Matt Beard, Executive Director of All Out, travelled to Uganda Pride earlier this month to support the local LGBT+ community. Below he writes of the resistance they faced from a totalitarian regime determined to suppress LGBT+ equality, and how they managed a small celebration in defiance.
As I waited for my taxi at Entebbe Airport, I was full of hope and expectation about Pride Uganda 2017. Over the next few days, LGBT people were finally going to come together in a series of events to celebrate community, diversity and pride. Such moments are rare and precious in Uganda. There are few, if any, opportunities for LGBT people to feel the strength of common action. Pride is like fuel for activists campaigning against the odds for their rights.
As my ride pulled up, my phone started beeping insistently. Isaac Mugisha, coordinator of the Pride Uganda Organising Committee, was sending frantic messages, telling me that the opening gala event – due to start just a few hours later – was under threat.
Even though negotiations with the police about the event (a private, invitation-only function) had been positive, the Ugandan Minister of ‘Ethics and Integrity’, Simon Lokodo, had visited the Sheraton Hotel that morning and put pressure on the venue to cancel. He then deployed police around the venue in an intimidating show of brute force.
Just half an hour later, I got the devastating news from Isaac that the Sheraton had cancelled the event, stating that they could not proceed in the face of the Minister’s opposition. Three hundred guests, including diplomatic representatives from the US and EU, had to be told that the gala was off. All this was happening with just a few hours’ notice.
After arriving at my hotel, I went to meet All Out’s partner activists. The mood was bleak: Lokodo’s threats were now, unsurprisingly, directed at the other events planned for the week, including the main Pride parade itself. After months of painstaking planning and so much anticipation in the community, there was a sense of disbelief that – once again – Lokodo would deny LGBT citizens in Uganda the simple right to be together.
The next morning, I joined the Organising Committee and the security working group in an emergency meeting. The atmosphere was tense, not helped by the fact that a few of those present believed they had been followed by Government agents. The team debated whether it was safe to attempt a watered-down version of the original program or whether the whole week’s events needed to be cancelled.
I could really feel the agony of this choice in that room. On the one hand, going ahead in defiance of Lokodo risked the kind of brutality, arrests and injured and abused bodies that happened when I was here for last year’s Pride. On the other hand, letting Lokodo intimidate us felt like a surrender that would silence us and strengthen him and his bigotry.
In the end, a plan was agreed to invite a small number of LGBT people to come together in a public bar that evening. No reserved space, no speeches, no political program: just a group of LGBT citizens coming together for a drink. But just three hours after we agreed the plan, Lokodo was aware of it and was issuing bullying threats of arrest by text message to activists. Those already at the bar fled before the arrival of the police. Those who were on their way, turned back.
Letting Lokodo intimidate us felt like a surrender that would silence us and strengthen him and his bigotry.
The fact that Lokodo knew of these plans so quickly was terrifying and a real insight into what totalitarian control really feels like – either our phones were being hacked or there was in internal informer. Either prospect was chilling.
After forcing the cancellation of the formal event the previous evening, this really felt like a cruel twisting of the knife by Lokodo. The Minister was acting illegally. Ugandans’ constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association had been blatantly violated.
It is hard to convey the sense of righteous anger and rage that the community was feeling that evening. Lokodo was mercilessly hunting down and bulling law-abiding citizens. The Government was treating LGBT people as an internal enemy. Isaac captured this when he said to the media: “All my community is asking for is to be treated with dignity and respect by our Government and fellow citizens. We won’t give up until this is achieved.”
Friday should have been the day in which Pride participants reached out to the wider community. They were planning HIV awareness and prevention work as well as donations to local hospitals. They wanted to give, with dignity, to a society that shuns them. But, yet again, Lokodo denied LGBT people this generous initiative.
The community woke on Saturday morning knowing that this would have been the time to dress up and get ready for the Pride parade. It should have been a moment for the nervous but excited anticipation of a brave, defiant, joyous day of community activism and celebration. It was the moment everyone had been waiting for. Movingly, someone posted on Facebook the bright blue glitter stilettos they had been planning to wear.
On Saturday evening, a small group of LGBT people were finally able to beat Lokodo in the game of cat and mouse that had been played all week long. The crew from the amazing Rainbow Riots project managed to hold a small, but joyously defiant, party. This was literally the first time LGBT people had succeeded in coming together for the whole week. Security was understandably tight. I was told I would be picked up by a driver, but was not given the name of the venue.
After a short drive, we reached a large Chinese restaurant complex. The driver called someone. I was picked up and led through a basement car park and then up to a small function room. My heart leapt with joy. The space was so gay!
All Out will continue to stand with our brothers and sisters in the LGBT community.
Each time hotel staff came into the room, we pretended we were celebrating someone’s birthday. But what we actually did was sing loudly and dance wildly to the powerful and uplifting tracks of liberation and protest on the Rainbow Riots album. And half-way through the evening, I was moved close to tears when the Pride Organising Committee halted the proceeding to present All Out and its members with an award.
All Out members from over 50 countries chipped in financially to enable Pride Uganda 2017 to happen. It was an awesome display of global solidarity and common action, that really boosted local activists.
All Out will continue to stand with our brothers and sisters in the LGBT community here because we know that – with the global solidarity they enjoy – they will eventually prevail. You can ban peaceful gatherings, you can silence dissent, you can use hard, raw power to bully and coerce others. But you will never extinguish the hunger for freedom, respect and dignity that are at the very heart of the Ugandan LGBT movement. The struggle continues.
Words Matt Beard
You can send a message of solidarity direct to activists in the Ugandan LGBT community by clicking here.