One of the best-known stories of queerness in Uganda goes like this: in 1877, the British entered the Kingdom of Buganda. They did so with the aim of converting the Baganda to Christianity in order to strengthen the colonial project. In 1884, at the age of around 16, Kabaka Mwanga II Basammula Ekkere, became the ruler of the Buganda kingdom. As was customary at the time, he had male staffers with whom he would engage in sexual acts. However, with the advent of the British, many of the staffers had converted to Christianity. They no longer believed it was right to participate in sexual activity with other men and their loyalties were divided between the Kabaka and the British. Over the next four years of his reign, the Kabaka had 47 Christian converts killed. He was then ousted from power and sent into exile. He returned to Uganda to try and fight the advancement of the colonisers but did not succeed and died in exile at the age of 35 in 1903. By the time of his death, he had converted to Christianity and changed his name to Danieri (Daniel). Today we remember the young men he killed as the Ugandan Christian Martyrs – there is a university named after them and a shrine dedicated to them. Kabaka Mwanga II is remembered as a dissident who fought against colonial powers but also as the “gay king” who murdered these Christians. Forty-seven years after his death, the British-ruled Ugandan legislature passed “anti-sodomy” laws in the Penal Code Act 1950. This criminalised “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature”. It has never been repealed. In fact, there have been attempts to increase its scope.
I grew up on stories about my parents’ lives and the lives of their ancestors – stories about warring families and mass migration, stories about the vices that gave rise to certain family members’ nicknames and about people whose lives shaped the direction of ours. These stories have given my nuclear and extended family a cohesive narrative, showing us where we fit as individuals and where this means we should go.
These stories function as a living, moving timeline. I have always understood that who I am has a precedent – I am the sum of the people who came before me. And because I am a product of this history, it is also my duty to contribute to it – I have to plan for future generations. The responsibility to teach our children’s children about where they’re from, and therefore who they are, has always been deeply entrenched in me.
Yet as I’ve grown older, I have also learnt how to sense the muting of other stories. Just as the stories I’ve heard have provided building blocks for how I view myself and my context, the omissions and gaps have taught me precisely who I should not be. A few years ago, when I told my father I was queer, he said: “This is the first I have ever heard of anyone in my family being queer. You must be the only one,” and as improbable as that proposition sounded considering how large my family is, I could see how he could justify it. In all the stories that my relatives have told me about our family, none has ever mentioned queerness. Christianity has been the prevailing religion in my family for the last century. Anything that would mark someone out as an “abomination” would, of course, be suppressed.
Even outside of my family, trying to retrace queer Ugandan histories is complicated. As the scholar Dr Sylvia Tamale notes, “Western imperialist caricatures of African sexualities were part of a wider design to colonize and exploit the Black race.” Blackness and Africanness were “queered” in order to justify their subjugation. Further to this, “research [about sexualities across Africa] in the colonial context was conducted along a traditional hierarchy of power between the researcher and the researched.” A lot of the history available to the public relies on historical accounts written by non-Ugandan anthropologists, queerphobic colonisers and Christian Ugandans, and so, naturally, it is often written from a distinctly Western lens or tainted with anti-queer sentiment.
This colonial framing of our personhood has not eroded since Uganda gained independence in 1962. As Dr Keguro Macharia writes, “so dominant is ‘the colonial version of us’… that it circulates as common wisdom when we talk about ourselves”. The very way in which we are taught to see ourselves is refracted through a lens of coloniality that fails to acknowledge our complexities. I suppose that’s the thing about the stories that shape a family, a kingdom and a nation – they are the products of their time and they’re transversed by the other stories, the other timelines, that exist beyond them. The stories which make you sound reputable (your professions, your good name, your sacrifices) are the ones which you repeat. The ones which are embarrassing but not unique (alcoholism, gambling, polygamy, having precolonial religious beliefs) can act as a cautionary tale or a story of victory over a vice. But what do you do about the ones which are abominable? The ones which make you subhuman and should have you imprisoned or killed?
Uganda is in the news once again. Since August, reports that Members of Parliament were planning to table a new Anti-Homosexuality Bill (as the 2014 Act was nullified for procedural reasons) have sprung up all over the internet. As a result of this, new, yet familiar, injustices have occurred: queer activist Brian Wasswa was murdered on 5th October, people who were “suspected” of being queer were arrested and violated by the police and queer activists were conveniently conflated with unnamed terrorist groups in order to justify state repression.
