AS A GAY VIDEO HISTORIAN, I hate being late, because documenting the “before” is just as important as the actual event and the aftermath. So I was pissed when Haji, my driver, arrived an hour late because he didn’t know how to set the alarm on the new phone to wake up. His phone had been stolen when he dropped off Pepe at home a couple nights before. So I missed Pastor Martin Ssempa and his anti-gay march from Freedom Square to Kololo Independence Grounds.
The National Thanksgiving Service to celebrate the passage of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexual Law was planned by the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda and broadcast live across Uganda. Kololo is where theBritish returned sovereignty to Uganda over fifty years ago. This place has real significance to Ugandans in their fight against Western economic imperialism. The theme today was the fight against a different kind of Western imperialism: what they see as homosexual “exploiters” and “promoters.”
To get in, you had to pass through metal detectors and large numbers of police and army units with automatic weapons and side arms, creating a real militarized feeling. When I tried to enter the rally, I was denied because I was white and wasn’t on the list for approved cameras. I called Haji and he came back with the car. As we were driving down the road looking for parking, Haji saw Georgina, a former transwoman who is now the chairman of Ex-Gay Uganda. Haji called him (since he was presenting in male drag) over. Haji introduced us and let him know that I wanted to go to the rally and couldn’t get in. Georgina (he asked us to call him that) said he was to speak at the rally and meet with the President. I could come along if I wanted to and document the Ex-Gays. I jumped out of the car immediately. He had VIP guest invitations that he personalized with my name.
Georgina was waiting on the street for some of the Ex-Gay members to show up. When they didn’t, he and three others jumped into the very small back seat of Haji’s car, and we drove to the slum where they lived. When we arrived, Georgina asked me to come with him. We walked right up to God’s Mercy Barber Shop, and there he asked the two barbers to close up shop. They were grooming each other at the time and had to put their shirts back on. Georgina rounded up about ten of them. But it took such a long time and to arrange transportation for them. They all put on their Ex-Gay T-shirts and came with us. I had bought two of the Ex-Gay T-shirts for Haji and me to wear as camouflage.
When we arrived again, they wouldn’t let me in with the camera. While Georgina trooped the ex-gays into the event, I patiently waited in my Ex-Gay T-shirt and Team USA Olympic hat for Georgina to get permission for me to come in. Many Christians approached and tried to intimidate me. I told them to calm down; everything was okay. I chatted up the Army soldiers, who were nice to me, and they offered me a chair in the shade. It was clearly a very carefully planned and managed event, a rarity in Uganda.
Finally, a top Christian and an army major came up to ask me what I was doing there. I explained that I was waiting for Georgina, the chairman of Ex-Gay Uganda. Again, Georgina had asked me to use that name, but the officious Christian was startled by it. He asked my name and to see my ID. My Massachusetts drivers license had a picture of me with my hair. So when I presented my ID to the Christian he looked at it, looked at my T-shirt and then at my face, and asked, “Are you ex gay?” This was the first real test for me. How far would I go in playing out this charade? Instinctively, I said no, I was wearing the T-shirt in support of Georgina. Then, as in a Hollywood film, I heard Georgina’s lilting voice call out my name from behind me. The Christian and the Army officer watched him prancing down the hill with very confused expressions. While they were transfixed by Georgina, the ex-transwoman and now Chairman of Ex-Gay Uganda, I slowly took my ID back. Georgina convinced them to allow me in without my camera, so I left my camera with Haji. However, in Uganda everyone has at least two cell phones, so they had no problem with me taking in my two phones and mobile wifi. They didn’t realize that my American cell phone was a video and still camera as well.
Next thing I knew, I was in the rally and sitting next to Georgina, surrounded by all the Ex-Gays, thankfully under a tent in 100+ degree heat. I had boots on because the last time I went to a demonstration in Uganda the riot police attacked us and I had to jump over a sewer to get away. The rally was presided over by President Museveni and every religious and cultural leader in Uganda. Everything was in yellow, from the school kids’ choir outfits to the tents covering the 30,000 people and to the ex-gay T-shirt I was wearing. Yellow is the color of the NRM, Museveni’s political party. This was more a political rally than a religious celebration.
