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July 14, 2010

Being gay in Uganda

The government of Uganda is considering legislation that would introduce life sentences and the death penalty as acceptable ways to deal with homosexuality, which already is illegal in the African nation.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill also includes penalties for individuals and organizations that support LGBT rights and for Ugandans who have same-sex relations outside of Uganda. So basically, the country’s legislators are looking to “eliminate” Uganda’s gay community.

Making the situation even more disturbing is the fact that several American evangelical Christians reportedly inspired the bill after visiting Uganda to preach at a seminar demonizing homosexuality.

I spoke with 29-year-old Ugandan LGBT activist Val Kalende, who recently stopped in Louisville during a visit to the United States, a trip hosted in part by the World Affairs Council. In her written bio, she states, “I have been arrested, thrown out of houses by landlords, harassed by angry mobs, denied by family, excommunicated from church and discriminated by employers … The one thing that keeps me going is the love and hope I have for the struggle and the progress we have made as a group of young activists in my country.”

Here’s an excerpt from our interview:

LEO: What is your daily life like as an out lesbian in Uganda?
Val Kalende: I live in fear all the time. There’s not a single day when I am not scared of what could happen in the next minute. We don’t know what’s going to happen with the bill, and we don’t know what the so-called religious right is planning to do. So, it makes my life very unpredictable. But, at the same time, you have to pick yourself up and go to work and do what you can do. You have to keep speaking out, and you have to keep representing the community. That’s what my life is all about: activism.

LEO: What does it feel like for you to be in the United States?
VK: It is refreshing. It’s like taking a break from all the hassles of home. It is interesting to me that people want to talk freely with you about your life. And I’ve been reading a lot about the history of gay rights in this country, and it’s really inspiring.

LEO: How has America played a role in the creation of this bill?
VK: The U.S. has had an influence on civil rights in Uganda through those who have come to Uganda to spread their anti-gay messages. I know that they are kind of distancing themselves from the responsibility for what they have caused already. I am not saying that they are totally responsible for the bill. Homophobia has always been part of our society in Uganda, like in America. But I think it is important to say that it is wrong when a group of Americans come to African countries and start preaching homophobia, pushing an agenda they cannot even push in their own country. I think they should be held accountable.

LEO: What can Americans do to help further your cause, to help the LGBT community in Uganda?
VK: Well, the first mistake any American person could do is to distance themselves from what is happening in Africa right now. When you say that it is only a Ugandan struggle, when you don’t relate it to your own American experience with the gay rights movement, then I think that’s a very big mistake, because what is happening in Uganda could happen anywhere.

I know the American people have come this far, that there was a time when being gay was not as accepted. We need to (identify) those kind of similarities between our struggles. It starts in your own home, the way you talk about these issues …

LEO: I think it is it healthy to look at this as a human rights issue, because it is about more than just being gay. It is about treating human beings with respect …
VK: Yes, and without labeling them as “so-and-so” and “such-and-such.” I think if we could get Uganda to look at gay people as human beings, that’s a fundamental perspective. You cannot separate LGBT rights from human rights. And that’s what we are trying to tell our politicians back home … I think the more people come to understand that this is a human rights issue, the more they get to talk about it and question things, which is a good thing.