Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera: “You cannot be free when other people around the world are not free.”

By Emma Waxlax

On May 29th, Uganda’s President Museveni signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Act, a bill that expands already existent legislation targeting homosexuals, trans and gender non-conforming people. Sparking condemnation across the international community, the bill prescribes the death penalty for certain sexual relations involving individuals of the same-sex, and criminalizes the “promotion” and “abetting” of homosexuality, alongside various other clauses that have raised alarm with regards to their contravention of universal human rights and human dignity. 

As the following interview outlines, the Anti-Homosexuality Act is but an addition to a long history of assault on the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda, dating back to when it was a former British colony. Homophobia and transphobia in Uganda exacerbated after the country gained independence in 1962 with the arrival of North American evangelical missionary groups, whose operations left a profound ideological footprint for years to come.

With the rise of the far right extremists in Uganda, earlier attempts were made to pass extreme anti-gay legislation in the pass two decades with the “Kill The Gays Bill” in 2009 and a similar Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014, which was initially passed into law before being annulled on procedural grounds. Though these two bills were unsuccessful, they are illustrative of the dangerous and harmful reality Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera was forced to confront as an open lesbian activist.

A Geneva Summit alum from 2011 and 2018, Nabagesera has been at the forefront of the LGBTQ+ movement in Uganda. A staunch fighter for the decriminalization of homosexuality, she established Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG) in 2003. For the past twenty years, the organization has worked for the attainment of full equal rights for LGBTQ+ individuals and the eradication of all forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation. In response to the anti-gay rhetoric in mainstream media, Nabagesera launched Kuchu Times in 2014 and Bombastic Magazine the following year, a free publication that shares personal accounts of members of the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda. 

In response to the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, I interviewed Nabagesera on her experiences as an LGBTQ+ activist in Uganda, the history of homophobia in her country, and what the international community should do in response to this egregious bill. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Welcome. As a refresher for our audience, can you briefly speak on your personal experiences in Uganda? What was it like growing up openly gay? And lending on that, how did your experiences ultimately fuel your desire to become an activist?

Yeah, for me, that is one question I don’t like at all. Because over the years, I’ve interacted with so many people whose stories are more worth telling than my own personal story. I came from a family that was very welcoming. And if it wasn’t for my family, I don’t think I would be talking to you today. So many of the people I represent come from families that discount them, that belittle them, that stop paying their school fees. But my mother opened her house to so many of those people. And it’s because of my mother’s heart and my mother’s support that I stand here in front of people today.

“I took advantage of my privilege to speak out for those who could not speak out for themselves.”

I don’t really have a story as touching as the stories of the people I represent. But nevertheless, I’m here.

My own story that I can tell is the story of persecution for simply being openly gay. I was not persecuted by my family but I’ve been persecuted by my religion, by my governments, and by my culture. So that is the story I have to tell. I’m one of the very few fortunate Ugandans that had the luck of a family to stand with them. So even when the government was shouting, even when the media was exposing and saying all sorts of things, I had a place to run to, which very many people, so many of my siblings – in the past we used to say comrades – didn’t have. They ran to me. My family, and later my organization, became their home. 

For me, my ache right now is to see that fifty plus years after the Stonewall Riots*, countries have failed to listen. We should have learned from the civil rights movement; blacks, whites and all this. We should have learned from apartheid. We should have learned from slavery. But in 2023, we have governments introducing a penalty for people who simply love differently. For me, that’s my ache right now.

*Stonewall Riots: A series of violent confrontations in 1969 between police and gay activists in New York City from which an international gay rights movement was born. (source: Encyclopedia Britannica)

We meet at a particularly dark time for Uganda with the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Before we jump into this new bill and its impacts on the future of the LGBT community, it’s important to talk about the history of the legislative assault on homosexuality in Uganda since it’s not something new. Provisions in Uganda’s Penal Code, which render homosexuality a punishable offence, are a colonial remnant. Can you point to some key moments that allow us to better understand the current landscape in Uganda?

It’s very ironic that you ask me this just a week after Uganda celebrated Ugandan Martyrs’ Day, which commemorates the 45 Christian converts who were brutally murdered by King Kabaka Mwanga II. They were deemed martyrs and have since been celebrated around the world. Even many popes have come to Uganda just to celebrate this fateful day. It was significant because this is when colonialists and evangelical groups came and distorted the African traditional beliefs and brought the Bible and, with it, all the sins in the Bible. And one of the sins was men loving men. After Ugandans converted to Christianity, they saw same-sex love as an abomination, as a sin. And many died for that cause. This is the day that is celebrated around the world. When I look back, if it wasn’t for such invasions of colonialists, or missionaries, taking advantage of the poor countries and our societies, I don’t think we would be where we are today. 

