Ms Keem Bad Black commanded our attention and the stage in a short black dress, gold stilettos and a sharp, straightened, blonde Nicki Minaj wig. She cracked jokes and supercharged the already electric atmosphere among the 300-strong crowd who were on the edge of their seats to see the show. The Venom Club, Kampala was in full swing. Faces of old friends and new around me smiling, I leaned back in my front row seat to take in the atmosphere. What an honour to be here as Grand Marshall, in prime position for the showdown. Tonight we would see which of the eleven finalists from Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, or Kenya would win the crown. Which of these beauties would emerge triumphant from the beauty boot camp to be Mr or Miss Pride Uganda 2016?
Sam, my designated driver, had met me at my hotel about an hour earlier. He’d arrived with Peter who had volunteered to offer security on the night. We’d taken the elevator to the fourth floor venue and, after passing through the security gates that are an everyday part of life for Ugandans, I grabbed a drink and was shown to my seat. I laughed out loud; Ms Keem Bad Black has got jokes!
Then the laughing stopped.
Police in uniform with firearms raised in the air marched through the venue and into the backstage area.
‘Stay close to Peter,’ Isaac whispered in my ear. While my heart beat like it was seeking to run away whether the rest of my body wanted to follow or not, I heeded the advice and in the rush of clarity that abject fear creates, thought about how I got here.
I had first met Isaac Mugisha, Program Director of Spectrum Uganda and member of the Pride Uganda organising team in February 2014 at the PAI (Pan Africa International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association) conference in Nairobi, and again at the Johannesburg PAI conference earlier this year. We discussed whether a similar House Of Rainbow intervention to that currently running in Southern Africa could be established in Uganda. I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I knew Uganda to be a very tough place for LGBTQI people.
In the ten years since House Of Rainbow has been established, the majority of our UK members, especially in London and Manchester, are LGBTQI citizens of Uganda, fleeing the depths of legal discrimination and religious oppression. Oppression that has been given even greater impetus by the passing of the Anti-Homosexual Bill (2009); popularly known as the Bahati Bill, after its sponsor, David Bahati MP.
One organisation described Uganda as the most difficult place to intervene in. For me, this only served to make Uganda the most attractive place to support.
I left the Johannesburg conference in May determined to support Isaac and other Ugandan colleagues in their struggle. House Of Rainbow has some funds allocated to other country work in Central and Southern Africa but nothing yet for East Africa. I spoke to a few organisations, colleagues and individuals about supporting an intervention in Uganda. The response was not overwhelmingly positive. One organisation described Uganda as the most difficult place to intervene in. For me, this only served to make Uganda the most attractive place to support. Human lives and in particular LGBTQI lives depended on it. In regular contact with Pride Uganda, I continued to seek support and develop plans.
In mid-June, Pride Uganda contacted me in the light of the work of House of Rainbow to invite me to be the Grand Marshall for Pride Uganda 2016, I was shocked beyond words as I was not anticipating that such a responsibility and honour would be extended to me.
I needed time to think about what this meant for both them and me. I also needed to take serious advice before accepting. I reflected, prayed and argued with myself. I listed all the reasons why accepting would be a bad idea. I weighed these up with the knowledge that it would be House Of Rainbow’s opportunity to take the Destabilising Heteronormativity Project to the East of Africa. I compared in my mind what my response would have been if I was invited to be Grand Marshall in New York or London? A few weeks later, I decided to accept, notwithstanding the challenges I faced to fund my visit and time in Uganda. The opportunity to meet with activists and many other LGBTQI people of faith had got me excited but I was filled with trepidation.
Before I set out, we spoke at length about security and safety. I even called Maurice Tomlinson, a previous Grand Marshall for advice. I also contacted as many LGBTIQ Ugandan activists in Uganda and abroad to ask for their opinion, support and let them know that I was planning to accept the invitation to be Grand Marshall. I was particularly keen on connecting with a the few faith leaders who have been openly supportive of the LGBTIQ community, I was in contact with Father Anthony Musaala, but he informed me that due to his own reasons he no longer publicly supported LGBTIQ people. I was unable to make contact with Bishop Christopher Senyonjo. Again, I saw this as an additional reason to go.
I spoke to the Board of House of Rainbow, my colleagues were brave and also encouraging. Once I had their support I informed my Spiritual directors and mentors. We spoke extensively about what this might mean with the LGBTIQ people of Uganda at the very core of every decision. I met with the leaders of Out and Proud LGBTIQ group in London for their support. I communicated with other faith leaders prior to arriving in Uganda, including Bishop Joseph Tolton and Reverend Denis Iraguha, and garnered the firm support of several covenanted ministers including Reverend Cathy Bird, Reverend Canon Steven Saxby, Reverend Paul Bailey, Reverend Phil Purkiss and Bishop Otis V. Wilks
I discussed the plans for Uganda with Lucinda Van Den Heever, the Program Manager at AIDS Accountability, House Of Rainbow’s Southern Africa partner. We reallocated some funds to the East Africa project, and secured additional funding in cash and kind to pay for flights. Other sponsorship came in kind from Team Angelica based in the United Kingdom and the Global Justice Institute and Labsul in the USA. Myself and my team in London set out to work, it was a busy time for me as I was expected in Durban from 11th to 24th July, working with Global Interfaith Network and attending the AIDS Conference, following that, I was running a training course in Soweto from 24th to 31st July. I booked a flight from Johannesburg to Entebbe, Uganda arriving just three days earlier on the 1st August.