I felt like an undercover Jew at a Nazi rally. I looked at the faces of the Ugandans as they passed our group, first confusion from reading the T-shirts, then hatred. I just smiled back, which only confused them further. But I was also one of the handful of whites at this event. I later talked with some of the ex-gays, and they confirmed that they felt unsafe there, vulnerable to attack. After all, the President of Uganda told the people he was ready for the war with the gays, which sounds like open season on gay people to me.
We were so late in arriving that Georgina missed his chance to speak on national TV because we were not seated with the VIPs. He handed me his speech and I tweeted a photo of it. I thought: how very fortunate that he never got to give this speech. It’s one thing for straight homophobes to get up there and spew hate speech, but another for an ex-transwoman to do so.
At this point, the adrenaline rush of getting in was wearing off. I looked at how the ex-gays were all relating to each other. They were friends and smiled a lot at each other. They were all handsome, fit, polite, soft-spoken, and very poor. According to Haji, Georgina was there for the money. But the others? Each of them had his seduction-by-a-foreigner story, which at times sounded more like a jilted-lover story.
The other common thread in their stories was the loss of family and community for being gay. Because there are no jobs in Uganda, you depend economically and emotionally on your family and community. There’s no real organized gay community to rely on or be a part of. They were now “ex-gay” because they found they couldn’t live without their family or community. It was better to lie even to themselves than to be hungry, homeless, and alone. Even with this retreat, they believed they were still in danger, that being ex-gay wouldn’t necessarily save them. They wanted to know about asylum in other countries. I truly felt pity and love for them, and that the only medicine for their internalized hatred was unconditional love. Georgina aside, I believe these ex gays are the victims of homophobia, and the new law will create many more. It will pervert the souls of the next generation of GLBT Ugandans now growing up. The suicides have already begun.
Hours of hateful speeches by the religious leaders followed, interspersed with kids’ groups singing songs like “Bye Bye Homosexuality.” The ex-gays were singing it as well. When Pepe and I had discussed my attending this event, I’d told him that I needed to feel with my own heart the hatred that he felt every minute of the day in his country. I was feeling it now, and realizing that this event would forever change how Ugandan society deals with GLBT people. This was the start of a new Ugandan genocide.
Finally, Museveni rode up on the stage in his version of the Pope-mobile. I stood up, not out of respect, but because I wanted to see him with my own eyes and feel his hatred in my heart. Clearly the gay issue is being used by him and his party to divert attention from the poverty, unemployment, terrible roads, poor schools, lack of healthcare, and all the oil and U.S. aid money he is stealing.
Museveni told the crowd: “I want to thank honorable [David] Bahati and his group. I didn’t pay attention because I was involved in other sectors, and little did I know it was a big issue. However, when big countries started giving us orders, I don’t like orders, especially from outside, and I don’t know why these people became preachers for others. I came to learn that homosexuality was unhealthy and this is because they go to a wrong address. Sexual organs of a human being are highly specialized. Oral sex is an idiocy, the mouth is for eating not gonorrhea. There is a fundamental misunderstanding between us and the liberal West. They say that homosexuality is sex. But it is not sex … if you take homosexuality, they [the Ugandan people]don’t call it ‘sex.’ They call itekifire [zombie sex].”
Other words used that day were criminal, animal, and devil, all code words to dehumanize gay people. Ugandans now have permission from all their leaders—and from God—to wage war on the homosexuals. Mob justice is an ever-present danger here. Mobs of men attack women for wearing outlawed miniskirts. The police present and undress transwomen on TV to prove they are not women. The pageantry, the stage management, the propaganda, the manipulation of the people are all hauntingly Nazi like. I see this National Thanksgiving rally as the kickoff for Uganda’s “final solution” for gays.
When it was over, Georgina pushed us all through the crowd to get to the VIP section so we could get photos with all the top homophobes. I couldn’t resist getting in the photos, like a gay photo bomb. They were all congratulating each other, very happy and satisfied that they did God’s work that day. I left there quite drained by the whole thing. I had to get to the car so that I could take off the T-shirt, both because of what it said and because I was sweating profusely. I will frame this T-shirt in double-sided glass. I know in my heart that this was the beginning of a GLBT genocide in Uganda.
Tim McCarthy is a gay video historian. I travel the world in search of GLBT culture as a medicine for myself and as a gift for our brothers and sisters 100 years from now.