The two figures were introduced as Kirabo Ava and Mukisa Fatumah, though those were not their real names. They sat, in the dark, facing away from the audience. Their faces were not visible, their true identities carefully concealed. “Their decision to join us today and share their story comes with great personal risk,” explained Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a filmmaker and activist, at the start of her conversation with the two speakers from Uganda onstage at the 10th annual Women in the World Summit in New York City.
Homosexuality has been illegal in Uganda since British colonial rule. In 2014, an anti-homosexuality bill (called the “Kill the Gays bill” in Western mainstream media) broadened the penalty of so-called “aggravated homosexuality” from seven years to life in prison, and made it an offense to “promote” or “recognize” homosexuality as legitimate. The bill was struck down on a constitutional technicality later that year, but opposition to LGBTQ+ people remains rife; by one estimate, 96 percent of Ugandan citizens still believe that homosexuality is unacceptable.
“Our government and the society looks at homosexuality as un-African, un-Christian, and it’s against the tradition of the country,” Mukisa Fatumah said. The discrimination for LGBTQ+ people extends into every corner of life. “You can never wake up and live life normally.” In schools, for example, once the school administration discovers your orientation, “they have a right to punish you, they have the right to call police on you, and they never give you chance to explain yourself.” It doesn’t matter if the allegation is true; suspicion is enough to justify action. It is similar in hospitals too. “If you go to a hospital to seek treatment, and then the doctors or the nurses find out you’re LGBT, they’ll ignore you, they’ll chase you out,” said Fatumah. Police can make arrests based on anonymous tip-offs without evidence.
This oppressive environment is supported by the Ugandan media, which has engaged in mass outings and calls for violence. In 2010, the names of 100 LGBTQ+ people were listed in a newspaper under the headline “Hang Them.”
Kirabo Ava experienced public shaming after her name was published. Her whole life changed immediately as neighbors turned on her. “I started being threatened, I started being harassed,” she recalled. Her long-held dream of becoming a model soured when her modeling agency stopped offering her jobs: “I was told, ‘You know what, Kirabo, don’t come back to this modeling agency. We shall call you in case there is a gig.’ Weeks turned into months. Months turned into years. That’s how my modeling gig died. Just like that.”
“The police work hand in hand with media to expose LGBT people,” Fatumah explained. They call the arrangement “hotcake”: The police know that once they call the newspapers, the newspapers will sell. Given that Uganda is largely poor, this financial incentive means LGBTQ+ news is coveted by the press. When police arrest a suspect, they’ll “parade” them, Fatumah said, taking photographs for circulation. Sometimes individuals are forced to make false statements, or are put into a cell with other inmates who are instructed to “harass them,” particularly if they are trans women who they say need to be taught “how to be men.”
Ava recalled a raid in 2016 on a pride event in a small nightclub: “Police came in, sealed off the place, and this space had only one entry and one exit.” Pride participants were commanded to sit down. “There were so many trans women and trans men. Some of them were rushing to the restrooms to remove all their wigs, their shoes, their dresses.” Police dragged them back, slapped them. One of her colleagues, trying to escape being outed to his family, ended up falling from the 6th floor. “We thought he had died,” Ava said, “but thank God he didn’t.” He can no longer walk.
Ava and Fatumah first met 11 years ago, in 2008. In many ways their love story remains an unlikely one given the difficulties they continue to face every day: threats, harassment, eviction by landlords who believe that women can’t live together without a man in the house. Neighbors have thrown insults and encouraged the press to attack their arrangement. “It’s very challenging,” Fatumah said. But “we stick together, we are three girls: me, her and our dog.”
“Sometimes we are afraid, and sometimes we have to stand strong,” she said. “Sometimes we say, ‘If we get afraid, then who is going to stand for us?’ That’s why we have to sacrifice a lot. So that we can be able to speak out.”
Additional reporting by Laura Macomber.