Earlier that day I had facilitated a Faith, Sexuality and Human Rights workshop. I, like many of the participants, was still buzzing from the experience. We shared that God created and loves LGBTQI people, we concluded that ‘GAY’ stands for ‘God Adores You, God Affirms You, God Accepts You’, not ‘God attack or abandon you’ as many have been made to feel or believe in Uganda. It was an opportunity to share an authentic perspective of what the Bible says in favour of same sex relationships and behaviours. Over thirty delegates attended and were fully involved in all the sessions. Learning different biblical perspectives of LGBTQI human rights was new for many people. There was sense of liberation, freedom and reconciliation, it was a day well spent.
Then a scream.
Two young men, scared for their lives had jumped in panic from the fourth floor window of the venue that had become our prison. One fell onto a building below only to be trapped once more. The other fell to the ground floor, clearly sustaining serious injuries. I prayed that he would not die.
Detained. Held at gunpoint. All the while, police officers shouted abuse and made homophobic comments
Nearly 300 people were corralled into a small area near the entrance of the venue on the fourth floor, with police guarding an iron gate, not allowing anyone out of the building. Detained. Held at gunpoint. All the while, police officers shouted abuse and made homophobic comments, threatening their captives. They singled out men who cross-dressed, forcibly pulling hairpieces, wigs and attachments from trans women. They grabbed at trans men’s chests. They clutched at people’s genitals to assess to their satisfaction whether they were male or female. They went out of their way to humiliate us.
The police forcibly took photographs of us all. Many became hysterical. The police pushed, screamed and shouted. They used their guns as a threat and canes to beat those who tried to resist. They arrested anyone who protested or objected. I was terrified, worried that this could end up badly. An Orlando style horror came to my mind.
I was reminded by Peter to stay calm and follow his lead.
The lead officer (who I now know to be Isaac Mugerwa, DPC for Kabalagala police station) made a series of abusive homophobic and transphobic statements, described the gathering of LGBTQI people as ungodly, and informed us he would not allow such ‘filth’ in his district. He asked for the event organisers to be identified; no one responded. The police looked in my direction and asked me to raise my head so they could photograph me. Those around me whispered that I should keep my head down. Terrified, we were forced to sit on the wet, filthy floor.
I saw Jay Mulucha, my friend, a trans man, being dragged and forced out of the crowd. He was immediately arrested. The police officer took him away, pushing him violently towards the exit. Several other police officers pulled at his hair and slapped him a few times across the face. I noted that they kept pressing against his chest. I was not sure what was said as they spoke in a mixture of English and local languages. He was now in police custody. I feared for his life.
At about 1 am, about two hours since this nightmare started, DPC Isaac Mugerwa, ordered us all back into the main area, took the microphone and offered his explanation for the police raid. Repeating several homophobic and transphobic slurs, he warned LGBTQI people to never step in or organise an event in his district. After nearly 30 minutes of his incoherent bullshit, he ordered people out of the building. The beautiful decorations and rainbow colour curtains were torn off the wall and destroyed; people’s hair littered the floor. We walked quickly away from the premises to a taxi park, where we got transport to the safety of my hotel.
In the early hours of the morning, I managed to contact some of those I knew who were arrested. Thankfully I also got through to Jay, who informed me tearfully that whilst being held in the car by the police, they forcibly interfered with him touching his genitals and grabbing his chest, slapping him several times with their bare hands. He was afraid that he would be raped or worse be killed.
I was very angry. We both started to cry.
The next day, we heard news that the police were looking for all the organisers and now wanted to re arrest all the people detained the previous night. This was an uncomfortable place to be. We were aware that all those arrested were being looked for at their homes and that many would now have to flee.
I saw Jay and a few of the others two days later and we spoke about the events of that night. They showed me the physical bruises they had received during arrest, but I became more and more concerned about the longer-term emotional abuse that had taken place. Jay and many others will need long term pastoral counselling and therapy. I strongly believe with the threats, on-going from State government, Jay and others may need to be relocated to safe houses or better still leave the area or even the country.
The news of the raid quickly made it into the foreign media. The news of the lockdown and arrest spread via social media. Following further threats made by the police and government officials, and after taking advice from local activists, a decision was made to reluctantly cancel the 2016 Uganda Pride March and Parade.
I left with a serious check to my privilege. While I stand alongside seriously oppressed communities including LGBTQI people and those seeking sanctuary from societies that fail to recognise their humanity, I have the ability to leave and return to my liberty in the UK.
On the 8th August, four days after the raid on the beauty pageant, and eight days after my arrival in Uganda, I was ready, with support from the British High Commission, to leave the country. I left with a serious check to my privilege. While I stand alongside seriously oppressed communities including LGBTQI people and those seeking sanctuary from societies that fail to recognise their humanity, I have the ability to leave and return to my liberty in the UK. My citizenship means that I have never had the serious anxieties around freedom of movement that so many have to live with. I hear people around me discuss migration in terms of the first world problems of crowded tube trains, lack of school places, or access to low-skilled employment. That night in Club Venom has seared into my mind the truth of the life or death situations, the terror that so many are forced to live in simply for being themselves.
I finally arrived home in the United Kingdom exhausted but feeling safe and happy to be back home. Disheartened by those who chose to rain on the Pride Uganda Parade, but even more determined to support the Ugandan struggle for freedom.
Watch Pepe Julian Onziema on Ugandan Police raid of Mr & Ms Pride Event, his arrest and brutal treatment. https://vimeo.com/179209657
Send your message of support to Pride Uganda sexualminoritiesuganda.com
Rev Jide Macaulay