We are seeing that history keeps repeating itself. We had the colonialists then, now we have the extreme right that are taking advantage of dominant religious countries like Uganda. The evangelical groups* failed to indoctrinated their beliefs in their own societies and therefore indoctrinate ours. They’ve created schools and churches, and also hosted the first anti-gay conferences in universities, in parliament, in churches. In establishing these, they planted the seeds, which are growing and spreading all over. 

(AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, File)

One of the most scarring experiences I endured was attending a conference at a university organized by American evangelicals in Uganda, which ended up being an anti-gay conference. As an openly-out lesbian, they knew who I was. They took photos with me. And they kept referring to me. If I had any doubts about my sexuality, I would have become ex-gay because of their treatment of me. I’m telling you it was so intense and powerful that people who have sex with same-sex people for different reasons would stop doing it if they attended that conference.

For me, my heart attack came from when they said that the gay community had a blueprint to recruit young people to homosexuality.  A year later, a newspaper came out from the students who attended that conference, and it read, “Hang them! They are after your children.” When you went to that article, it began with a quote that was falsely attributed to me, saying that we are after young children because the old are going to die. That’s why I went to court. But unfortunately, we didn’t accomplish much. My friend, fellow activist David Kato, whose name was listed in the article, was killed. This shows you the impacts of the seeds planted by the evangelicals. 

*Evangelicalism in Uganda: North American evangelical missionary groups became particularly prominent in Uganda in the 1980s after the fall of dictator Idi Amin. Often operating as charity NGOS, they quickly cemented their influence, building health clinics, schools, orphanages and churches across the country. In the process, they helped push their agenda of homophobia as Ugandas converted in large numbers, building on the already-existent anti-gay stance in the country. In the 1990s, their agenda experienced further support amidst the moral panic that came with the HIV/AIDs epidemic. (source: How U.S Evangelicals Helped Homophobia Flourish in Africa, Foreign Policy Magazine)

The new Anti-Homosexuality Act essentially adds on to those seeds that have been planted and the existing legislation in place. It creates harsher punishments for homosexuality, including the death penalty. What was your initial reaction to the act? Were you surprised by its passage?

I don’t know why anyone is shocked. Because, first of all, the penal code is very clear. It already imposes up to life imprisonment for homosexuality. I would expect people to be shocked that we are introducing another law because we already have it in our penal code. It’s seven years to fourteen years to life imprisonment. The only thing that this law has brought in is more audacious clauses regarding promotion, reporting, and the death penalty. But already, our laws, the Penal Code Act of 1995, Chapter 160, already has life imprisonment. So, this shows you that even the people who make these laws are actually very naive and ignorant about what they’re passing.

“People support this law just because of the title without actually knowing the content, without knowing that this bill is not only going to affect people like me, but people perceived to be like me.”

It also criminalizes those who fail to report.

Our friends, our doctors, and our families, landlords, etc. The ignorance and naïveté of our lawmakers is just too much and it bothers me and makes me so sad. The Government was very wise when the President sent it back to remove the issue of reporting. Because according to the initial version, you didn’t have to prove anything. You simply could say, “x person is gay.” By the time you clear your name, it has already been spoiled and bad news travels fast. It has far-reaching effects beyond the LGBT community. The change was very political, politically motivated. They’re trying to cover themselves up. But it’s too late, it’s already passed. My only worry about this law is that its impacts are already being felt.

Can you speak further on these immediate impacts?

Even as I’m talking to you now, there’s this video of a lesbian couple being harassed. I just got it moments before this interview. We managed to get them to safety. 

We’ve seen many videos of transgender people being undressed and paraded on the streets and recorded. These videos are moving on every social media platform. We have landlords who are already talking to us, those who still will, with regards to evictions. But some in our community have already been evicted, thrown out without any notice because of fear of the law. We’ve also seen a significant increase in blackmail, extortion, etc.

“I won’t say it’s too late because we have to do something about it. Because if we don’t do anything, it will get out of hand. We’re ready.”

We prepared for the law’s passage. Within a few hours after the signing, we went to court. It was something instant because it was something that we already knew we were going to do as there are so many issues that have already occurred. The government thinks that this time they played everything by the book, but we got them. I feel that, more than ever, it’s time for the Western world to open its borders, with open arms.