The transecting stories about African sexualities being deviant, queerness being the ultimate abnormality, (Victorian) Christianity being a “civilising” and “normalising” force and state punishment being a disciplinary mechanism for this “normalising” project have led to a conflation of queerness with dereliction. This has justified the influx of Evangelical Christians from the US and Europe who leverage on the continuing colonial domination of Western countries over states such as Uganda. The power that they yield transcends the walls of the church: their whiteness and their global positioning get them audiences with political actors; tracts of land in Uganda on which to host fundamentalist Christian “retreats”; and permission to say that the biggest danger to Uganda is its queer population rather than the theft of national funds or the vampiric actions of global powers such as the States and the EU. The great irony, of course, is that these are also the people who tout that queerness in Uganda is “un-African”: a symbol of the ills of Western modernity and an affront to tradition. I can recall attending church and hearing sermons where visiting American and European pastors thanked us for refusing to tolerate the existence of queers and apologised for coming from nation states which provide some level of protection to queer populations there. Quashing the rights of queer people serves to unify powerful groups under the guise of anti-Western resistance, even while the West maintains an exploitative relationship with Uganda. Anti-queer hatred is also stoked in the run-up to elections – as well as linking queer activists to terrorists, they are also frequently accused of funding the opposition party in an attempt to discredit it. As such, history is turned on its head in order to create new fictions and justify old forms of domination. Queer people are pawns held in this perpetual middle space, at once seen as a vestige of a deviant African past and a consequence of virulent Western modernity.
Indeed, Kenyan writer, Mumbi, has examined the time-altering nature of state-sanctioned homophobia. Anti-queer laws “force you to think twice about mundane things from holding your lover’s hand to congregating with other queer people in public and private spaces.” They function to keep you in a constant state of waiting: hoping for a time when you will be safe. Waiting for the moment when your life will be extinguished. Waiting for a new form of violence to be enacted upon you. You are subjected to the whims of a government which, based on the timeline of its own failures, keeps you simmering in anticipation of new harm. This danger means that the future is never promised. As Mumbi writes, “‘to make wait’ works as a strategy to tether queer people to the state,” entwining our timelines with those who possess the apparatus to kill us, in an attempt to smother the possibilities of the “then and there” with the violence of the here and now. The people pushing homophobic agendas, from US Evangelicals to Ugandan MPs, insist on this warped relationship to time and to history. There is a tactical reason for this. It benefits the powerful to have an atemporal, ahistorical relationship not only to queerness but also to the links between Christianity and oppression, not to mention the exploitative relationship between the West and Uganda. Questioning the stories we have been told about ourselves would mean questioning the parity of our relationship to global powers. It would mean reckoning with the coloniality of our legal and political system. It would mean questioning the logic of even existing as a nation state created by a group of European men in Berlin.
The passage of time and the proliferation of certain stories has meant that Ugandans – especially queer Ugandans – are treated as symbols rather than human beings. This is done by Evangelical Christians in Uganda and outside of it, but it is also common among Western liberals, who talk about us with condescension and saviourism – another vestige of colonialism. The ubiquity of “homophobic African” imagery and white Western journalists speaking on behalf of queer Ugandans has made our persecution conceptual. On Autostraddle itself, there is an old article in which the writer purports to unpack how queerness is considered in “the Ugandan mind”. Many Western Liberal interventions, rather than offering an appropriate level of background support, simply reify colonialist and neoliberalist ideas of “ modern [vs] primitive Africans”, meaning that important grassroots work is ignored and economic sanctions are placed on the nation as whole – sanctions which invariably end up harming queer populations. And if one leaves Uganda for the West, one is expected to “be grateful” for their human rights protections, even though queer people in Western countries such as the US – under similar conservative forces – are currently fighting to maintain the rights they have obtained, Western “human rights” regimes do not protect racialised people from endemic racism and these rights regimes certainly cannot atone for the fact that it was the British who first codified queerphobia into the Ugandan legal system and it is the UK which now postures itself as homo-friendly while its Home Office continues to deport queer asylum seekers to the countries that it condemns for being homophobic.
Too many queer Ugandans have become ancestors before their time. David Kato. Fahad Ssemugooma Kawere. Julius Ssebunya. Brian Wasswa. So many others whose lives were cruelly cut short by transphobia and homophobia. The grief is miasmic – one is not even permitted to mourn publicly, and yet the thickness of it is all-encompassing and suffocating. I often find myself yearning for a home that I already have. It is destabilising to love a place that does not know how to see you, let alone love you. It’s not fair that Ugandan queer people have to keep living while feeling – and being – consigned to precarity and death.
I write this piece coming from a place of privilege. My class status and the fact that I spend so much of my time outside of Uganda mean that I do not face the brunt of the violence that many queer Ugandans must go through. But even from my experiences, to be queer and Ugandan is to feel a certain level of grief. Each day of survival also means mourning the lives that were never allowed to flourish, the lives that still aren’t allowed to, that might never be allowed to. As I find love and care in my communities, I grieve for the life that I won’t have.
In the depths this grief, I try to remember the words of José Muñoz, another brilliant queer ancestor. As well as reminding us that queerness “allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present”, he proposes having a “different understanding of melancholia that does not see it as a pathology or as a self-absorbed mood that inhibits activism. Rather, it is a mechanism that helps us (re)construct identity and take our dead with us to the various battles we must wage in their names— and in our names”. In living and resting and fighting, we can remember them. We can carry them with us and continue from where they left off. By memorialising these existences and leaving traces of them for the queers to come, we can speak over the voices who want to shout us into silence.
