a tribe called lesbian, there will be a tribe called—whatever, bisexual. Just like there is a tribe called Acholi or Buganda or Bunyorowill be comfortable with the Buganda who will be comfortable with a gay person who will be comfortable with a lesbian person who will be comfortable with an Acholiperson who will be comfortable around a northerner who will be comfortable with a Westerner. Let’s just all live together as Ugandans.

My hope is that Ugandans and their leaders will say, “What they heck. We have other more important things to worry about than a group of harmless people who are citizens of Uganda.”

AF: How likely is it that will happen in the future?

GO: It’s not a crime to love, let’s all be allowed to love whoever we want to love. Let’s all be allowed to treat each other humanely, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a straight couple, or a lesbian couple, or a gay couple. I would like to remember something that was said by a marine [member of the Air Force], I think from America: “I was honored for killing a fellow man buwas discharged for loving another man.”

That really resonates a lot with me. I don’t see why I should be criminalized or demonized for loving someone. I should be criminalized and demonized for murdering them, beating them, or raping them, but if I’m loving them and sleeping with them consally then why should I be criminalized?