Jeff Sharlet appears on NPR’s Fresh Air today to discuss his new article in the September Harper’s Magazine, “Straight Man’s Burden: The American roots of Uganda’s anti-gay persecutions.” Subscribers can read the article in its entirety, and an excerpt appears here.
An excerpt from “Straight Man’s Burden,” by Jeff Sharlet:
The lobby was empty when Blessed arrived, an hour late. He wore crisp black slacks and a lime-green long-sleeved shirt underneath a black sweater vest, too warm for the weather. Only twenty, he tried to carry himself like an older, courtlier man. He apologized for his impeccable appearance with what he hoped sounded like a joke. “I am a bit homeless at the moment,” he said, and then chuckled, as if this were merely an inconvenience. Walking up the hill to the Sheraton for dinner, he began to tell me his story.
He was the only son of educated parents, his father a lawyer and his mother a bureaucrat. He had a happy childhood, “normal” in every way. His parents loved him, and he loved them. They sent him to an elite boys’ school in his father’s hometown, and Blessed loved that too. An affectionate child, he liked to touch people, to hug, to kiss. By the age of twelve, he knew that his hugs and his kisses with other boys—not unusual in Uganda, where straight men sometimes hold hands—felt different from those with girls. And this didn’t bother him. He was a good student, but his teachers told him his head was in the clouds. That sounded nice: up there, he didn’t see conflict; he saw love. By the time he was fourteen he’d found six other boys in the school who felt as he did, and he loved them.
All of them? “Of course I loved them. Because God loves me.”
His family was Catholic but not very religious. Neither was Blessed; he said he felt spiritual. Not in the vaguely agnostic American sense. He was like a holy fool, a boy for whom everything was sacred: church, his friendships, the rainbows over Lake Victoria, the white egrets in the trees, his books, the touches, the caresses.
The orgasms? Of course. Everything sweet, he believed, was holy. He began calling himself “Blessed” not long after he and his friends were turned in to their headmaster, who beat them, expelled them, and then sent them to the police. They spent forty-eight hours in jail. “It was so much fun!” Just imagine, he said—holding my eyes, his voice low—“Remember when you were sixteen?” Sixteen, forty-eight hours, the six sexiest people in the world, as far as you were concerned, all in one cell. “I call myself ‘Blessed,’?” he explained, “because that’s what I am, so fortunate to be born like this.” Like this: gay, and so in love with the world that even in jail he forgot about the bars.
We’d taken an outdoor table, as far as possible from other people. Dinner was a buffet, and Blessed had heaped his plate high. He was built like a sapling, but the hillock of food disappeared and he went back for seconds. “I think you need to eat more too,” he told me, though I’m more baobab than sapling. “I like white men,” he added quickly, in case he’d insulted me. “Are you gay?” he asked.
“Well, no,” I said, embarrassed, a straight man in a country ruled by would-be gay killers.
Blessed didn’t see it like that. “Oh!” he said. “Then you have children? Let me see!” He spent ten minutes cooing over pictures of my daughter.
After his expulsion, he moved back to Kampala and began attending a new school. His parents wouldn’t pay; Blessed washed cars. His love took on a more political form: he began organizing youth clubs to talk about sex. Not just gay sex but straight sex too, and all the shades in between. He’d never experienced sex as anything but a gift, yet he understood that most teenagers are as terrified of sex as they are drawn to it. He wanted them to know about condoms, HIV, and abortion, but he also wanted them to believe that the good parts were “good news,” just like their pastors said of Christ. “I don’t think Jesus is against us,” he said, waving away the absurd thought with a gesture so fey I looked over my shoulder to make sure the waiter hadn’t seen.
Around the time Blessed became Blessed, he began attending Pentecostal churches, “spirit-filled” places where you sang and danced and maybe experienced the gift of tongues, babbling in languages granted you by God. The songs were American as often as African, the churches were sprinkled with handsome mzungus, and there was a lot of laying on of hands. It felt cosmopolitan, modern. Blessed’s favorite pastor was Martin Ssempa, who appeared in music videos in Uganda and in pulpits in the United States. Every Saturday night Ssempa led a service—a party, really—called Primetime, held at Makerere University’s outdoor pool. It was fun, even though, technically, it was antifun: an abstinence rally. But Blessed, and plenty of straight kids, were there to cruise. It was hard not to—girls in their Saturday best, hot-pink dresses tight around the hips and clinging baby T’s, boys in American hip-hop style, pants low, shirts giant, young faces lean.