I am still in the process of trying to unearth stories about my ancestors – the dandies, the ones who didn’t ever get married but “lived with a friend”, the ones who were a little different but loved nonetheless. There are so many Ugandan queer histories that exist off the record: stories about men who would sneak into fields in the middle of the night only to emerge minutes or hours later, unseen but not unknown; stories of people with no gender and people with more than one gender receiving the blessing of their clan to get married; stories about women living with and loving other women. There is, and has always been, so much more to our lives than colonialism, legislation and Western tragedy tales. At the same time, however, I try not to let speculation of what could have been romanticise people that were human, flawed and almost certainly had vastly different understandings of “queerness” to what we have now. For a long time I depended on the story of Kabaka Mwanga II to believe that my Ugandan queerness was real. But, real or not, this did not negate the fact that he committed murder or that the power differential between him and his staffers probably meant that the sex they had would not necessarily have been consensual. It could never really offer me the sense of home I longed for. Understanding one’s context requires an understanding of the history available to you in a more holistic and critical way. It would serve nobody to rewrite history into fiction.
I remain hopeful though. Dr Tamale reminds us that Ubuntu is an important tenet of many philosophies around Africa. It means “I am because we are”. Whether embodied or an ancestor, we depend on each other for survival because our stories are intrinsically linked. Many of the people doing the important work of preserving Uganda’s cultural memory are, in fact, queer Ugandans. They are working against the state’s attempts to “make [us] wait” by organising pride camp, holding festivals to provide pockets of safety for queer Ugandans; hosting parties with house rules that specifically centre queer people’s safety; writing stories such as “Jambula Tree” which went on to inspire the groundbreaking Kenyan film “Rafiki”; and writing books on sexualities across Africa. Chapter 4, an LBGT rights NGO, is hosting meetings to help the families of queer Ugandans learn how to better support them. Groups such as Kuchu, Sexual Minorities Uganda and Trans Youth Initiative are all working to make queer Ugandan life livable. Last July in Kampala, queer women and nonbinary people orchestrated a historic Women’s March which doubled as a pride march . Right now, one of the country’s most important feminist protests is happening, orchestrated by queer and feminist activist Dr Stella Nyanzi who has been imprisoned for almost a year, accused of “harassing” the President of Uganda through her critiques of him. This protest and events such as the Women’s March have been supported by feminist and queer activists around East Africa and beyond – activists travelled into the country for the March and continue to speak out in support of Dr Nyanzi. Localised forms of violence attempt to keep us bound to the limitations of a nation state, but these acts of solidarity remind us of the necessity of a feminist and queer politic that refuses isolationism and borders in recognition of the ways in which these constructs contribute to our exploitation and abuse.
A couple of months ago, when I was at a bar with one of the organisers of the pride camp, they caught me up on their life and the plans they are making with other queer artists in Kampala. These plans included building lives in community with other queers, moving in with romantic partners and organising more events for queer people. They sounded hopeful and within the precarity I could see there was possibility. Even in the unpublicised acts of survival, even when we meet in secret or see each other with a can-neither-confirm-nor-deny sense of knowing, we are writing new stories. Like the time when the person with cornrows and I jokingly argued over who had better taste in books, only for us to pull out the same collection of Black queer poetry from our bags. And the moment when I realised I was having drinks with the anonymous queer Ugandan blogger whose Tumblr blog I had blazed through years earlier. Or that stolen hour on New Year’s Eve when I visited the house on the hill for the drag party. Those moments, where we exist as loudly or as quietly as we need to, remind me we’re here. We’ve always been here.
The story of queerness in Uganda, bound as it has been to fictions about who we are and who we ought to be, is a story of resilience. It continues to be written by a community with the tensile strength to stretch beyond time in order to fight for our lives, the lives that came before us and the lives that will come after. We continue to carry our dead because these ancestors – their lives and their voices, whether we are aware of them or not – have made us possible today.
I thought my family history made me. But I have learnt that a story about a family is not all that makes a person – not when the story is written and rewritten by external elements. In seeking something beyond that story, I found communities who speak life into the lacunas. The resilience and the care of Ugandan queer communities has shown me that beautiful possibilities are available even in the midst of violence. And while I seek to uncover more about the hidden histories of my own family, I can do it in such a way that the people who come after me will have possibilities available to them too – hopefully better and brighter and more expansive than I can even imagine.
Queerness and Ugandanness are intrinsically linked in exquisite and painful ways. They make each other. While it may never be possible to completely rewrite what has been inscribed onto us as Ugandans, it heartens me to remember this: I am because we are. We are so that future generations will be. There are so many people showing us that we do not have to abide by the false narratives written about us. We are already writing a new story for ourselves.⚡
Edited by Rachel