Gay Ugandan asks “Where am I going?” as threatened secret havens

Ali’s father told him he never wanted to see him again after his sexuality became public

Uganda’s Parliament passed one of the world’s toughest laws against homosexual activity last week, prompting widespread condemnation. If the law is signed by the president, anyone who identifies as LGBT faces a life sentence.

It also threatens the existence of the handful of shelters where LGBT people have sought shelter after being evicted from their homes. The BBC gained access to these secret shelters and spoke to residents about their lives and concerns.

Short representative gray line

Short representative gray line

Ali had kept his sexuality a secret but was exposed after his arrest when Ugandan police raided an underground gay bar in the capital Kampala in 2019.

“My dad said, ‘I never want to see you again. you are not my child I can’t have a child like you,’ says Ali, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.

Despite the obvious trauma of this experience, the young man, in his mid-20s, speaks softly and calmly.

“He was looking for me to hit me, but my mother told me to hide. I didn’t have a plan, but I knew I had to leave home.”

His story of stigma, violence and fear gives an insight into the lives of LGBT people in Uganda.

Homosexual sex is already banned in the country, but the new anti-homosexuality law goes even further.

The measure, which awaits presidential approval before becoming law, mandates life imprisonment for anyone identifying as a sexual minority and the death penalty for homosexual child sexual abuse. The rape of a child under the age of 14 or when the perpetrator is HIV positive already carries the death penalty, but this is rarely carried out.

It can also lead to the closure of shelters where people have taken shelter, as it criminalizes anyone renting property “for the purpose of conducting activities promoting homosexuality”. They could also be interpreted as a brothel.

Ugandan MP John Musira wears an anti-homosexuality robe and gestures as he exits the chambers during the anti-homosexuality law debate

Ugandan MP John Musira wore a dress with anti-gay slogans for the parliamentary debate

After fleeing his homeland four years ago, Ali was told of a place where he could live in relative safety that also provided meals and struggled to find jobs for homeless gay men.

The former restaurant worker had only been there a few months when the coronavirus lockdown began.

“In 2020, the shelter was raided by the police. We were lined up and the public called upon to stare, mock and humiliate us. People spat at us,” Ali told the BBC.

He and over 20 other men were arrested, charged in court with violating pandemic-related restrictions on public gatherings, and sent to jail.

“When we arrived at the prison, some of the inmates already knew our story. You had read about it in the newspapers. We had to deny that we were gay to stay safe,” he explains.

His gregarious demeanor belies the trauma he suffered during incarceration.

“A guard who saw the details of our file ordered other inmates to beat us. He also joined. Some of my friends were burned in their private parts with charcoal. We were beaten with wires and boards made of wood for about three hours,” he says, showing the scars on his arms.

Uganda Prisons Service spokesman Frank Baine denies the men were assaulted while in custody. “When they were there, they weren’t known to be gay [men]. No one tortured her, and according to the officer in charge, there were no signs of torture. They were remanded in custody pending bail,” he told the BBC.

The government later dropped the charges against the group and they were released after 50 days. Ali moved to another shelter.

There are over 20 such homes across Uganda, which are run with varying levels of secrecy.

“We typically have around 10 to 15 people in a shelter at any one time,” says John Grace, coordinator of the Uganda Minority Shelters Consortium.

Many LGBT people find safety and a sense of belonging in these temporary homes. But even here, danger is never far away.

Clothes on the floor of a bedroom

The residents of the shelter are preparing to move after the landlord asked them to leave

Ali describes being attacked one evening in November last year.

“A group of young men started following me and yelled, ‘You gays, we’re going to kill you.’ I didn’t react and kept walking, one of them hit me on the head from behind.

“When I regained consciousness I was in the hospital with bruises all over my face and a large wound on the back of my head.”

I was taken to the animal shelter he has called home for the last three years, via back roads in a northern Kampala neighborhood. Local residents are wary of revealing the location.

The bungalow, which the owner appears to have originally furnished as a family home, appears derelict with paint chipping in several places. It stands on a fenced compound shaded by giant mango and jackfruit trees, with clothes hanging on a line to dry.

Aside from the kitchen, which is overflowing with dishes, nearly every other inch of the interior, including the garage, has been converted into bedrooms. In what should be the living room, roommates lie or sit among mattresses, bedding, mosquito nets, and half-packed bags of personal items strewn all over the floor.

The back of a man's head

Tim’s safety has been under threat since anti-homosexuality legislation was debated

The sense of chaos is a direct consequence of the possibility of the anti-homosexuality law becoming law.

“After the bill was approved, the landlord told us to move. The shelter manager said that if he finds a new home, we should have everything ready,” Ali told the BBC while standing between dismantled three-decker bunk beds.

But the prospects are not good.

“In the event that the current residents of the shelter are evicted by the landlord, we don’t have any viable options,” admits Mr. Grace of the shelters’ umbrella organization.

In addition, the future of his organization is in jeopardy.

“If the bill is signed by the President, we could face legal prosecution, violence, discrimination and stigma for providing safe shelters to homeless sexual minorities and identifying ourselves as sexual minorities,” he added.

Among the other housemates is Tim – not her real name – whose parents stopped paying college after she came out. Her father, a pastor, cut her off completely.

Tim remembers the lowest point.

“I’ve done sex work, slept with different men just to eat. Some nights I was disgusted with myself. I got in the shower and scrubbed myself about 10 times.

“I saw no future for myself – I had lost my family, lost an education, lost my sense of direction.”

Tim was the victim of cyber harassment on the day the anti-homosexuality bill was being debated in Parliament.

“People texted me and said, ‘See what’s going to happen to you?'”

“Some of us were starting to recover a little bit from our sanity. Now it scares me that a place like this could be called a brothel. I feel like we had a wound that was starting to heal and has now been scraped open,” Tim tells the BBC, looking dejected.

“I doubt we can regain any sense of dignity now because of the hatred that has been heaped on us.”

Uganda is already among 32 African countries to criminalize consensual same-sex sex between adults.

The law was widely condemned internationally, with the US saying it could consider sanctions against the country and the European Union saying it was against the death penalty at all costs.

Local and international activist groups have also joined the outcry.

When asked what he plans to do if the shelter can’t find a place to relocate, Ali’s voice cracks and he hangs his head.

“The only thought in my head is, ‘Where am I going to go?'”

“Everyone says that we are not normal, that we are not human. But I am. I thought about going home, but my father would never let me into his house again,” he says.

To find a basis, Ali adheres to his Muslim faith.

“I know that God is the one who made me and he knows why I’m gay. So I keep praying Even now [during Ramadan] I’m fasting,” he says.

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