How to Support the Ugandan LGBTQ Community

I spent the month of January in Uganda. I almost didn't go because in December, as I was planning my trip, the Ugandan parliament passed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (AHB) and I was supposed to be there to support my trans* sisters. Google search my name, and you won't find the NFL player Justin Adkins, you find me, the trans*/queer guy. It didn't seem like a safe idea to head to a place on the brink of criminalizing my very existence and work.

This piece is going to be disconnected, it is full of partial thoughts and half-baked ideas. But what it gets at is that we need to support our LGBT* brothers and sisters around the globe and in our own backyards. It is also about how complicated that idea can be and we need to not just be allies, but stand in solidarity with those affected by violence and hatred.

Today, the AHB was signed into law by President Museveni. The AHB is partially based on the idea that westerners have been coming to Uganda to promote homosexuality and "corrupting" the Ugandan people, turning them gay. I wasn't going to Uganda to promote homosexuality, but as a public trans* person supporting my trans* sisters, it would look the same to many people. What I found when I got to Kampala was a beautiful city and wonderful, loving people. I also found a community living in fear and not able to move around for rational fear of being arrested, attacked or worse.

Spending time with my trans* friends, the tension was palpable. The tension is not just with the government, but with the influence of "The West" as well. What is a person from the U.S. able to do? While I was there, some activists in the U.K. were protesting at the Ugandan Embassy, but there was some question about how much it was actually helping, or how much it was hurting. Are the protests in the U.S., U.K. and other countries just confirming what many Ugandans think? That homosexuality is a western import? Or do these protests show President Museveni that the government will be held accountable to the world for any violence against LGBTQ people? Now that the AHB is law, what happens? Does the U.S. and other countries pull aid money? What happens to those who depend on foreign money to get their medicine?

This is not just a question in regards to Uganda, but Nigeria, Russiamand Arizona as well. WAIT -- Arizona? Yes. What is happening in the U.S.? Who are we to tell other countries what to do? We have our own issues as well. See, the whole situation gets complicated because of the colonialism that we perpetrate around the globe. The root of the Ugandan AHB is, arguably, both in old U.K. anti-homosexuality laws, combined with the import of U.S. pentecostal, missionary-driven homophobic preaching.

I worked as a pentecostal missionary for almost ten years. Yes, me, the queer guy. I worked in Zimbabwe and briefly in Mozambique, Zambia and India. I know first hand the influence that the western church can have on people; I was part of it! I also know that combating religious belief with rational human-rights language is not going to change what is happening against LGBTQ people around the globe. In the U.S., laws and actions are being taken daily based on religious beliefs. Faith is to believe in something that is not seen. Faith is difficult, at best, to challenge. However, the Bible (if that is the book that drives you) is very clear. You are to love your neighbor as yourself; the greatest of the fruits of the spirit is love, etc.

What is happening around the globe is often driven by a false understanding of the Bible and other spiritual texts. I say false understanding because the core of these religious books is love. Yes, they all share that in common.

Back to LGBTQ rights. Trans* women of color are beat up and killed here in the U.S. for the same reasons that they are being beat up and arrested in Uganda, killed in Brazil and South Africa, and in every other country on this planet. Why do I single out trans women of color? Because they are the front lines.

Trans* Women of color are on the front lines of the LGBT*Q movement, always have been. In the U.S., it was trans* women of color and drag queens who fought the police in the 1960s at Compton's Cafeteria and the Stonewall Inn. And, it is trans* women of color who are some of the most vulnerable in modern day Uganda.

Trans* people are the most visible people in the LGBT movement. When you think of a gay man, what do you think of? A burly bear of a man who plays rugby on the weekends, or a person who crosses gender lines and expresses themselves in a feminine way? Trans* women are often seen as gay, because crossing the gender binary line has been a visible characteristic of a queer culture. Crossing the gender binary line has also been a way for sexual minorities to show that they are different. In Uganda, trans people face the additional risk of being arrested for impersonation, not just homosexuality. (Does this remind you of the three garment laws in many parts of the U.S., pre-stonewall?) Often left with limited employment options, trans* people around the world often engage in sex work, and then face additional discrimination form a LGB community who are trying so desperately to be accepted and desexualized. (Please read more about these issues in "Queer (In)Justice" by Joey Mogul, Andrea Ritchie and Kay Whitlock -- especially in chapter three.)

Human rights are beyond marriage. In Uganda, and the U.S., trans* people face disproportionate violence. We do in Brazil and Nigeria as well. How do we change our own laws, and cultures? In January, a report titled, "Protecting 'Morals' by Dehumanising Suspected LGBTI Persons: A Critique of the Enforcement of the Laws Criminalising Same-Sex Conduct in Uganda" from the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum and The Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law was released in Uganda. The report discussed how the police often insight violence against LGBT folks, instead of protecting them. The same is true in many other countries as well. The report discussed how the media could be better allies in their reporting on LGBTI people and in their reporting on LGBTI arrests. The same could be said for the U.S. How do we join together, in true solidarity? Mia McKenzie from Black Girl Dangerous wrote a piece called "No More Allies," she talked about going beyond allies, to instead stand alongside, or operate in solidarity. How do we do that on a global level?

Those of us who live in cities where LGBTQ people have legal protections also need to stop seeing ourselves as saviors. We are not the ones to swoop in and save the "poor, backwards Africans." I know many of us don't think that we are doing that, but we still often do by our actions. Instead, we need to ask our friends what they need. We cannot assume that what works in the U.S. will work in Uganda, Russia and Nigeria. We also cannot assume that people in countries and cultures other from our own have the same needs. For example, marriage means something different in different countries. I would argue that legal marriage is not good for Americans either, but what would that look like in Uganda? What is the role that marriage plays in a society? And, what is the role of employment discrimination in a country with a high level of unemployment to begin with? In a country where walking down the street is a life or death decision?

We need to support the LGBTQ organizations like Transgender Equality Uganda (TEU) and Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). We can assist them by sharing their words and statements with the world. Ugandan activists Frank Mugisha, Jeffrey Ogwaro, Kasha Jacqueline, Pep Julian Onziema and Adrian Jjuuko of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law have released a list of suggested actions that we can take (found on Bilerico). That is a place to start.

As a person from the U.S., what can I do?

  • I can ask people in Uganda how I can help, not assume that I know what is best for them.
  • I can share their stories.
  • I can support organizations like Transgender Equality Uganda and SMUG.
  • I can Share on Facebook and Twitter what is happening in Uganda.

Thank you for reading through my disconnected thoughts. I hope that this will start a global discussion about how we support each other.