Watch her speech at the 2018 Geneva Summit here

With regards to those two women you brought to safety, is your aim to them transition to another country or more so that you are providing them a safe place within Uganda?

A safe place to go to because they cannot return to their home. They’ve been exposed. People will come and hurt them. I wish it was that easy to get people out of Uganda. Trust me, I would get all of my community, at least those I have worked with for the last 20 years, out of there.

With regards to myself, I’m thinking of not going back to Uganda. It was not in my plan. I came to the US for medical treatment. But with what is going on and all of the hate speech and hate on social media, I’m starting to wonder whether it is really worth it. Or maybe I can do much more from afar. I’m undecided. Everything will depend on how my treatment goes and whether I will be in the right state of mind because it would certainly be a difficult return. It’s always difficult. I started the gay movement in Uganda. I was a young child. I didn’t know that I was going to even go through all this. I started my activism to simply save myself from my university, I didn’t know it was going to grow big and become a movement. For me, it’s always dangerous. If I return, they know where to find me. They can get me, they can arrest me. That’s okay because I’m ready for them.

“The question is, how can I best serve my community?”

Is it better if I stay here and actually make it even worse for the government? I’m actually a bigger threat for them when I’m out of Uganda. I have to think wisely about my community because we have a mission to accomplish. I have a family. I’m a married person, and we are taking care of our babies and all that. I also have my health to worry about. These decisions will be made after my surgery next month. 

For me, the mere fact that people continue to say that this is Africa, and that this bill is to protect our children is concerning. We already have laws protecting children. If they’re not strong enough, why don’t you go and make them stronger? It also breaks my heart that when they say children, they’re talking about those under the age of 18. We know we have youths who are not children. We have adolescents who write to us saying they are confused about their development, how they’re growing. But now, we are being banned from talking to them. If I talk to them, that’s considered recruitment. That’s promotion. These youths are going to become lost and I believe we are going to see an increase, unfortunately, in suicides.

Very many people who are in the movement now say I saved their lives for the mere fact that they saw me on TV talking, or when they saw my books and magazines everywhere. Now it will be difficult to do that. So we need to figure out how to utilize the digital world to reach these people. But how is that even possible in villages where there is no electricity? We cannot reach them because they don’t even have electricity, they don’t even have phones. They’ve never even sat in a car. This is my worry. How are we going to reach that one person out there who needs our help or would benefit from the information? Many parents called saying they didn’t even know the word transgender. They didn’t even know what it meant. But after reading my magazines, they know why their child is the way they are. Providing such information is now criminalized. So It’s going to be tough.

But we need all kinds of support because we need to devise new means to continue this work. We still have a long way to go. We are currently just petitioning and challenging the new bill. We still have to seek decriminalization. We still have to go and document all the abuses and the violations to build a proper case for decriminalization. And if we are afraid to move within the country, we can’t do that. So it’s tough.

You mentioned that it’s time for the international community to start opening their borders and, I would imagine, start lending more support beyond merely condemning the law. The president of the US expressed condemnation. He threatened to impose sanctions. Similarly, the European Union and the United Nations condemned the law. The UN went as far as to say it’s the worst of its kind in the world at the moment. And while I would imagine that it’s good that they openly express those things, what type of action do you hope they would show?

It’s great to see world leaders stand up openly and condemn the law because over the last two decades, we’ve seen people who say, “I’ll support you under the table.” In response, we’d say, “If you can support us under the table, who is going to know? We need people to know that you’re with us.” To see people standing out openly is a good thing. But we need action. 

We need the Government of Uganda to know that this is a serious violation of human rights. But also, we need the government of Uganda to pay so that other countries in Africa do not follow suit. Just last month, in April, the Ugandan First Lady hosted the Interfaith Parliamentarian Family-Values Conference. And out of that conference, a member of parliament in Kenya went back to Kenya and proposed an anti-homosexuality law to “protect family values.”

We do not want this virus to spread across the continent because you’re going to see another genocide occur if serious sanctions are not placed on Uganda. Uganda is my country. But in any war, there are sacrifices. I’m on the front line because I gave myself up, knowing that being on the front line, in any war, anything could happen.

“Uganda has put itself on the front line in the fight against homosexuality. It should be ready for any sanctions because it’s a war.”

