Katie G. Nelson
“My name is Mark Collins and I want the world to know we exist.”
Speaking from a secret safe house in Uganda’s capital, Collins, a soft-spoken, 18-year-old is one of more than a dozen gay or transgender men who were forced into hiding after their photos were published in a local tabloid after Uganda’s gay pride festival.
“They put our photos on the Internet – everyone has seen it,” he said. “If they catch you and they recognize you, they can kill you.”
The local tabloid Hello! Uganda ran photos of more than 20 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Ugandans in the days following Uganda Pride, a five-day festival for the Ugandan LGBT community.
Facing threats of violence, discrimination and possible prison time for his sexual identity, Collins fled his home in search of safer grounds. But in a country where homosexuality is still illegal and punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment, Collins – and dozens of other “outed” Ugandans – quickly realized they had nowhere to hide.
Fortunately, Collins got lucky.
He and several other gay and transgender men found temporary refuge at one of the only underground LGBT safe houses in Uganda.
“They’re keeping me here because I have nowhere else to go,” explains Badru Jamal, a 20-year-old Ugandan who’s staying at the safe house. “The safest place is the club (safe house). All the LGBT go here.”
Funded by a group of undisclosed donors and staffed by unpaid gay-rights advocates, this single-story house is one of the only secure, LGBT-friendly spaces in Uganda – and it was much needed in wake of Uganda’s early August gay pride festival.
Targeted attacks against the gay community and members of the media surged after Uganda Pride, with separate assaults on a Ugandan and U.S.-based journalist, as well as people who attended pride events.
But Collins and Jamal also know that time is running out.
These displaced men were given just one week of refuge before needing to find new places to sleep; it’s just too dangerous to allow so many gay Ugandans to stay in one house, they’re told.
“Everyone is in hiding – it’s risky for someone to keep me,” said Jamal. “Basically, here, there’s no safety.”
Collins nods his head in agreement.
“To be trans, it’s in your blood,” Collins said. “This is the way I feel, this is the way I am – I cannot change,” Collins said. “But we don’t know what to do.”
The Ugandan LGBT community held their fourth annual Pride Uganda festival in early August, a five-day consisting of cocktail hours, drag shows and a gay pride parade held at a secluded beach area about 30 miles outside of Kampala.
Despite the lighthearted nature of this year’s Pride Uganda, it was clear that life as a gay or transgender Ugandan is far from carefree.
Uganda is one of 39 African countries where homosexuality is illegal; four of which include the death penalty as punishment according to Amnesty International.
But strict anti-homosexuality laws aren’t the only obstacle gay and transgender Ugandans face. Stories of homophobic-based discrimination, violent assaults and even murder are common among members of the LGBTQ community. Due to legal and social restrictions, most advocacy organizations are unable to provide direct assistance, forcing LGBTQ Ugandans to depend on their own community or fend for themselves.
Sitting under a thatched-roof beach banda on the shores of Lake Victoria, Nash Wash – who identifies as a transgender woman – explains why she came to the Uganda Pride parade that afternoon.
“I was hit and chased out of my home,” she explained. “So when I come to such a place, I expect help. “
Wash traveled several hours to the gay pride parade in hopes off finding someone who could help her find a temporary place to stay. But she was out of luck.
“In Uganda (homosexuality) is something that is illegal … so they couldn’t give me help,” Wash said. “You really see there’s no hope for us.”
Jamal sits alone at a table nearby and listens to Wash’s conversation, occasionally fidgeting with the small rainbow flag pinned to the pocket of his denim vest. Like Wash, he too came to the pride parade with the same hopes of finding a place to sleep and something to eat.
Jamal was living inside a small, illegal smokehouse run by three other Ugandans – a temporary stay after his family threw him for being gay.
“Look at this. Look at how we live,” Jamal remarks while sitting on a thin green mat – his former bed inside the 10 by 5-foot mud-walled shed.
A man with glassy, watering eyes peeks his head out of the corner of the room, which is sectioned off by a large sheet of soggy cardboard.
“This is the man who allowed me to stay here,” Jamal said, gesturing to a middle-aged man holding a long wooden pipe, a stream of gray smoke exiting his nostrils. “He was beaten too.”
Jamal only lived in the smokehouse for a short time before the neighbors discovered his secret. A mob came to his door one night and burned all of his belongings, he said. Then a neighbor cut him with the blade of a machete – the large wound on his forearm still visible and weeping several days later.
“My identity was destroyed because of my sexual orientation,” Jamal said. “Every dream of mine is shattered.”
Of the few LGBT organizations in Uganda, only a few are able to operate openly. The rest run on undisclosed donors, unpaid staff and community referrals.
Bob, a 36-year-old Ugandan and full-time manager at the LGBT safe house said he’s been overwhelmed by pleas for help after Hello! Uganda published photos from the Uganda Pride celebration alongside the headline “500 UG (Ugandan) Gays Hold Secret Party.”
“Pride did not hurt anyone, we had a celebration and that’s it,” he said. “But when they published those photos, there were so many implications. … We’re getting outside cases of people getting evicted. We’ve given them a temporary place to stay but we’re very stretched. Very, very stretched,” he said.
For many gay and transgender Ugandans, this safe house acts as the only barrier between homelessness and certain violence, Bob said.
But current funding doesn’t begin to cover the costs of running a counseling, center, housing service and medical clinic that serving around 25 clients per week he said.
In fact Bob – and the staff members – work for free at the safe house, piece-mealing odd jobs together to pay their bills.
“We are riding on passion and we are here not by mistake. We are here. We are staying here. We are not going anywhere,” Bob said.
But despite his dedication, Bob admits it’s difficult to find comfort in a country that doesn’t accept or even tolerate him.
“We are living a life of hiding our souls; we are crying about what we are,” he said. “Homophobia is still very, very alive.”
Sitting on a metal chair under the hot Ugandan sun, Jamal quietly compares his life now to his days studying computer science at a Ugandan university.
“I don’t have any idea what to do. I have no one to talk to. I have nothing,” he said.
Collins walks outside and beings talking to Jamal; standing shoulder-to-shoulder Collins begins to laugh and Jamal follows in suit.
Bob watches the men from his desk, located inside the safe house’s small, single-room clinic that was once a storage shed.
“This can happen to anyone,” Bob said. “It could be your son. It could be your daughter. Today it’s him but tomorrow it may be me.”
Jamal picks up the metal chair and walks into the safe house with Collins, the shards of broken glass on the compound walls catching bright light behind them.
“Yes, we’re under threat but life has to go on,” Bob said. “It’s not all tears. There is the other side of it.”