Chris Blattman

Is Uganda a good place to be gay?

I’m always amazed by how much people share with me when all I’ve done is ask. But when I went to Uganda a month ago, I was especially astounded. At a time when an anti-homosexuality bill threatens to criminalize loving and living, several gay friends nonetheless invited me to their homes and allowed me to take their photos, to write down their names, to risk further exposure.

That is Scarlett Lion. See her photos here and Time article here. Uganda’s parliament will vote on an anti-homosexuality bill in the coming weeks.

It’s hard to find a news story that fails to mention Uganda’s conservative and religious culture, solidly anti-homosexual. It’s impossible to find one that suggests Uganda is a gay African’s best hope. But that may just be true.

Homophobia is real and widespread. Yet Uganda boasts a vibrant gay rights movement, and nowhere else in Africa have I seen a more open and public debate. Gay men and women tell their stories in the newspapers; protests and legal battles get fair and often favorable coverage in the press. Every single editorial board of every major newspaper is solidly behind the gay rights movement.

The anti-homosexuality bill, simply put, is a backlash. A backlash from a group that, in the long run, is losing the battle of ideas.

Last week, This American Life replayed the story how a small group of American psychologists transformed their profession in just three years, ultimately removing homosexuality from the list of diseases and disorders. That the change could happen so quickly was unimaginable even to them at the time. Indeed, the American shift in attitudes towards gays, while far from complete, must be among the most rapid social transformations in human history. It has spread to Uganda.

Like most countries, Uganda remains a terrible and difficult place to be gay. But far from a losing war, Uganda is the front line in the battle for gay rights.

I think they are winning.

6 Responses

  1. Thanks — this is a really interesting post and it is invaluable to have voices like yours to counter dominant media narratives for people like myself who are not otherwise well-versed in the nuances of issues like this

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  2. I would echo Michael Yarborough’s point. Xtra! from Canada is practically the only news outlet doing good in-depth coverage and covering the Ugandan LGBT movement properly.

    I’ve just seen a very good example of how coverage distorts. In Kenya (Mombasa region) there was an anti-gay riot, believed orchestrated by religious leaders, in early February. Kenyan gay, HIV/AIDS and human rights groups have put great efforts into countering incitement and are succeeding. They have done solid work with educating Muslim and Christian leaders.

    But this story remains untold, instead one group of violent US evangelical Christian’s targeting of a gay Kenyan leader is what is all over the LGBT blogs. One very prominent blog was fed (by me) my story on the Kenyan good news but, instead, chose to highlight a Christian radio station’s incitement rather than the success in countering this type of incitement on the ground.

    It’s depressing to see this happening again and again. I’m not totally sure whether to characterise it as incompetence or racism or a mixture of both, or what to do about it. Suggestions welcome …

    For my coverage start with the latest and work back

  3. Hi Chris,
    I’d like to quote you from this piece in a story I’m writing on Uganda for DNA, a gay lifestyle and current affairs magazine. Can I have your permission and what attribution would you like attached to it?
    Nick Cook
    DNA Magazine

  4. At the core is religion. The debate was stirred up by American evangelicals giving fiery sermons to a receptive audience. The fact is that there is a racial/religious element to it, not just in Africa but African descendants everywhere, including America, because religion is deeply ingrained into the culture. African-Americans in California were instrumental in passing the recent anti-homosexual amendment. Homosexuality is not accepted in any African community that I can think of, including throughout the Caribbean. Uganda is even more outrageous in harboring another problem not mention in the homosexuality coverage, that of child sacrifice, killing children for some spiritual purposes.

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. I am a graduate student (also at Yale, incidentally) who studies the LGBTI community in South Africa, and I have been saying this for weeks. One mustn’t underplay the depth and breadth of anti-gay feeling in Africa, of course, but the story is so much more complex than the MSM or–equally importantly–many popular LGBT blogs in the West have assumed. There’s also an undercurrent of racism in much of the coverage that I find troubling, depending as it so often does on stereotypes of the ignorant, histrionic African.

    Although I might argue that SA has at least as sophisticated a public debate around sexual orientation as Uganda, not to mention a much stronger legal situation. ;-) But in any event, thanks for this very important point.

  6. Thanks – this is a really interesting post and it is invaluable to have voices like yours to counter dominant media narratives for people like myself who are not otherwise well-versed in the nuances of issues like this.

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