If it means cutting aid, let it be cut so that other countries do not follow suit. Uganda is just 41 million people. If a country of 41 million people can save a billion on the continent, so be it. As an openly gay person, I put myself out on the front line. I’m ready for the repercussions. Uganda has made it very clear that it’s ready for repercussions. And I want to be very clear, cut the aid. Because this aid, first of all, does not even reach where it’s supposed to go. It’s full of corruption. It goes to only a tiny group of people anyway. There is nothing we are saving here because the aid is not reaching where it’s supposed to. Even the medication in health care does not reach the people it needs to.

Uganda is one of the main recipients of the US’ PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Established back in 2003 under President George W. Bush to limit the spread of HIV/AIDS, it is hailed as one of the most successful health programs of its kind in terms of the number of lives saved. Following the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, what has been the discussion regarding the continuance of foreign aid to Uganda through health programs such as PEPFAR?

I was in DC after the Anti-Homosexuality Act was passed. We had several meetings with PEPFAR, with the UN, USAID, with the National Security Council, with Secretary Blinken. We’ve made it very clear: Uganda has made itself a frontliner. You don’t go on the front line when you’re not ready to sacrifice. I do not want anyone to think we are selfish. The LGBT community in Uganda is not a pariah community. We are part and parcel of the development of our country. But we have not even seen where the funds are going apart from a few hands. The week the government first started discussing the anti-gay bill was the same week they were supposed to be discussing the corruption that even the speaker of parliament was involved in. The people who are supposed to be rehabilitating our nation embezzle. They tried to distract the nation by proposing the Anti-Homosexuality Act. We are always the scapegoat. I just want people whose taxpayer money comes to Uganda to know what it’s worth. Uganda needs to pay a price to show other African countries to watch out.

“What are you going to protect if you cannot protect your own citizens?”  

As an alum of the Geneva Summit, I’m grateful that you keep reaching out year-after-year to past speakers. I’ve addressed the summit twice; when the bill was first introduced, and then when the bill was first signed, and then we went to court. The mere fact that you continue to give me the platform shows that it’s not just a one off. You really care about your speakers. You really care about the platform you give people. It’s not just about this luxurious platform where people speak, dissidents speak, activists and scholars, and then that’s it. You follow up, you continue to check on people. For me that is really very powerful. Very, very powerful that you continue to do this. You’re not just going to invite me one day and that’s it. You continue to follow my work. You continue to check on me. So for me, I want to say kudos to you. I think very many people can learn something from you.

Thank you. It’s certainly something that we aim to do. The issues raised by our speakers continue after each summit and so our work can’t end there. Often these issues just continue, and if not, get worse, as we’re seeing today.  

Source: AP

As a final question. In light of Pride month and amidst the rise of state-sponsored homophobia across the globe, what message do you want to leave readers, not only those who belong to the LGBTQ+ community, but also their supporters?

Ten years ago, I started Pride Uganda. It wasn’t easy. Even at the very first Pride, we were raided by police and arrested. It continued to occur over the years. But that didn’t stop us. We would tell people to come ready to run. And every year it just grew. That showed that people were really willing to stand up and fight. Because for me, I see people saying pride is a protest. No.

“Pride isn’t just a protest. Pride is both a protest and a celebration. A protest because we still have a lot to do.”

We still have a lot to tell the police, to tell the government, to tell our parents, to tell our teachers, our doctors, our friends, our partners, who do not understand us. But Pride is also a celebration that at least we made it one year, or one week, to even be able to raise our flag. So people can decide to pride in a protest or to pride in a celebration. It’s pride month. I definitely will march one way or another even if I’m in a wheelchair. I remember when we were celebrating 50 years of the Stonewall riots, I was in a scooter.

A message to refugee LGBTs all over the world who are trying to escape their countries to places where they can be open and free. In your seeking to go to free lands, we know you’re facing homophobes, transphobes, and other people who harass and persecute you. Please do not lose hope. We are here, we are doing whatever we can to help you, to make sure that everyone gets to safety. 

To the people who are reading this, it may be your first time hearing from a proud, lesbian, feminist Ugandan. When you see our petitions across your desk or on the internet, please sign them. They are very important. Donate to our causes. We need all the support we can get. Follow us on our social media so that you can know exactly what is happening on the continent so that you’re well informed on how to support.  You cannot be free when other people around the world are not free.I just want to thank you for even taking the time to read this. That’s already support because you’ve given your time, meaning you care. Go beyond just watching and click the button and donate to our causes. Support us.  Write to your diplomats in your countries. Thank you to the Geneva Summit for always giving me a platform and space, and even the care and support you always show to all of us around the world.

Thank you.