Surprising, Inspiring Night for Ugandan LGBTI Rights at Synagogue

I recently attended Celebrating Pride and Building Movements: An Evening Dedicated to LGBTI Rights in Uganda. Before I arrived, I had no impressions of what the night might hold, other than a discussion of the situation in Uganda.
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I recently attended Celebrating Pride and Building Movements: An Evening Dedicated to LGBTI Rights in Uganda, hosted by the American Jewish World Service at Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles. Before I arrived, I had no impressions of what the night might hold, other than a discussion of the situation in Uganda.

The event started out on a serious note, when Dr. Michael Adee, director of the Global Faith and Justice Project, Horizons Foundation, showed a short video produced by the UN, with the message that LGBT rights are human rights. He then introduced Allison Lee, the "gayest straight person" in LA and Executive Director of American Jewish World Service for Southern California. She spoke about the important work that the AJWS is doing in Uganda, fighting a bill that would increase the penalty for homosexuality from imprisonment to death.

She also explained the additional "I" she and Dr. Adee placed at the end of "LGBT:" it stood for intersex, a condition in which one is born with ambiguous sexual organs that do not align with the typical classification of solely male or female. While we do not hear about intersex people often in the US, internationally, specifically in developing countries, there is a larger community of people experiencing discrimination because of it, and who have found a home within the LGBT community.

The key speaker, Julius Kaggwa, a Ugandan man born intersex himself, gave a moving and heartfelt address about his experience at the Pride Parade the previous day. He spoke about how incredible it was to be surrounded by people who embraced him, people who let him know that he certainly was not alone. He related his personal experiences as an intersex person in Uganda, and how he and a few of his similarly marginalized LGBTI friends -- who call themselves kuchus -- began their grassroots movement for LGBTI rights in their country. This is against a backdrop of extreme persecution -- an environment in which LGBTI people are routinely arrested, harassed, and denied access to housing, healthcare, and education.

The bill that Ms. Lee mentioned that would enact the death penalty for homosexual behavior also extends to the family and friends of the LGBTI community; while they would not be killed for knowledge of an LGBTI person, if somebody knows that a person is LGBTI and does not report it within 24 hours to the government they are liable for imprisonment. This would not only include parents and friends, but doctors or teachers as well.

While thankfully the situation has not yet come to that, Mr. Kaggwa spoke about the process of building the movement for rights in Uganda by working with people who could not get arrested. His organization, Support Initiative for People with atypical sex Development (SIPD), is currently working with 51 other organizations -- all dedicated to different causes in Uganda -- to fight the severe discrimination and danger that the LGBTI community endures there, as well as working to prevent the passage of the death penalty bill. Despite the dire environment Mr. Kaggwa came from, the hope and positive outlook he conveyed about the future was uplifting, to say the least.

The most surprising part of the night came from the writers of the upcoming musical Witness Uganda, Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews. Mr. Matthews began talking about his experience volunteering in Uganda -- an experience that changed his life and the lives of a group of children he met there. He began to teach them in his free time, and began the nonprofit Uganda Project, dedicated to helping Ugandan children get an education. The story then shifted over to Gould, who spoke about the beginnings of the play. It was born in the woods, when Gould recorded Matthews talking about why he felt it was so important to continue the work he was doing. Matthews began talking about just that, and it seamlessly segued to a song -- Gould playing the piano and singing his heart out, with Matthews speaking through the song in a way that felt like poetry. The duo performed three more songs from their upcoming musical, each heartfelt and a showcase of this couple's immense talent.

Witness Uganda is definitely a title everyone should be looking for in the near future, because it promises to be an incredible experience, if this small preview was any indication. The performance brought home the power that music can have when used to reflect a cause--it was touching and reminded me of the point of the entire night in a way speaking could not.

The event was a complete success, and seemed to light a fire under the members of the audience. While there certainly is still so much work to be done in Uganda, and around the world, we can find strength in community and work together to bring about change. Together.
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