From HIV Prevention to Wild Parties: Activist John Wambere on Uganda's 'Overwhelming Gay Life'

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As I was waiting for the mass to end at Christ Church Cambridge one Sunday morning and for John Wambere to come out of the church so that we could start our interview, I started going over what I really knew about being queer in Uganda. I knew how stigmatized the community was, how HIV was a huge threat, how it was illegal to be gay. I also knew about the forced outings in the media from Call Me Kuchu, a documentary about gay life in Uganda. But, unless I talked to someone who had actually lived there, I could never imagine what it would really be like to realize that you’re queer in a country like Uganda, and to live with it day by day.

I was lucky to talk to John Abdallah Wambere, LGBT activist from Uganda and co-founder of Spectrum, an organization working with providing health care for men who have sex with men. He now lives in Boston, where he sought asylum after having received death threats because of his sexuality in Uganda. I initially interviewed Wambere for my African Languages and Cultures class- but I realized the interview needs to reach a wider audience, as it gives nuance to many Western conceptions about being queer in Africa. From very specific problems, such as illiteracy or health concerns, to the positive or hopeful aspects of being gay in the country, such as how united the community is or how crazy the parties are, Wambere’s stories give substance to our image of Ugandan gay life.

Tadej Znidarcic

Founding Spectrum and Providing Health Care

“I struggled with my sexuality for some time. I’m a proud father of a daughter, and I thought that by having a child I would get all of that struggle off my back. But it never ended there, I was just lying to myself”. For Wambere, accepting his own sexuality was the first and perhaps most difficult step towards founding his organization and helping others in the community. He finds it ridiculous that he then first found out about a place where the gay community meets in Uganda from a foreigner.

The rest came naturally: his mother had a background in medicine and some of his family struggled with HIV, so he was accustomed with common symptoms of STDs. “I noticed some of my friends were dying and I couldn’t figure out the cause. HIV in Africa is considered a heterosexual disease, so I didn’t know anal sex was a risk behavior”. He started referring his friends to a doctor he knew and, in time, his name started being related to connecting people to health services. Later, as this network expanded, an Australian HIV activist helped Wambere and a few friends of his get an NGO started- an NGO Wambere is still involved in now, even from Boston. Spectrum, although a registered not-for-profit organization, does not mention working with the LGBT community in its official papers: legally, it fights for more “socially acceptable” causes such as better health care or poverty eradication.

Wambere underlines that “culture, religion and law are against homosexuality. Even though a doctor signed to save lives, those three elements come in the way”. Spectrum now fights for such situations not to occur, even dealing with cases where doctors refuse to treat patients because of their sexuality. As they advanced in their work, the members of Spectrum realized “the problem wasn’t that the community wasn’t aware of what was going on: the problem was that the health care providers were totally ignorant of the challenges and the diseases in the gay community”. They increasingly started focusing on orienting and informing health care providers on the specific needs of the community.

“You forget about the harassment and you just go party like never before”

Wambere’s work, however, goes beyond providing health care. He managed to mobilize the community through his passion and devotion. “If I needed to support some members of the community to come to an event I would pay out of my pocket”. And that’s how he was slowly able to gain their trust. Thanks to activists like Wambere, the community is more and more united, when it comes to protests, signing petitions or supporting each other. When fellow LGBT activist David Kato was murdered in 2011, there was a court case which many members of the community attended in solidarity. They often support feminist causes or attend health workshops to make sure their voices are heard when it comes to HIV/ AIDS policy.

Yet apart from protests and court cases, Wambere smiled when he told me that “the gay life in Uganda is overwhelming”. People come in big numbers at gay events and especially parties, usually held in private homes or closed venues. These events aren’t always safe to attend, but they’re an essential safe space: “At some point, you forget about the name calling, about the harassment, the intimidation, you just go party like never before”.

Social media plays a huge role in finding out where these parties are, and the word simply goes around from person to person. Yet because people can’t afford to be out, it can easily be alienating to realize you’re gay. Wambere recalls how, some time ago, he came across a couple who thought they were the only queer people in the area. They didn’t know about anyone else until they saw gay people being outed over the news. That’s when they called Wambere on his personal phone to find out about parties and ways to socialize with the community.

Tadej Znidarcic

The Dangers of Coming Out

Although perhaps it would become less alienating to be gay if more and more people came out, Wambere advises against it. “Many LGBT people say ‘it’s my life, I cannot pretend, I can’t act like it’s not me’, which is totally fine. But from my side, I would tell this person ‘I know you are struggling, but you need to keep it calm. You can’t come out and lose your future.’”. Some queer people are blackmailed and threatened to be outed to the authorities. An even bigger issue is that many parents find out about their children and stop supporting them financially. The result is, according to Wambere, that the majority of the community is now unemployed, and almost as many are illiterate. Without their parents’ support, they cannot continue their education.

Because of that, a true necessity right now for the Ugandan LGBT community is establishing vocational programs or school opportunities: “complete your education and then you have a free world”, Wambere says. He would like to see more and more queer doctors, who could maybe better understand the community’s needs. He would also like to be able to hire LGBT people at the organization’s events: “sometimes even we as an LGBT community need to hire people with specific skills- for example, a chef; we can put the money back into them to support their businesses.” But that is often impossible given the current situation.

Hope after the Anti-gay Bill

The generalized lack of acceptance is far from disconnected from politics. The anti-homosexuality bill, which first included the death penalty for having homosexual relations and then, in a later version, life imprisonment for homosexuality, was proposed in 2009. Many youth moved to Kenya and sought refugee status because of it. The bill is not a one-time occurrence: politicians often use and encourage anti-gay hatred to win votes. “I think it’s greed to focus on homosexuality because there are so many more pressing issues that a country like Uganda should be focusing on: education, infrastructure, corruption, etc”, mentions Wambere.

According to the activist, there was a positive side even to the the anti-gay law. Its wide exposure in the media made homosexuality enter the mainstream more and more: “every household has come to terms with the fact that homosexuality actually exists in our country”. Wambere is hopeful that, one day, people will get tired of the hateful rhetoric of politicians. They will see, from many examples, that gays are not actually pedophiles or molesters, as they are often portrayed, and mentalities will change. Ugandan politics is also seeing many young politicians go into parliament, which might, in its turn, have a positive impact on the queer community.

For many, whether politicians or simple citizens, the anti-gay rhetoric ultimately revolves around saying that “homosexuality is not African”. Wambere easily combats that perception. He just asks: “how do you call homosexuals in your language?”. “If there’s a word for homosexuality, then you need to rethink your position, because these languages have been around for hundreds of years”. He then goes on to prove that these words truly exist. In Lugisu, his father’s language, “mudiga” directly means homosexual. In Luganda, one of the most widespread languages in Uganda, “omusiyazi” has the same direct meaning. Swahili has several words for it. On top of the preexistent words, Wambere and his friends also came up with the word “kuchu”, a word used for self-identification. Is is only known by the community and thus allows for gay-identified people to discuss the subject without the others understanding what they’re talking about.

Whether it is a new word, like kuchu, only known by the community in order to allow its members to talk freely about themselves, the wild parties and events, or people like John Wambere, who put all their energy and resources into queer activism, there is hope for the Ugandan gay community. Despite the illiteracy and lack of acceptance from parents, the stigma or the overwhelming political opposition, the Ugandan LGBT community exists and continues to find creative ways to fight its problems, many of which we do not hear about in mainstream Western media.