“Call Me Kuchu”: LGBT Rights in Uganda

11 Min Read

July 17, 2012 By Saran Kaba


Every year, I try to take advantage of both the African and Human Rights Watch Film Festivals. This summer I went to see the New York premiere of a documentary entitled Call Me Kuchu by filmmakers Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall. The documentary is filmed in Kampala, Uganda and tells the story of the “Kuchu” while allowing us to get a glimpse into their lives, struggles and fears. “Kuchu” they explain, is the way Ugandans refer to queers

The main activist in this documentary, David Kato, fights for equal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Uganda. I thought I had not heard of him before I went to see the movie but now that I think back, I do faintly remember seeing TV broadcasts of the protests that took place against his murder. David worked tirelessly to repeal Uganda’s homophobic laws. He had such a wonderful personality and such determination to see a change in his country. He did not hesitate to speak out about government wrongdoings or take magazine editors to court in order to battle the injustices against Uganda’s LGBT community.

Though Kato is the main character, the leader of the Ugandan movement in a way, this movie also documents other strong activists’ protest against the country’s government, media and church in order to fight for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. Every day they struggle to be treated equally and they fight to make their country safer for themselves and others like them who walk around fearing for their lives.

This movie touches on so many players with many different roles. On the one hand you have those fighting for their right to be free and on the other, those who are trying to prevent them from living a life they deem immoral.

Some politicians and anti-gay activists in Uganda suggest that gays are perverting the minds of youth and luring them into copying their behaviors. They accuse gays of raping innocent people who aren’t gay, forcing them to become like them. These beliefs make them all the more determined to try to pass outrageous laws.

One quickly realizes that the issue gets even deeper because the government, which is such a powerful entity in Africa, is at the forefront of creating such unjust treatment against the LGBT community. One of the things they attempted to do was to introduce a new “anti homosexuality Bill” spearheaded by David Bahati, a Ugandan politician and MP in the Parliament. One of the things this law stipulates (in addition to proposing the death penalty to gays) is that if you know someone who is gay, you must report them to the authorities or you can serve up to 3 years in prison. So automatically you see fear cause families to turn against each other and neighbors become your worst enemy. People in the LGBT community are constantly changing habitats because they fear being attacked. That is simply no way to live. Luckily the bill was not voted on then, though Bahati has since re-introduced it. I was really surprised by the lengths to which the government is willing to go in order to prohibit actions it does not support. Sadly, Uganda is not the only country trying to pass such laws or with these types of laws already established (I read an article about these same issues taking place in Jamaica and South Africa).

HIV testing is also seen as being a “gay activity”. So if you get tested, you are automatically categorized as being gay. This sort of ignorance can have serious consequences. The fact that people are reluctant to get tested for fear of being harassed will actually cause the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Gay or straight!

The government and media are fueling homophobia in so many ways. In this documentary, one of Uganda’s biggest tabloids prided itself in its ability to infiltrate into the LGBT community and “out” gays and lesbians by publishing pictures of them at clubs or with their partners in their magazines, making what was once a personal matter, public. Thankfully, this newspaper editor was brought to court by Kato and his supporters and lost the case having to pay a significant amount of money to the people he hurt. The thing is: how can money buy what these people have already lost? Privacy! Once their true identity is broadcasted in such a way, they can no longer live in peace. Worst of all this editor had no remorse and continued to claim that he was proud of the work he does and was glad that some day he would be able to tell his children that he did everything in his power to fight against the “spread of gays”. Oh, and he also mentioned that all gays would burn in hell. Um…Really?

To my complete and utter disbelief, I learned that evangelists working in the country were actually among those promoting hated against the LGBT community. These evangelists actually hold intense sermons asking religious Africans and community leaders to forbid this kind of behavior as it is not normal. Using religion as way to create hatred against people who you find are “different” just negates what religions overall promote. To my relief, I did see that not everyone was the same. Bishop Christopher Senyonjo actually risked his life and his title to support the LGBT community (We were fortunate enough to hear him speak and answer questions at the end of the documentary).

When so many entities are telling you that being gay is wrong, people start to want to take matters into their own hands oftentimes resorting to violence. Unbelievable acts such as “curative rapes” occur. A lesbian woman told the story of a man who raped her because he wanted to convince her that she was not really a lesbian. This was someone she knew and had grown up with! In other cases, gays are even stoned to death!

The fact that African families see this topic as taboo doesn’t help the issue. Families oftentimes disown their child for being gay. As a result those closest to their families try to hide their true identity until it starts to affect them. What was great to see was that there were a few support groups for the LGBT community in the area, a place where others were experiencing the same things and where there was always someone to lend an ear. That sense of community was encouraging to see. However, the problem is that most of the people in these groups become targets. Unfortunately, David Kato was one of them and ended up losing his life in a brutal fashion.

It seems gay rights are wrongfully categorized as something separate from human rights. Are we to understand that gays are not human? Come on!

The issue of LGBT rights in Africa is so complex that it would be impossible to touch on everything with just one blog post. What I can say is that I was very disappointed to see that political beliefs, personal beliefs and even religious beliefs cause other human beings pain or in some cases death. Who are we to judge? God created all of us equally so let us leave the judging to him. Hurting others with slander, violence, instilling fear in them and preventing them from living their lives is wrong in Africa or in any other place in the world. We Africans need to be open-minded. I know we have a long way to go in most countries in Africa and around the world but hopefully with more awareness campaign, sex education and most of all tolerance, we will someday see change.

When asked about LGBT being described as “un-African” and the state’s claim that the West has played a key role in bringing homosexuality to Africa, Bishop Senyonjo said it best: “There is no need to punish people for who they are…Let us legalize love”.

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