Ssempa was beautiful too, golden-skinned, the handsomest bald man you ever saw, beckoning from the stage across the pool, which glowed in the night. The band thumped and Ssempa called, as if the kids might actually walk on the water. The story he told was almost always the same: sex (it’s going to be awesome!), sex (it’ll be wonderful someday), sex (wait just a little bit longer now). And then everybody would jump. A thousand, sometimes two thousand young Ugandans hopping in time as high as they could, holding on to one another lest they fall in the pool, giggling. “Holy laughter,” some called it. It was a gift they believed came from the Holy Ghost, just like tongues; and some had heard about “holy kissing,” another gift—not carnal!—the Spirit in the flesh. There were gay boys, and drag kings, and straight kids who might peer around the bend, all waiting, not having sex together, except when they were. “It was so hot!” said Blessed.
Then came the day Blessed had to choose a side. It was 2007, and he was in court, as spectator and supporter. The case being heard was called Yvonne Oyoo and Juliet Mukasa v. Attorney General. Victor Juliet Mukasa, a transman—born female, living male, interested in girls—taught Blessed—the sweet, femme boy—to be a man, a gay man, without ever meeting him.
Like Blessed, Juliet Mukasa knew as a child that she was attracted to children of the same sex. And like Blessed she’d been raised Catholic but had joined an American-style Pentecostal church, hoping that in the music and the dancing and the Holy Ghost—the ecstasy—she would find the resolution of her desires. But Juliet Mukasa was not as skilled as Blessed at leading two lives. Dressed like a girl, she couldn’t think. A pastor determined that she was possessed by a “male spirit” and asked his flock to help him heal her. As women in the pews swayed and sang for Mukasa’s liberation, the exorcism took place at the altar, boys and men from the church laying on hands and speaking in tongues. They took her arms, gently then firmly, and stripped her. Slowly, garment by garment, praying over each piece of demonically polluted cloth. She’d bound her breasts. They bared them. “I cried, and every time I cried they would call it ‘liberation.’?” They slapped her, but it was holy slapping, and when she stood before them naked, the men’s hands roaming over her and then inside, they said that was holy too.
Then they locked her in a room and raped her. For a week. This is considered a corrective; a medical procedure, really; a cure. When it was all over, the pastor declared that the church had freed Mukasa. Maybe, in a sense, it had. Victor Mukasa no longer believed there was a demon inside him. The demons were in the church.
Mukasa became a man and an activist, determined to prevent what had happened to him from happening again. In 2003, he cofounded Freedom and Roam Uganda, an organization for lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex human rights. In 2005, Ugandan police, led by government officials, raided his house. They didn’t find him. But a friend, Yvonne Oyoo, was there. They took her to the station. You look like a man, they said. We’re going to prove you’re a woman. They stripped her, fondled her breasts.
Mukasa fled. But in hiding and then in exile, he planned. The plan wasn’t lesbian, it wasn’t gay, it was . . . human, Blessed would say. It was a citizen’s plan: Mukasa sued, and never was a lawsuit more like a gift of the spirit, the romance of the rule of law.
Blessed, of course, was a romantic boy. He thought the trial was exciting! He wanted to be there, and so did his friends. They would swish for dignity, drag for democracy, be themselves for God and Victor Mukasa. Blessed could hardly wait. What he didn’t know was that his beautiful pastor, Martin Ssempa, was gathering an opposing force. Blessed, with his head in the clouds! He hadn’t paid attention. When he walked into the courtroom—late, as always—he could not have faced a starker choice. “Blessed!” called his church friends. Ssempa saw him and smiled. Blessed looked down at the T-shirt he’d chosen for the occasion: a rainbow. He looked to the other side of the room. His gay friends looked back. Some of them sighed. They knew how it was. If, with his sly, earnest smile, he chose Ssempa today, they would forgive him tomorrow. If he didn’t—the truth was, he didn’t know. All that would follow, all
that he would lose, was beyond
“I don’t know if I have a very strong heart,” he told me. “I do not know if I am a tough man.”
How did you make your choice, Blessed?
He gave me the smile, a mask for all he had lost. “I had a breakthrough.” “Breakthrough,” for Ugandan Christians, is a spiritual term. A gift from the Holy Ghost. Grace, in whatever shape it’s needed. “I got courage.”
Blessed sat down with the homos.