Ugandan LGBT Advocate: Don’t Believe Everything You Hear. It’s Actually Getting Better

Jim Burroway

January 27th, 2012

LGBT rights advocate Val Kalende sees developments in Uganda that she says the foreign press has been reluctant to notice because it doesn’t fit the popular narrative. Despite the headlines, she says an important story isn’t getting told: it’s getting better for the LGBT movement in Uganda:

The death of David Kato has galvanized a breed of new activism and synergies in the Ugandan LGBT community. On my recent visit to Uganda, I met and interacted with a number of young activists and organizations whose joining the movement was a response to the death of this great activist. The movement has certainly grown bigger and stronger thanks to ongoing organizing by the Uganda Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law. It is encouraging to know that what began as a make-shift entity to respond to the Anti-Homosexuality bill has not only become proactive in action but more grounded in a multi-dimensional sexual rights advocacy. Members of the coalition feel that it is time to move Beyond the Anti-Homosexuality bill and build a movement of sexual rights activists who will influence policy and change repressive laws that hinder the freedom of sexual minorities.

…The general situation of LGBT persons in terms of security and awareness of rights has improved. What is often read and heard in international media is not what is on the ground. It is not what I saw on my recent visit. LGBT persons in Uganda are not in hiding. When people like Secretary Hilary Clinton speak out against human rights violations in Africa, they send a strong message to our governments that persecution of LGBT persons is a human rights violation. This comes with some degree of protection from the state because our governments know that the world is watching. I spoke with some activists who feel protected by the state (the Police) than ever before. Even if there’s still a lot of work to be done by government, it is important to acknowledge that today, LGBT activists can engage the police. According to a report from the Hate No More campaign launched in 2o11 by Freedom and Roam Uganda, activists have held meetings with the police and some police official have shown interest in being educated and engaged on LGBT issues.

The situation of LGBT persons in Uganda is getting better. Not worse. It is important that international allies, donors, and partners know that their support and resources are making a difference.

Kalende writes that it’s hard to get that message across; foreign journalists don’t want to hear it. They’re more interested in creating pieces like the BBC’s Scott Mills, whose documentary “The World’s Worst Place to be Gay?” she found to have “prey(ed) on the plight of Ugandan LGBT persons and do nothing to give back to their communities.” Instead, she points to a group of LGBT community activists living in a Kampala ghetto who embarked on community development projects that earned the respect of otherwise “would-have-been homophobic heterosexuals.” She adds:

I was speaking at a conference at Union Theological Seminary in NYC when an American journalist walked up to me and said her editor doesn’t want to publish stories that portray the “getting better” situation for LGBT persons in Uganda. For the past three years since the introduction of the Bahati bill we have talked about how bad things are. Can we now begin to celebrate the progress we are making?

She notes that the international attention has been helpful in shining a spotlight on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and related problems, but:

In self-criticism, I know that most African LGBTs are not bold enough to condemn the kind of “Mill’s nonsense” that my colleague echoed. We have allowed the West to dictate our politics and write our narratives that we are losing our identity. I know that the arguments I make here are not popular; they don’t attract sympathy because they portray African LGBT persons as competent and independent when people expect them to be stupid.

Afrogay nods in agreement. Val’s essay is required reading, a heart-felt piece with much to chew on. I don’t think it’s to say things in Uganda are even close to perfect. They aren’t. But balance and perspective is always a must, and wherever improvements occur they should be noted.


January 27th, 2012

Really appreciate this post and am grateful to hear of the progress that is being made.

Especially noted this:

“Instead, she points to a group of LGBT community activists living in a Kampala ghetto who embarked on community development projects that earned the respect of otherwise “would-have-been homophobic heterosexuals.”

This is so critical – a very wise strategy to bring systemic change. That is why we launched our social justice initiative.

Jay Jonson

January 28th, 2012

I hope her assessment is true. But there is a basic flaw in her argument. On the one hand, the meme has been that the homophobia of Uganda is the result of American Evangelicals (which I readily believe) and that the people are not really responsible for the hatred that unfolded there. Now, the meme seems to be that things aren’t so bad and it is the fault of Westerners because we expect Africans to be stupid. At the very least, they should get their story straight.

Jim Burroway

January 28th, 2012

I think the greater flaw would be to look at Uganda as a meme. The problem with memes is that they never reflect reality, only a very shallow, one-dimensional slice of it. Uganda, like any country, is complex. Memes, by definition, are not. The reality on the ground will never be captured by a meme.

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